Holy spirit

The Holy Spirit frees us from responsibility, not from it

The Holy Spirit is not a life hack. We are not empowered by God to avoid responsibility. But too often the name of the Lord is used in vain in this way.

Last month, a US federal court had to decide whether a juror in a criminal trial was allowed to exclude evidence and base his verdict on what he said the Holy Spirit told him. An 11th Circuit judge said it was not allowed. An appeals court ruled that in fact it was allowed. According to a dissent from the ruling, this juror “is not able to base his guilty verdict on evidence, but will instead base his verdict on what he perceives to be divine revelation.”

Whatever one thinks of the legal issues, the court case raises pressing questions about the charismatic life led by the Spirit; public reasoning; and shared responsibility for the common good. This is a pressing problem when so many Pentecostals, charismatics, and other Christians seem to believe that a proof of the work of the Spirit is the rejection of the need for proof.

At best, however, Pentecostal spirituality asserts that the Spirit, Lord and giver of life, is truly “the public person,” urging believers to take responsibility in the public sphere. The Spirit obliges believers to be in solidarity with the poor, the downcast, and strangers.

The all-embracing Spirit of creation is the same Spirit who rested on Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilling his identification with humanity and making possible the pattern of life that reveals the heart of the Father. Those who are led by this Spirit are always drawn, as Jesus was, to the discouraged and the oppressed. Filled with this Spirit, we cannot help but dedicate our lives to caring for others.

Yet today too many American Pentecostals have been caught up in conspiratorial thinking. Some have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Some have defied pandemic guidelines, warning against wearing masks and vaccination. Some have suggested that the Spirit makes believers immune to the virus. We should ask ourselves how this happened. Are Pentecostals particularly sensitive to political pressures and the senseless ups and downs of culture warfare? If yes, why?

Until recently, a majority of Pentecostals in the United States opposed direct political involvement, even though they encouraged charitable ministries, calling for the transformation of society through revival rather than activism. As a result, Pentecostals have acquired a reputation of being “from another world.” Allan Anderson, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham, explains: “They have sometimes been rightly accused of proclaiming a gospel that spiritualizes or individualizes social problems. The result has been a tendency either to accept current oppressive social conditions or to promote a “prosperity gospel” that makes material gain a spiritual virtue.

While this is certainly not anyone’s intention, many Pentecostals have come to view Spirit as some sort of ultimate life hack, a way to avoid pain, to eliminate hardship, to overcome obstacles and ensure success.

Otherworldly Pentecostals tend to think of the work of the Spirit as limited to the realm of personal spiritual experience. This way of imagining life under the direction of the Spirit gives rise to a kind of dissociative state. Believers become more and more absorbed in their own experiences and less and less concerned with the needs of their neighbors.

Dominionist Pentecostals, including those who feel compelled to fulfill the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” tend to take it a step further and believe that the work of the Spirit is to exalt believers into positions of authority. and influence. This way of imagining life led by the Spirit leads to collusion with political and economic powers and to militarization or instrumentalization of charismatic gifts for partisan and commercial ends.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A deeper and truer understanding of Spirit can set us free.

In The subversion of Christianity, the philosopher Jacques Ellul, who once wondered about the possibility of becoming a member of the Assemblies of God in France, maintains that the Spirit neither constrains nor controls us, but frees us to lead a wise and benevolent life.

The Spirit, he insists, is “no more dictatorial, authoritarian, automatic or self-sufficient” than was Jesus. The mind “released us out of all slavery and puts us in a situation of freedom, choice and open possibilities. The Spirit animates our conscience, allows us to discern the will of God, prevents us from taking refuge in ignorance. The Spirit “makes us fully responsible.”

This is exactly what we can learn from a careful reading of Acts. On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Peter rises with the 11 disciples and declares to the assembled crowd that the outpouring of the Spirit marks the occasion of the enthronement of Jesus “at the right hand of God”. It is the inauguration of the longed-for Lord’s Day.

Years later, however, Peter sees in a vision a sheet descended from the sky teeming with unclean animals. He is told to eat, but he cannot. He says animals are unclean. He is told again, but cannot obey until he hears the liberating word of the Lord: “What God has made pure you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15, KJV) .

As Willie Jennings puts it, these words “have seldom, if ever – perhaps never – really been heard in all their redemptive density.” At this incredibly disorienting moment, Peter is invited to “take flight with the Holy Spirit into an uncharted world where the distinction between holy and ungodly, pure and unclean has been fundamentally upset.”

Jennings concludes:

God works in and from tight spaces, intimate settings of family and close friends, to change the wide open spaces of people and nations. Pierre is now caught up in the revelation of the intimate. God pushed him beyond the line that separated Jewish bodies from Gentile bodies, holy bodies from ungodly bodies, and urged Peter to change his speech acts by never again calling anyone ungodly or unclean.

Even now, Pentecost remains an unfinished project. Indeed, in a sense, the work has barely started.

Like Peter when the sheet came down from heaven, Pentecostals have not yet fully felt the creative power of the breath of God, much less fully acted upon that power. But if we make a commitment to accept the liberation of the Spirit, if we allow the fullness of the Spirit to open more and more the circles of our life, we will find ourselves empowered to live with the creativity that marked the life of Jesus, the originality of mercy perfected in forgiveness, reconciliation and shared fulfillment.

We will be free of any responsibility. Not of that.

Living with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead forces us to live with what Johann Baptist Metz called “an open-eyed mysticism”. Freed from political innocence and moral scruple, open-eyed mysticism not only notices the suffering of others but in fact “takes responsibility for it, for the love of a God who is the friend of human beings.”

Whatever the law says about the juror who ignored the evidence and called on the Holy Ghost in a criminal verdict, the Spirit does not do it. The Spirit sets us free for the work of discernment and public reasoning, sets us free to nurture the common good and care for our neighbors, and sets us free to cross-shaped patterns of life.

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