Queering Pentecost in a time of Lockdown
The celebration of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter Sunday, has long been regarded as marking the foundation of the Church, when the Holy Spirit formally empowered the first apostles to go forth and proclaim the Gospel. The relevant Scripture text read in all Christian churches is that of Acts 2:1-11.
There are actually two parts to this passage:
a) vv.1-4, describing the descent of the Holy Spirit through tongues of fire on what is assumed to be the reconstituted group of 12 apostles. Additionally, early Christian art depicts a woman in the midst of the group, widely regarded as Mary the mother of Jesus.
b) vv.5-11: these verses describe an amorphous group from diverse countries, cultures, and languages, none of whom has yet been evangelized (according to the chronology of Acts), and they hear the preachers, each in their own native language, acknowledging the message of Gospel declaration, for which they give glory to God.
I have long been puzzled by the fact that I have never heard a homily of Pentecost focussing on vv.5-11. And I wonder why not? In my attempt to answer that question for myself, I have discovered Queer Theory to be enormously helpful. So, please forgive my digression while I briefly introduce what Queer Theory is about.
Faith in Queer Theory
Often associated with LGBTQI-related scholarship, Queer Theory is a development of the 1990s, associated with critical theory in literature, history, and the social sciences. (Several webpages will give further detail). Adopting the insights to religion, theology, and scripture is more recent still. The British theologian, Chris Greenough, provides a fine overview in Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge 2020).
According to Greenough, queering sacred texts seeks to move beyond the rigidity of dogma, and to expose the power dynamics that can tolerate only one understanding of truth. He outlines five dimensions of this process:
Queer resists ideas of categorization;
Queer challenges the idea of essentialism;
Queer challenges ‘normal’;
Queer removes binary thinking and assumptions;
Queer exposes and disrupts power relations and hierarchies. (Greenough, 26).
The Book of Acts Today
Long considered to be an outline of what happened in the very early Church, scripture scholars are now raising doubts about the historical reliability of this book. Luke, the author, is interested mainly in Peter and Paul, whom he depicts as two outstanding heroes. Just as Luke, in his Gospel, brings Jesus to Jerusalem for his final triumph (Death & Resurrection), so he brings Peter and Paul to Rome for their culminating missionary endeavour. In the process of doing this, Luke’s Paul is sometimes depicted in a manner that seems very different from Paul’s own account in his genuine Letters. Heroic evangelization, rather than history of the faith, is what Luke is pursuing.
We come now to the event of Pentecost for which Luke brings back the original Apostles, now reconstituted as a group of twelve. He has two gatherings. Firstly, Acts 1:12-14, the Eleven (minus Judas), along with Mary the mother of Jesus and “the women.” Secondly, Acts 2:1-4, the reconstituted group of twelve only. It looks like Luke needs the returned, reconstituted Apostles to lay a solid apostolic foundation for his two patriarchal heroes of Peter and Paul. But did they all return? I have grave doubts, despite the long ecclesiastical belief that they did.
Scripture scholar, James, Carroll, avers that Luke’s account in Acts may be compared to an ideologically driven historical novel, to which another scripture scholar, Sean Freyne, adds: “Recent rhetorical analysis of Luke’s writings tends to dismiss his account of new beginnings as an idealized and symbolic narrative with little or no historical information.” Theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, claims that Acts does not contain a representative picture of church leadership in the early decades. It tells only a partial story.
On top of all that, let’s recall that Luke wrote Acts sometime after 80 CE, by which time the followers of the Way had separated from their Jewish origins and were now striving to establish a separate, superior identity.
The Event in Question
Every element in Acts 2:1-4 is borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.). Pentecost is based on the O.T. Feast of the New Grain (Harvest), associated with Moses receiving the law
on Mt. Senai, 50 days after the exodus from Egypt. According to legend, God issued the law in all 70 languages of humankind. Philo claimed that when the Law was initially given, fire streamed from Heaven, and a voice from the flame became articulate speech. Additionally, some commentators suggest that the narrative of Pentecost may be understood as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story.
The fact that Luke has borrowed the main ingredients from the O.T. and is using them here to his own advantage, need not alarm us. All the Gospel writers – and others of that time – did the same thing. However, it does compel us to ask: Is Luke describing something that happened, or actually creating the scenario himself? And even if Luke does invent the material himself, by the standards of time (and contrary to our time), he is well within the boundaries of professional journalism.
Once again, we need to remind ourselves: Luke is doing this to lay a solid foundation for his two big heroes, Peter and Paul. To that end he wishes to bring back all the (reconstituted) Twelve, and submit them to a profound, transformative experience, to raise them out of the dislocation and incredulity they suffered due to the tragic loss of Jesus, their leader. And from that new “kick-start” they can resume where they have left off, courageously proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
For the queer theorist it all feels too neat to be true. The upper room smacks of ecclesiastical lockdown. And there is too much hankering after patriarchal power and dominance. Already in the opening chapters of Acts we see Peter performing miraculous deeds similar to those attributed to Jesus; this is a long way from the bipolar, reactionary Peter we see throughout the Gospels.
At this stage the queer theorist is getting impatient, and wants to move on to the material the preacher tends to bypass, namely Acts 2:5-11. This motely diverse group are truly amazing. Somehow or other they can hear everything that is being said and, it seems, they can comprehend the meaning, as that of the mighty works of God (v.11). But according to Acts, none of them have been either baptized or evangelized. So, what is going on?
Those of us who have some knowledge and experience of the Ignatian method of Spiritual Discernment can readily see the parallels. This group if people is endowed with deep listening, heart-centred discernment, and are in awe and admiration of God’s message of life. These are some of the central features of Ignatian discernment, which according to those who have long studied the Ignatian method, cannot be possessed unless a person is firstly deeply imbued with Holy Spirit of God.
