Pentecost Sunday Homily: Don’t Support the Hong Kong Protesters

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 2: 1-11; PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34; I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13; JOHN 20: 19-23

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the originally Jewish harvest festival that comes 50 days after Passover. The day’s readings remind us that from the beginning Jesus’ Jewish followers were working-class internationalists. Despite their lack of what the world calls “sophistication,” they recognized a unified divine order where barriers of language, nationality, and differentiating wealth were erased.

Before I get to that, let me connect that central fact with perhaps the prominent international and class-based concern in our contemporary context. I’m referring to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and an emerging new cold war between the United States and China. Our Pentecostal readings suggest we should be standing with the Chinese government and not with our own.

China and Hong Kong

Last week I shared a summary of an important debate about China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani. The debate’s question was: Is China merely a competitor of the United States or is it an adversary or even an enemy? Doesn’t China’s suppression of free speech and free press, of religion and of democracy make it an enemy?

My article held that, all things considered, China is a more genuine defender of human rights than the United States. I won’t repeat my argument here, but it turned on the distinction between bourgeois human rights (private property, contract observance, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion) and socialist rights to work, food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

Since the publication of my column, its relevance was highlighted by renewed demonstrations in Hong Kong. There despite a COVID-19 lockdown with its social distancing requirements, demonstrators came out in force last Sunday. They were protesting against new legislation in the territory that would allow officers of the law to arrest protestors for speaking out against the local government or authorities in Beijing.

Whom to Support?

So, the question became how should progressives respond? Even granted the distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights, shouldn’t leftists seeking consistency and coherence, be on the side of the Hong Kong protestors? After all, they’re described as “pro-democracy.”

Despite such description, my answer would be a resounding “No.”

The main reason for my saying that is related to the class concerns reflected in the above distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights. The fact is, all demonstrations are not the same. Some are organized against oppressive systems such as capitalism and its prioritization of wealth accumulation and contract obligations on the one hand and its marginalization of workers’ needs to eat, be decently clothed and housed, and to have dignified work and a healthy environment on the other. The Yellow Vest Movement in France and the Water Protectors’ demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline in North Dakota offer examples of protests against capitalist exploitation.

In contrast, other demonstrations are reactionary and directed against specifically working-class reforms. Participants typically support colonialism and imperialism. The thousands in the streets of Hong Kong and Venezuela offer prime examples of such protests.  Hong Kong protestors’ waving of Union Jacks signals their preference of the status quo ante of British colonialism. Their appeals for U.S. intervention (with U.S. flags unfurled) express support for imperialism.

(Of course, especially under the guidance of foreign interventionist forces such as the CIA and its sister National Endowment for Democracy (NED), other lower-class social forces such as unemployed and underpaid workers (Marx’s lumpen proletariat) can also be organized by their betters to direct their anger at the class enemy of their bourgeois organizers — in this case, the Chinese government in Beijing.)  

The bottom line here, however, is that to be consistent, progressives must oppose not only prioritization of wealth accumulation by financiers, but also anything connected with colonialism and imperialism.    

To repeat: not all demonstrations, not all clamoring for “human rights” are created equal.  Class-consciousness provides an indispensable tool for distinguishing the causes and demonstrations that progressives should support from those we should oppose.

Pentecost Readings

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the readings for this Pentecost Sunday. Let’s read them with the same class consciousness I’ve just referenced. Here are my “translations.” You can examine them here to see if I got them right.

ACTS 2: 1-11: Fifty days after Jesus’ New Manifestation as one with all the poor, executed and other victims of imperialism, his fearful working-class followers suddenly found themselves filled with the same consciousness Jesus had. They internalized the Master’s conviction that poor people like themselves could embody his vanguard consciousness heralding the completely new world order Jesus called God’s “Kingdom.” Suddenly on fire and filled with courage, these poor, illiterate fishermen electrified huge crowds from “every nation under heaven.” Despite language barriers their impoverished and oppressed audience understood that God was on their side.

PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34: Jesus shared his Spirit with the poor in order to renew the face of the earth – this earth (not heaven above) filled with magnificent creatures of all types. They’ve all been put here to make everyone (not just the wealthy) happy and joyful. We who identify with the poor are entirely grateful.

