S2E12 Pentecost

This final episode of Season 2 is a two-parter: Joe ponders the Pentecost Plague as an American Plague and then comments on two stories of moral authority.

Transcript (“Pentecost” essay):

I am, as anyone listening or reading knows, a Christian. That word can mean many things, and increasingly few of them are doctrinal. It may say something about my adherence to the Trinity, resurrection, bishops, or scripture. But not necessarily. The word, especially in a term like “Evangelical,” has become about affiliation. Who I am likely to vote for, my opinion on gender identity, and whether I will or won’t cooperate with social distancing guidelines. “Christian,” like so many other terms, has devolved into a demographic, a stance, a voting block.

I don’t have time here to list my theology or my background. It is a wide-ranging and circuitous one. I will say only that I have, at various times, been in many camps within Christianity. I have been a single-issue voter, a seminarian, and a sacramentalist. I have drifted on my views on the Bible, my understanding of hermeneutics, my consideration of church history, and my perspective on ethics. In all of these shifts, I have, for better or worse, remained a Christian—at least in the sense of what the word has historically meant.

What I’ve found though is that many tests of my faithfulness, almost always from other Christians, are based on whether my politics are the right ones. I no longer am asked about theology, about what I think of scripture, of whether Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Word of God resurrected from the dead, whether I adhere to any or all of the assertions of the Nicene Creed. Instead, my acceptance and rejection—whether I’ve backslidden or apostatized—has more to do with memes and who I vote for.

In the early 2000s, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church, and at a barbecue, the youth pastor mentioned he had voted for Bill Clinton. The other people in leadership flocked to him. Joked—but not joked. Were in disbelief that a Christian could do that. And the only way to deflect them was for my then-wife to note, “Joe voted for Clinton, too.” She knew I was prepared to defend that stance. I was better equipped to take on the accusations. Besides, I wasn’t a pastor. I had less to lose.

Or, around that time, I was part of a closed-door breakfast with Richard Land, then president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He seemed to assume that everyone in the room, perhaps 30 men, were Republicans. Maybe all of them were. He seemed to think that having George W. Bush in office was what a proper Christian wanted. Then he told a story about visiting the Bush White House with Jerry Falwell. Falwell, in the Oval Office, went to the desk. He pointed. He smiled. He asked the President of the United States, “Is this the spot where Monica Lewinsky…?” Something about a cigar.

One of my favorite movies is Robert Hamer’s 1954 Father Brown, sometimes called The Detective. The titular character, based on the detective stories of G.K. Chesterton, is a priest played by Alec Guinness. In his autobiography, Guinness notes how this role helped lead to his conversion. One night, still in costume as the priest, a small boy on the streets of Paris came up to him, took his hand, and accompanied the man he thought was a priest. Guinness wrote, “Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church that could inspire such confidence in a child, making priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming or as creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.”

Of course, there is irony in Guinness’s story. I doubt an actor today would have the same encounter or interpretation. Most of us now keep children away from lone priests on park benches. I suspect that not many priests are comfortable walking along the Seine, holding hands with a boy.

This last weekend was Pentecost, and the Lenten Plague moved from Lent to Easter to Pentecost, the festival of fire. I could not help but notice that on the eve of Pentecost, the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland was on fire. That makes me think of how fire spreads, for good or for ill, based on its fuel. That on the first Pentecost, the tongues of fire spread good news, increased the church, and brought salvation to many people. That on this year’s Pentecost, the fires destroyed businesses, that fire was a sign of loss of faith—or, in some cases, utter nihilism. The Lenten Plague, in places such as Iceland and New Zealand, is all but gone. But here, in America, in the great Christian nation, or whatever we were or are, it spreads. This is now our Plague. An American Plague.

The last few years have been hard ones. Not only because the divisions in our nation have shown to be deeper and more persistent than they need to be. But because moral authority has been so thoroughly wasted. Part of my departure from Evangelicalism was certainly theological. But it was accelerated by events like the closed-door breakfast or the way in which so many of the people who had taught me right from wrong seemed to no longer recognize those differences. They squandered their moral authority. They took their moral authority, like betters in a casino, and placed it all on one color, one number, certain that it would make them wealthy and powerful. And in the process, whatever temporary political victories they may have gained have culminated in the loss of trust.