This is the explosion that the queer theorist is trying to set off. These people already have the fullness of the Holy Spirit! That is why they are so brilliant at the art of discernment. So, where did they get the Holy Spirit from? (You don’t need to be a theologian or Scripture scholar to answer that).
According to the Book of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is fully at work in creation from time immemorial. In the words of the late Australian theologian, Denis Edwards: “What is required is a holistic theology of the Spirit, one that begins not with Pentecost but with the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago.” Consequently, the Holy Spirit is also fully at work in the hearts of all humans – unless of course we block or hinder that grace by something like irrational fear, which the twelve might well be suffering from.
Now you see my disappointment at never having had a homily on Acts 2:5-11! That is where the real stuff is. That is the Spirit who blows where it wills, renewing the face of the earth and awakening fiercely empowering dreams even in the hearts of the unbaptized. What an amazing message! Little wonder the queer theorist feels so disgusted that we have ignored or bypassed the message for so long!
Where are the Women?
But the queer theorist has noticed something even queerer! According to the theologian, Christ Greenough (114), “Queer approaches in Biblical studies breathe fresh air into texts saturated in patriarchy, misogyny, and negativity towards same-sex and transgendered lives.” In this case it is the misogyny we have to deal with. What has happened to the women referenced in Acts 1:14? Why are they excluded from the ecclesiastical lockdown? Why have we made them invisible?
Surely, Luke must have heard of Mary Magdalene and her co-disciples, their outstanding witness at the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and their crucial role in the unfolding of the Church in its early decades, a good glimpse of which we get in Romans, chapter 16? Why does he want to ignore or suppress that information? This is the response of theologian Elizabeth Johnson:
“Desiring to impress his readers in the Roman Empire with the trustworthiness of this new movement, Luke consistently depicted men in public leadership roles and, in order to conform with the empire’s standards, kept women decorously under control in supportive positions. Having eyes mainly for elite men, he fudged women into an insignificant background ignoring the leadership roles they in fact held. . . . Consequently, Acts does not contain a representative picture of church leadership in the early decades. It tells only part of the story.” (Elizabeth Johnson, Truly our Sister, 300).
Pentecost is a Queer Feast
Queer theologians, Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, writing in 2017, state: “A theology that is queer calls us to go beyond what is known, to move past what is established, and to relinquish control over such structures totally.” Along similar lines, Queer theorist, David Halperin, writing in 1995, asserts “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.”
Both quotations illuminate what I have been attempting in these reflections, feeling a call to “go beyond what is known,” “move past what is established,” “there is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers,” “an identity without an essence.” To some that will sound like a scathing deconstruction, and some will rightly ask: “What is left?”
And this is what attracts me to the wisdom of queering. In the very process of deconstructing, we are also involved in reconstruction. Remember that in quantum physics, the vacuum is a fertile emptiness, seething with possibility. The mystics knew that long ahead of the physicists. So, I am not getting rid of Pentecost (at least not yet!). It strikes me that the event described in Acts 2:1-4, never actually happened (“an identity without an essence – Halperin). But the experience, Acts 2:5-11, never ceases to happen! And in Halperin’s words, that is the essence!
It is the essence, that incredible cosmic empowering Spirit that we need to celebrate on Pentecost Sunday! The homily should be on Acts 2:5-11, the deep recognition of the Spirit who blows where she wills, demolishing every ecclesiastical lockdown! In the midst of the Coronavirus, we need the wisdom and guidance of that empowering Spirit. As we face the “new normal” more than anything else, I suggest we need a new theology of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps the more abnormal it is the better!
The Spirit and Covid-19
All over the world, governments have been warning us that the resolution to this pandemic is primarily in our hands. The mighty patriarchs of government and science believe a vaccine will arrive, but meanwhile, it is we ourselves who have the power to halt this virus, and we can do it by fidelity to a range of modified human behaviours. We, the people are in exactly the same place that the Parthians, the Medes, and the Elamites were on the first Pentecost day. Our elevated patriarchs may have tongues of flame in their lockdown enclave of the upper room, but it is we on the ground who have been entrusted with the wisdom to halt this virus! Now, that is what we might call, queerer than queer!
The power is with the people, but also an enormous amount of pain, vulnerability, social dislocation, job losses, financial insecurity, chaos writ large. Worth recalling here the voice of another queer (process) theologian, Catherine Keller (of Drew University, USA) and her profound discernment of Genesis 1:2, the Spirit drawing forth creative power from the darkness over the deep (tohu vabohu): “Divinity arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath . . . a tehomic theology requires the deconstruction of the light supremacism of the Western spirit.”
This is not the triumphalist spirit of Acts 2:1-4, but what the theologian Shelly Rambo (of Boston University) calls the Middle Spirit. Rambo, trauma therapist turned theologian (author of Spirit and Trauma), connects with the Spirit who remains, and always will, no matter how long the aftermath of trauma endures. The Spirit is at work in and through the coronavirus, amid all the ensuing grief, pain, and chaos. This is the Spirit who persists, not the one who conquers all!
The Parthians, Medes, Elamites & Co. had good reason to rejoice, ever empowered by the queer Spirit of God. Yet, they had not everything sorted out. Acts 2:12 informs us that they were both amazed and perplexed. Was it the Middle Spirit rather than the Triumphant one that was accompanying them on their way? They too had their trauma and queer struggles, yet, they hung in, and made it through!
So, please, on this Pentecost Sunday of 2020, let’s get out of the Upper Room, and leave the patriarchs in lockdown to manage the tongues of fire. Instead, let’s come down into the streets with the Parthians, Medes, and the Elamites, and together let’s acclaim a different homily, to ground our hope and meaning in these Spirit-filled, if disturbing times!