I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13: It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that makes us recognize that he, not any oppressive Caesar, is in charge here on earth. The Spirit’s gifts have been given for the Common Good not for private gratification or foreign control. In fact, all of us are one – as if we comprised a single body. Nationalities are irrelevant. Slavery of any kind is completely passé.

SEQUENCE: So, may we too receive Jesus’ Spirit this very day. May we recognize it in the poor, in our hearts, in the light of our new understanding, in the gifts we’ve received, and in just rewards for our labor. Yes, we’ve been wounded, desiccated and made to feel guilty. We rejoice to know that poverty and misery are not the will of some God “up there.” The Holy Spirit’s will is abundance for all. Thank you!

JOHN 20: 19-23: Following his execution, in his New (resurrected) Manifestation, the meaning of Jesus’ execution by empire became apparent. Having internalized his Spirit, his friends recognized his wounds as badges of solidarity with the poor, tortured victims of imperial powers. They threw off guilt and embraced world peace instead.


Think of today’s readings as they relate to Hong Kong. . . Though recorded two generations after the fact, the Jerusalem events portrayed were extraordinarily revealing. They had people of the lowest classes (no doubt, under the watchful eye of Rome’s occupying forces) – probably illiterates – claiming to be spokespersons for God. And this, not even two months after the execution of Jesus the Christ, who had been executed as a terrorist by Roman authorities. What courage on their part!

The readings, then, remind us of whose side the biblical All Parent is on. In contemporary terms, it’s not the side of financiers, bankers, imperialists or colonialists. Rather, it’s the side of those the world’s powerful consider their sworn enemies – the poor, illiterate, unemployed, underpaid, tortured and executed victims of colonialism and empire.

However, those latter categories represent the very classes that socialism (even “with Chinese characteristics”) rescued from their landlord oppressors in 1949 and that have been under western siege there ever since. Under socialism, the impoverished in China are the ones who have seen their wages and standard of living massively improve over the last thirty years.

Improvements of this type under communist leadership are totally unacceptable to the United States and the “allies” it has absorbed into what it proudly describes as its empire. That empire always opposes socialism and will stop at nothing to make it fail.

Such realizations lead to the following observations about Hong Kong in particular:

  • As shown by the display of Union Jack and American flags and by signs invoking the intervention of President Trump, the demonstrations in Hong Kong are neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist and neoliberal in their understandings of human rights.
  • They are seeking the bourgeois “democratic rights” that overridingly prioritize private property and the integrity of commercial rights over the socialist rights championed by the Chinese Communist Party—food, shelter, clothing, jobs, health care, and education.
  • The fact that ex-CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, is leading the charge in Hong Kong should give everyone pause. (This, especially in the light of Pompeo’s boast and endorsement of “lying, cheating, and stealing” as CIA standard operating procedure.)
  • In fact, and on principle, any Trump administration defense of human rights should probably drive those with social justice concerns to defend the other side.   
  • Or at the very least, Pompeo’s and the Trump administration’s diverse response to demonstrations in Hong Kong on the one hand and to the (working class) Yellow Vests in France and to indigenous Water Protectors in North Dakota on the other, should raise serious questions.

Closing Note

The bottom line here, however, is that all demonstrations and protests are not created equal. The Pentecost gathering in Jerusalem was a poor people’s international meeting of “every nation on the face of the earth.” It celebrated the Spirit of a poor worker who was a victim of torture and capital punishment by imperial Rome. Its claim was that the Divine World Spirit is on the side of the imperialized, colonized, tortured and executed. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is far more in line with that tradition than is neoliberal capitalism.

Progressive followers and/or admirers of Jesus the Christ should keep that in mind as they watch events in Hong Kong unfold.

The Republican Spirit Is Not the Holy Spirit (Pentecost Homily)

trump's audience

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 2:1-11; PS 104: 1, 24, 29,-31, 34; I COR 12: 3B-7, 12-13; JN 20: 19-23.

We all saw it last Thursday, didn’t we?