It reminds me of this old story about St. Dominic, though I’ve heard it ascribed to St. Francis, too. The legend is set somewhere around the year 1210, when the Catholic church had grown wealthy beyond any dreams, perhaps in the years when the church, as a political institution, was as powerful and unchallenged as it would ever be. G.K. Chesterton tells it this way: “It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told, and would certainly have been told more widely among us [Catholics] if it had been told of a Puritan, that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, ‘Peter can no longer say, “Silver and gold have I none”’; and the Spanish friar answered, ‘No, and neither can he now say, “Rise and walk.”’”

I know why I am still a Christian. But I’m not sure why anyone would become one if the Christianity they see is the one that I see most pronounced, most vocal, most aligned with power: that says all things are negotiable except abortion and guns rights. Perhaps I am being unfair. But this is the loudest and most emphatic face of Christianity, one that has taken many Christian words from me—and from others. It is the view that has corroded Christianity’s moral authority. Just as the priest abuse—and the institutional coverup—has taken away much of the Catholic church’s moral authority. It is, to use the old Greek word, a scandal. A thing that makes people stumble.

In the fires and the protests, I see new moral authority. I don’t love all that it stands for or agree with all it wants. But it is true moral authority. Driven by justice. Driven by a clear sense of right and wrong. And it is filling the vacuum created by the old moral authority, the one that says, “Yes, but, at least we’re getting the Supreme Court we want.”

The abdication is allowing some Christian groups to emerge more defined—to say, “That isn’t us. That never was us.” But it’s confusing. And if in the years ahead, the gap between religious and non-religious grows, it won’t be because of some humanist conspiracy at the universities, the encroachment of socialism, or the pollution of Hollywood. It will be because those who were supposed to be salt and light lost their saltiness, hid their light under a bushel. It will be because we have not only cast our pearls before pigs, we have threaded them into necklaces and worshipfully adorned swine.

This new plague, the Pentecost Plague, is the realization of our early fears of the Lenten Plague: that it would mutate, that it would become more vicious, that it would spread beyond control. Despite conspiracy theories, the Pentecost Plague did not originate in some lab in China. It was shaped by our history, by our persistent and willful negligence. The Pentecost Plague is our creation. It is fueled by hypocrisy: some people arm themselves at state capitols, outraged over the loss of haircuts. They go unbothered by police and celebrated by a king coronated by those who ought to know better. Other people march in outrage over murder, racism, institutional injustice, and the utter moral bankruptcies of a nation that continues to betray its ideals. These people are met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and the condemnation of a king tweeting from the safety of his bunker.

The first Pentecost was a fire for the world. It spread good news. It included those who had been cast out, it reached those of different languages and across class lines. It elevated the poor and needy. It said that all were equal. But the Pentecost Plague is an American Plague. It is fueled by venom and injustice, by moral bankruptcy and unkept promises. Unlike the Lenten Plague, which spread through contact and breath, the Pentecost Plague feeds on desiccated moral authority, like so many dead leaves and dry twigs, and spreads through fire.

Transcript (Commentary):

This is not part of the essay. But I think this is what moral authority looks like:

First, Monday morning, I read a story about Safia Munye, a Somalian immigrant who, in 2018, used her life’s savings to open a restaurant in Minneapolis. Mama Safia’s. During the shutdown, she had to choose between keeping her business insurance or paying her employees. She chose her employees. And then, this weekend, her restaurant—and the relics and irreplaceable items that shaped the restaurant—were consumed by fire during the riots and protests. No insurance. It’s all gone. She is completely innocent. This wasn’t her fault. She did everything right.

Moral authority is Safia Munye saying “Al-hamdu lilah”—all praise is due to God alone. And then this: “My heart is broken. My mind is broken. I know I can’t come back from this. But this can be replaced. George’s life cannot. George’s life was more important. That man that got killed in the most inhuman way. I hope he gets justice.”

That is moral authority.

