The Common Good

Pentecost and the Sin of Racism

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
Acts 2.12 (NRSV)

Charles Ramsey, the African-American male dishwasher who rescued Amanda Berry from captivity preached a transforming sermon when he shared his story about how he helped a Euro American woman in distress escape from 10-years of captivity. Ramsey boldly told the local television news reporter in Cleveland, “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.” And later when CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Ramsey, how he felt about being a hero, Ramsey said, “No, no, no. Bro, I’m a Christian, an American. I am just like you. We bleed the same blood …”

Ramsey’s blunt honesty which spoke to the existence of racism and his sincere compassion for humanity was a 21st century mystification; a “radical real lived” theological symbol for the reason, why Christians celebrate Pentecost – the birth of the Holy Spirit and the historic beginning of the Christian Church. Biblical scholars teach us on the Day of Pentecost that a strong wind swept through a house where Jesus’ followers gathered days after he was resurrected from the dead. It was in the city of Jerusalem, where Jewish pilgrims gathered to celebrate Shavuot and people from other cultures who spoke diverse languages — believers and non believers of Jesus, heard about God’s powerful works in their native tongues and felt God’s holy presence.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Sprit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound, the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2.1-13, NRSV)

Within the context of the 21st century, the Pentecost experience is a biblical narrative that describes a gathering of people who represent multicultural, multi-faith, and multilingual differences yet, they are holistically transformed by the Holy Spirit to feel and experience the essence of God’s love. In his book,Prayers from a Privileged People, Walter Bruggemann, clearly defines how the Pentecost experience applies to the daily lives of “privileged people” who have grown accustomed to treating people differently because of their race, class, and gender. 

We hear the story of the wind at Pentecost,
Holy wind that dismantles what was,
Holy wind that evokes what is to be,
Holy wind that overrides barriers and causes communication,
Holy wind that signals your rule even among us…”

Charles Ramsey’s brave and courageous act of kindness dismantled stereotypes and signaled to the Church “what it means to be a Christian” and literally in plain sight, exhibited to America and the international community how the essence of God’s love is inside each of us and among us, no matter what we physically look like and no matter where we live. We should and we must, “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

According to theologian James Cone, “Race criticism is just as crucial for the integrity of Christian theology as any critique in the modern world.”

During this season of Pentecost, as faith leaders, we must be prophetic and teach and preach about the “sin of racism” that separates us from God. The sin of racism also manifests internalized oppressive behavior in communities of color; some children, women, and men do not want to identify with their culture because they have been marginalized in the media, religion, and society. Historic racist imagery of “the other” — Africans, Native Americans, immigrants, and persons of other faiths, other people of color, and poor people perpetuate oppression and the sin of racism in the church and society.

The sin of racism does not represent the meaning of Pentecost. Charles Ramsey, a black man, said, “I am a Christian.”  His compassionate response to a white woman, a stranger’s cry for help is a transforming real lived experience that defines the essence of the meaning of God’s love in the 21st century.

Joan R. Harrell is an ordained American Baptist minister, the founder of www.racismcontradictschristinanity.com and Director of Public Communications at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Image: Pentecost symbol, Waiting For The Word / Flickr.com

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