A rich white septuagenarian president stood (ironically) in a garden before a crowd of other rich white old men. He bravely announced a decision whose negative repercussions will be mostly felt after all of them are dead. What courage!

“We’re withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord,” the speaker fearlessly proclaimed. “We’re putting ourselves first! It’s the American way! It’s the capitalist way! America first! America first!”

The old men in the audience wildly applauded the ignorant dolt at the lectern who probably can’t remember the last time he cracked a book. And why not? They’re just uninformed dolts themselves. And yet, they have to gall to contradict the near-unanimous conclusions of the smartest people on the planet.

Can you spell “arrogance?” Can you smell it? Or maybe you can hear it. It sounds like this: ”U.S.A! U.S.A.! We’re putting ourselves first! We’re making America great again!”

None of them seem to care, do they? As I said, they won’t bear the brunt of their egotistical stupidity – of their ecological terrorism. Instead, their children and grandchildren will be stuck with the unpayable tab. And so will ours. Our children and the grandkids we know and love will be the ones whose lives will be immiserated by these fools.

“But Who cares about them?” the rich old white men say by their actions. “To hell with children everywhere. To hell with the planet for that matter. We’ll be long dead when the hurricanes blow, the heatwaves desiccate, and the forest fires rage. We’ll be gone when the waves of refugees swarm the globe in search of water, food, and shelter after the rising seas have destroyed their homes and livelihoods. Good luck with all that, kids! We don’t care about you. We care about what’s really important: MONEY! Can’t get enough of it!”

No wonder Noam Chomsky calls this rogue group of Christian terrorists (the Republican Party) “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.”

Yes, that’s what Chomsky said. That’s what I just said. Yes, be reminded, on this Pentecost Sunday that these people call themselves Christians, and they’re more dangerous than ISIS. Most of them, I suppose, have been baptized and confirmed. They believe they have received Jesus’ Holy Spirit. Evidently on this day of Pentecost, they hear that Spirit saying:

  • Before all else, be separate; be individuals; God is not everyone’s Parent – just yours.
  • There is no such thing as the common good; the earth belongs only to those who can pay for it – or fight wars to steal it.
  • Your country is an island specially blessed by God.
  • So put yourselves first just as Jesus did.
  • Despise foreigners just like the Master.
  • Ignore the suffering of others; that’s the Christian way.
  • And if they threaten you in any way, kill them just as Jesus killed his enemies.
  • And even if they don’t, (as a Great Woman once said) “Let them eat cake!”

It’s all so familiar. But, of course, such belief has nothing to do with Jesus or his Holy Spirit celebrated in Pentecost’s liturgy of the word. There the whole thing is about human unity, mutual responsibility and care for the most vulnerable.

Look at that first reading. It depicts the Holy Spirit as uniting people from across the globe. No “me first,” no “us first” here. The list of God’s children is long and diverse for a reason: Parthians and Medes and Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, and people from Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene and Rome, Jews and converts to Judaism, along with Cretans and Arabs. The list’s length means that everyone is included. Everyone (as the Responsorial Psalm puts it) is a beloved creature of the Great All-Parent. No one is dispensable in God’s eyes.

The reading from First Corinthians makes the same point. There Paul reminds his friends that they are all members of a single Body of Christ. That’s Paul’s favorite image. We are all one body, he said, made one by Jesus Spirit — whether we’re Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, woman or man. There’s no room for “Romans first” here – not even “Jews first.”

But then, today’s gospel reading reminds us that God does in fact play favorites. God has made a “preferential option” putting the welfare of some ahead of others. The preferred ones, Jesus indicates, are the very ones who will be most harmed by climate chaos. They are not the septuagenarians who usually end up running empires. Instead, they are empire’s wounded victims.  That’s the meaning of the risen Christ’s showing his wounds to his apostles. He once again discloses himself as the tortured victim of capital punishment – as  present in the planet’s most vulnerable. By showing his wounds, Jesus reinforced what he’s recorded as saying at the end of Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least in my family, you do to me.”

Could anything be more contradictory to what was said and celebrated last Thursday in the imperial Rose Garden? Could anything be further from “To hell with children; to hell with the planet, to hell with the poor who will be the first to suffer from climate change?”

