Thursday, June 11, 2009

Celebrating as a Christian (Thinking about Pentecost and the Fourth of July)

Celebrations are a part of our Christian and national traditions. As Christians we celebrate the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ and as citizens we celebrate the birth of our nation.

Sometimes it is beneficial to compare a Christian celebration with a secular one, looking for similarities and differences, as a way of keeping our celebrations biblical. It's especially interesting to compare Pentecost, the founding of the church with the Fourth of July, the founding of the United States. Both remind us of freedom. The Fourth of July reminds us of the freedom people have as citizens of a country. Pentecost reminds us of our experience in being freed from the tyranny of sin.

Both celebrations look to the future. There's an abundance of hope and promise in the empowering by the Holy Spirit which began at Pentecost. Likewise, as a nation there would be little or nothing to celebrate today if we thought that all our freedoms were going to disappear tomorrow.

However there are some significant differences in the two events. The celebration at Pentecost is associated with joy, life, and faith in God. The celebration that happens on the Fourth of July in the United States is aligned with many symbols of militarism and should remind us that our existence as a nation was acquired with much suffering, especially to the native Americans and slaves who lived in the early history of our country.

Pentecost was a unifying experience. Acts 4:32 says, "The group of believers was one in mind and heart." The events leading to the first Fourth of July celebration had a divisive effect. During the Revolutionary War two-thirds of the citizens in the colonies were either still loyal to the British government or wanted to remain neutral.

The Pentecost experience was a a celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a celebration which proclaimed, "God with us!" The Fourth of July celebration is a celebration, not of the presence of God, but of the presence of the most powerful weapons of war. On this national birthday many Americans celebrate their trust in the bomb.

Pentecost celebrates the truth. The early church celebrated because they discovered that God's promises are true. The Messiah had come. He was resurrected, and had sent the Holy Spirit like he promised. They witnessed out of having experienced the presence of that truth in their lives. The Fourth of July celebration of independence, an independence acquired and maintained by trust in war and violence, is something that we can only celebrate because we haven't experienced it. It is, literally, celebrating a lie.

To explain further, there are many people living in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America who have survived under the shadow of war for decades. Many have been injured, lost relatives and friends, and lost property to the violence of war. These people have experienced war firsthand in their neighborhoods and hometowns. They know war is nothing to celebrate but a nightmare to dread.

There hasn't been a war on US soil for over a century, so most Americans have little or no firsthand knowledge of war. Even most US soldiers who fought overseas in the past several decades have not been faced with the horror of seeing their homes and families destroyed by war. War is not the glorious, exalting experience that many pretend it is every Fourth of July. The Fourth of July celebration is a false celebration.

The Pentecost experience was a result of the Holy Spirit entering people's lives and making them whole and complete persons in a way never experienced before. The Fourth of July, celebrates, not the wholeness of people, but acts of war which destroy human wholeness, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Pentecost took care of all human needs. Acts 4:34 says, "There was no one in the group who was in need." All wars, including the wars celebrated by Americans on July 4th increase human suffering and need. War causes poverty, famine, physical handicaps, and death. War is the biggest threat families have ever faced. War destroys neighborhoods, alienates people, and breaks down productive societies. War has been responsible for turning millions of people into refugees.

The Pentecost experience had a liberating effect on those who were filled with the Holy Spirit, a liberation that was and is for all people everywhere. Although words like freedom, liberty, and Independence are associated with the Fourth of July celebration, it is in fact, a celebration of the denial of freedom. The phrase, "war of liberation" is a contradiction. War only transfers oppression from one victim to another. American militarism, as presented by exhibits of military equipment in our parades, tells us that our freedom and liberty is based on our willingness to destroy the freedom and liberty of enemies by killing them.

The closer we look at the celebrations of Pentecost and the Fourth of July, the more incompatible they seem. Dale Aukerman in his book Darkening Valley: A Biblical Perspective on Nuclear War, writes, "The two utterly contrary attitudes we can take toward those with whom we are in contact are blessing and cursing. In blessing we as that the mercy of God and the goodness of life rest upon others. In cursing we seek to exclude them from that..." To curse someone or some nation is to call down doom or misfortune on them. If we identify with the Fourth of July celebration and its militaristic and nationalistic symbols, then we are part of the cursing or calling down of doom on those who are our nation's enemies, and in so doing we seek to deprive them of the fullness of God's blessing. Ecclesiastes 21:27 says, "When a godless man curses his enemy, he is cursing himself." When we stoop to the level of cursing others. whether they be personal enemies or national enemies, we become our own worst enemy. We cannot escape the doom ourselves without God's forgiveness and we can't receive that forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive others (Matthew 6:12, 14, 15).

If we look closely at the Fourth of July celebrations we can recognize within them, not only the echoes of past wars, but also the rumblings for future ones. John Howard Yoder writes, "The idolatry of patriotism, believing that any one nation's or people's cause is so worthy that to it human lives - whether of 'friend' or 'foe' - should be sacrificed, must be unveiled not first when it has actually led to open warfare, but already when the possibility of such slaughter has been accepted in government plans. "

"Not the taking of life, but the idolizing of one's own interest which leads finally to killing is the deepest sin of militarism. Whether the sixth commandment absolutely forbids all killing is still debated; in any case the first forbids nationalism."

James 3:8-10 says, "But no one has ever been able to tame the tongue. It is evil and uncontrollable, full of deadly poison. We use it to give thanks to our Lord and Father and also to curse our fellow-man, who is created in the likeness of God. Words of thanksgiving and cursing pour out from the same mouth. My brothers, this should not happen!"

There is a place to be properly thankful for the privileges and opportunities we have living in our own country. But many Christians will, in their celebration of the Fourth of July, go beyond words of thanksgiving to words of cursing or calling down doom on those who might jeopardize that which we consider ours. The tongue is guilty of cursing when it cheers and applauds military exhibits in Fourth of July parades and it is also guilty of cursing when it is silent in the presence of doom or misfortune befalling our nation's enemies.

The biblical person cannot include in his celebration, attitudes, actions, or language that are threatening to the well-being of others. The tongues given by the Holy Spirit to believers on Pentecost did not include any cursing or calling down misfortune on enemies. So we need to remember that we are first and foremost witnesses of the Pentecost experience. That is our primary source of celebration.

Leonard Nolt

Previously published in slightly different form in the June 21, 1983 issue of GOSPEL HERALD.