The Spirit in Crowds and Institutions

Holy Week may not be the best context for a reflection about the goodness and beauty of intact community structures.  This is the week we recall the undoing of the life of Jesus, his walk through a switchback from acclaim of hosannas and a vilification that led to his execution by the state.  Like many a politician, he is praised one moment by a crowd, only to be vilified the next by a crowd.

A crowd:  the word can evoke everything from an arena of sports fans to an impromptu gathering of people watching a fire, to a chaotic amassing of people protesting a war or cheering someone they hope to put into power.  A crowd is raw social energy that is formless and forming at the same time–the energy of transformation there on foot, ready to make something happen–to destroy in rioting, or pressure for the creation of something new, something not yet here.

No wonder crowds attend political rallyings of every sort–including Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, and the trial leading to his execution.  A crowd also attends the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost–an appearance that marks the birth of the church.

The crowds of Palm Sunday, the crowd at Pentecost, remind us that God is not interested in us as individuals alone, but in our shared lives together–how we are knit to one another.

I’ve been thinking about this as I take notice of the Tea Party movement, and of the delight in the voltage of raw power experienced by the many women who suddenly find themselves important and leading the head of a movement, without apparent premeditation.  The raw power of being the head of a crowd, demonizing our current president and longing to experience the power of making the new–however inchoate.  However much this movement may be driven by the crisis of job loss and by fears of demographic changes (if critics are right about the fears of many whites losing a sense of representing the true and central identity of the US), there is no denying the high that comes with feeling seen as powerful in the public eye–loud and real.

I think by contrast about the work of community building testified to by Sister Norma in her visit to Tanzania–the joy the sisters there feel in their work running schools, farms, orphanages.  Certainly institutions are always ambiguous, their goodness dependent on the people who work in them and in the flexibility of their structure to give a place of authority to many rather than a few.  I think of my father, who in 6th grade was publicly humiliated by his teacher, a nun, in his Catholic grade school because he’d taken a day off from school, at his parents’ command, to help slay and process the family bull.  He was struck with a ruler and mocked in front of his classmates, and this experience forever shaped his perception of the Catholic church (he had no difficulty becoming Lutheran when he married my mother).  At the same time, my father is one of the most community-minded persons I know, giving his time over the years to serving on (and often serving a term as president of) local and regional school boards, church councils, the Lions’ club; coaching hockey; working long hours on Habitat for Humanity.  To my father, as for the Benedictine Sisters in Tanzania, to be human means to invest part of your time in sustaining the institutions that enable life in your local community.

There is a place for crowds and a place for institution-making (and sustaining), even as both are immensely ambiguous in their power and their effects.  The journey from Palm Sunday to the Passion to Pentecost crisscrosses the energy of both–both crowds with the power to make and unmake, and institutions with their ability to order and constrain.

Amid a polarized nation, I find myself praying with the psalmist in Ps. 122 that we may be a place where lovers can rest tranquil, where flowers can line our pathways as they do in the places created by the sisters in Tanzania.  To do that, we need to risk investing in supporting our institutions where we live, with the critical edge a crowd makes manifest–listening for how to walk with the Spirit’s own unmaking and remaking of our lives together.

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