On this Pentecost Sunday, every baptized and confirmed person should be outraged at the hypocrisy.

Gil Rosenberg’s Anniversary, Jesus’ Pentecost (Sunday Homily)


Readings for Pentecost Sunday:Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; I Cor. 12: 3B-7, 12-13; Jn. 20: 19-23.

A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I were blessed to attend an extraordinarily powerful spiritual gathering. It was at the home of June Widman, a friend of ours in Berea, Kentucky who lost her husband, Gil Rosenberg, in a tragic car accident one year earlier (See my “In Memoriam” blog entry for Gil under the “Personal” button just below this blog site’s masthead). Our friend’s daughter and son (Jessie and Greg), some co-workers and friends like us were all present at this commemoration potluck. There were about 20 of us in all.

Before eating we gathered in a circle. The “priest” among us – a former Mercy Sister who has a real gift for this sort of thing – started us off reminding us of why we were there and of how quickly (and painfully) the intervening year had passed. There were some readings – most moving for me “Death” by Pablo Neruda, read in both English and Spanish. A recorded musical selection followed.

And then people began sharing memories of Gil – an extraordinarily beloved member of our church community in Berea. (His funeral had been attended by an overflow crowd rarely seen in our Catholic church – and this for a man who was himself Jewish, though a faithful attendee at weekly Mass along with June and their children.) Gil was smart, quick-witted, and very funny. A teacher at a local community college, he was also a soccer and basketball coach for many of our children. Everyone loved him.

And that’s what we talked about. But more than that, Gil’s friends told stories of how they continued to experience his presence during the past year. People told of actual “conversations” they had with him (mostly humorous) as they faced problems or were taking themselves too seriously. They told how memories of Gil’s quirky wisdom helped them muddle through otherwise overwhelming circumstances. It was entirely inspiring.

The whole experience made me think of that first Pentecost experienced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. What happened then stemmed from an attempt on their part to keep Jesus’ memory alive. That’s what June and the rest of us were going for in relation to Gil as well. And like June’s gathering (and like Gil himself), Pentecost blended Jewish and Christian elements. “Pentecost,” of course, was originally a Jewish feast. It was celebrated fifty days after Passover.

Whereas Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost (seven weeks later) commemorated the giving of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai. Also called “the Feast of Weeks,” Pentecost was a harvest festival like our Thanksgiving. And like the Passover, the feast drew Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem and its Temple. The evangelist, Luke, takes time to make this point. He lists Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene. He refers to travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.

Because of the events recorded in today’s readings, Christians have come to consider Pentecost the “birthday of the Church.”

I used to think of Pentecost as taking place among Jesus’ disciples (the 11 apostles and about 110 others, they say, including many women) who had stayed in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and resurrection simply awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, now that seems unlikely.

Jesus’ followers and inner circle were poor working people. They needed to earn their daily bread. Even John 21:3ff indicates that following the tragic (and later hopeful) events in Jerusalem, several of them returned to Galilee to resume their labor as fishermen.

Then as the feast of Pentecost approached, they must have decided to return to Jerusalem along with all those other pilgrims I mentioned. No doubt they wanted to re-experience “on location” their final hours with Jesus, even returning to the “Upper Room” to do what June and the rest of us did a couple of weeks ago in commemorating Gil on the anniversary of his death. Surely they wanted to break bread together as Jesus had told them to do – but there in the Upper Room. That would make it truly special.

So they returned to Jerusalem at some risk to their own safety. Luke tells us that they kept the doors locked because they were afraid of the same powers that had arrested, tortured and executed Jesus. After all, Jesus’ disciples had been responsible for circulating the rumor that their Teacher was not really dead. They told their friends that he somehow survived the Roman’s attempts to eliminate him. He was alive.

Evidently, word of that “resurrection” had gotten back to officials of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court whose members were collaborators with the Romans, working with them hand in glove. The Jewish sell-outs well remembered how the carpenter from Nazareth had “stirred up the people” (Lk. 23:5) with his message about God’s revolutionary “Kingdom.” They especially recalled how just before his execution, he had entered Jerusalem to popular acclaim and led that notorious demonstration in the Temple.