Or moral authority was this: that as my wife and I were driving through Portland on Pentecost, on our way to grab takeout, a driver in the turn lane wouldn’t let us in. Hope says, “Turn on the next block and loop around.” I take a left onto Alder. The businesses and offices on Alder are boarded up. New plywood over the windows. It’s eerie. And at the intersection of Alder and 6th, I stop to turn left. The businesses across the street—the Legal Aid office; my wife works with Legal Aid—is boarded up. And across the street is a man—perhaps in his fifties, maybe younger or older. The way people age on the streets makes years hard to estimate. He’s white, like me. He has a beard and thin gray hair. He has a plastic boot on one leg—a fractured ankle or some other injury. And he is trying to cross the street. It isn’t going well. He’s wobbly. Not because of the legboot but because he is disoriented. It could be drugs for all we know. Maybe meds—maybe he took too many. Dementia. Traumatic brain injury. Something. He looks lost and blank. He just knows he is supposed to get from one side to the other. Or maybe he doesn’t even know that.

And he takes a couple steps and then seems to fall back a little. It’s a miracle that he’s upright. And he has trouble lifting his boot above the streetcar rail. It almost fells him. I’m waiting, my left turn signal on. The light is green, but I have to wait for the man to cross.

The light changes, and the car facing him on 6th pulls forward a little, but the woman driving stops. The man is taking a step forward. He’s just past halfway across. And then, behind the woman, a service van. White and unlabeled, about the size of all the blue Amazon Prime vans that run around Portland. And the driver, white like me, in his late twenties or early thirties, honks. I don’t know it’s him at first, but it’s him. His light is green. But the car in front of him won’t go. And I think, at first, the honking is only urban impatience. The van man doesn’t see the man in the legboot.

But he does see him. He sits high above the car in front of him. The man in the van leans out his window and yells. He honks again.

And then the man in the legboot, about five feet from the corner, tumbles. The van man honks. He yells something. Then my wife opens her door. She leaves the safety of our car. The safety of our distance. She closes the door and then I put on my hazard signals. There is a car behind me. Our light is green now. The car behind does not honk. It is another woman, not so different than the woman perpendicular to me, the woman waiting as the van man behind her honks and yells.

My wife goes to the man, and, yes, I’m aware as I write this—I’m aware in the moment—that she is a better person than I am. Me, all I can think to do is put on hazard lights. But my wife gets out. She breaks lockdown.

And walking down Alder is another man. Tall, white. I can’t quite tell if he’s homeless, too. He’s a little worn looking. But he comes to help my wife. But from the other side—the van man honking now again. Yelling. His light is green. But from the other side, two teens on skateboards. They are in bandanas, red and black. They are in tracksuits. They are Black. Or maybe they’re not. I think they are but my wife doesn’t remember it that way. Maybe tan, maybe Hispanic. They don’t care. They’re not asking that question.

The teens, maybe 15 or 16 years old, maybe younger. They’re thin. They look both ways. They pick up their boards and run to the man on the ground. They pause. They ask if they can help, but they pause because they’re wearing bandanas around their mouths because of the virus. The virus is still out here. But they help. They help my wife lift him. Their skateboards roll. A Gatorade bottle rolls.

The man is incoherent. Afterward, my wife says he was completely out of it. She asked him questions and he couldn’t respond.

My wife, the man coming down Alder, and the two teens show this man compassion. They help him, even in violation of social distancing restrictions, regardless of the signal telling cars they can go. The rest of us watch and wait—the woman behind me, my hazards flashing, me, the woman perpendicular, the van man honking.

The man in the legboot is resting on the sidewalk now. The other man is with him. And the light is green for 6th Street, so the woman in the car perpendicular eases out. She waves at the two youth. Then there is the van man. Yelling. His window down. And this is something only I see. In his right hand, turned sideways like in an action movie, a black handgun. It’s the same size and shape of the 45s I remember from my Army days. But black. And the man is yelling. He’s pointing his loaded hand toward the broken man in a legboot. No one else sees this. And among all the ways I fail in that moment, I fail at noting his vehicle, catching a picture.

My wife comes back in. She puts on some hand sanitizer. And the two youth, now ready to cross, wait. Because they have a red light. They wave for me to go, for traffic to flow like normal. As if nothing happened. We’re back in the world of the van man—when traffic lights tell us the rules, when green means go and red means stop. And I know that I have no right to move on before they do—no moral right. Those teens—likely on their way to the protests— my wife, Safia Munye, the man sitting with the legbooted man—they should have to yield for no one.

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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