As a result of all that, the people took Jesus for their messiah, which meant he was the enemy of Rome and collaborators like the Sanhedrin members. If word got out that “He lives!” the trouble could well start all over again during the Pentecost feast. So the Sanhedrin mobilized its brutal police to hunt down the members of Jesus’ Galilean terrorist gang and solve the Jesus problem once and for all.

Despite such threat, Jesus’ followers gathered in the Upper Room (or perhaps, some scholars say, it was even in the Temple). There in that place so full of memories, they must have recalled the Master’s words and deeds, and how he continued to influence them even in his apparent absence. I’ll bet their stories were just as dear and humorous as June’s friends’ recollections of Gil.

Then suddenly (in John’s version of the Pentecost event) Jesus is standing there in their midst. He tells them not to worry about the police. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Jesus shows his friends his pierced hands and wounded rib cage. Don’t be worried, he implies, they can kill you and torture you, but like me, you will not really die.

Then Jesus breathes on them all, and they receive his own Spirit – of forgiveness and discrimination in the sense of discernment. His spirit, Jesus promises, will instruct them about forgiveness — and about what they should never overlook. He tells them to continue his work despite any threats from Rome and its collaborators.

Luke’s version of the same event is recorded in the familiar story from Acts which we heard in today’s first reading. Luke calls on imagery from Exodus – wind and fire – to describe the transforming event of Pentecost. Instead of Jesus appearing personally to bestow his Spirit, Luke says the Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind. It was like the wind that dried up the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus. The Spirit came in the form of “tongues of fire” like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during the dark nights that followed the initial euphoria of liberation from Egypt.

In both cases (John and Luke), the result of receiving Jesus’ Spirit is the same. The disciples are literally encouraged. Their fear entirely disappears. Doors are unlocked. Jesus’ friends are suddenly are out in the street. And everyone can understand the import of their words: Jesus lives! Everyone can understand because Jesus’ message (as always) is about the Kingdom of God. No matter where people come from, famished stomachs speak the same language of hunger. Calloused hands speak the same eloquent “sign language.” Mothers weep the same tears for their sons tortured and victimized by empire.

According to Jesus’ Spirit, it’s the Romans and their collaborators, not Jesus’ followers, who have reason to fear. Their days are numbered. God’s kingdom is at hand. Once again, Jesus lives! The old order is about to be overturned. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be poor; the poor, rich. Those laughing now will find themselves in tears; those in mourning will at last find joy.

In their sheer numbers of converts (3000 says Luke that very first day) the crowds from all over the Jewish world protect Jesus’ friends from the Sanhedrin police. We can picture the lawmen on the edges of the crowd rendered powerless by the crowd’s solidarity.

And what’s to be learned from that first Pentecost experience? Could it be that we must keep Jesus’ memory alive – as the prophetic preacher of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, not in the sky somewhere after death? (Shouldn’t that be the purpose of our weekly gatherings for worship and the Lord’s Supper?) Is the lesson of today’s feast that believers must insist on speaking in language that anyone can understand – the language of the working classes, the hungry, and of mothers in mourning? Is it that a measure of the truth of our beliefs is the degree of threat we feel from empire and its collaborators as a result of the beliefs we fearlessly profess? Is it that followers of Jesus should refuse to accept division but unite instead with a solidarity that protects us from the same forces of empire and its collaborators that threatened Jesus’ first followers?

The truth is that there’s much to learn from Pentecost. June’s and her children’s devotion to Gil Rosenberg along with his friends’ recollections and experiences of Gil’s “real presence” remind us of the nature and purpose of that first Pentecost gathering. It was not only to recall what Jesus said and did in terms of resistance to Rome and its oppression on a macro-level. For us it can also be about creating Kingdom in our personal lives and with our families as Gil himself did. Besides bringing gifts of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit was the basis of Gil’s humor, non-conformity, attention to the needs of the exploited, and refusal to take himself (or others) too seriously.

If we open ourselves wide, we too can receive all of those gifts. The Spirit can make us fierce advocates of God’s Kingdom. It can help us overcome our very selves, along with our fears of the Empire, its police and religious collaborators.