A couple weeks ago, I heard an interview with poet Hanif Abdurraqib. He’s a poet and a cultural critic who writes a good bit about music and performance, and the relationship between performer and audience. Adburraqib explains his fascination like this: “I’m an audience watcher (he says)... I really love seeing how people are impacted and affected by a moment of shared witnessing.” A moment of shared witnessing. Listening in public. Experiencing together. Witnessing together. In this interview and in his writing, Abdurraqib reflects on how that shared experience of witnessing and listening transforms the audience, and the performer – and how it sends forth subtle (or not-so-subtle) ripples into the world.
In the strictest sense, Pentecost may not be a musical performance (but the more I think about this, the more I think maybe it is). But it is a moment of shared witnessing. The followers of Jesus have gathered on Pentecost in an upper room, and they’ve gathered for a purpose. Remember last week? Just before he ascended into the heavens, Jesus blessed them and told them to wait in Jerusalem where they would receive power when the Spirit descends upon them. He said: “You will be my witnesses.” And here they are. Waiting and praying and praising. And then it happens. And we get a glimpse of this moment of shared witnessing – of what they see and hear and experience together.
Now, this isn’t the first moment. In their journey with Jesus, they must have witnessed so much together. This week, I’ve been imagining what they must’ve heard together along the way.
Some of the folks in that room have been with Jesus from the beginning. They would have heard the first words he ever preached – watched as he stood up in the synagogue and unrolled the scroll and proclaimed:
“The Spirit of God is upon me.
I’m here to proclaim good news to the poor,
release for the captive,
sight for those who are blind,
and freedom for all who are oppressed.”
They would have heard the stunned silence, and then the gasps when Jesus went on and told the congregation that they were the ones who had rejected all the prophets who had been sent before. They would have heard the shouts as the congregation turned into an angry mob, chased Jesus down, and tried to throw him off a cliff. (We don’t talk so much about the way that Jesus’ first sermon ended.)
The folks in that upper room on Pentecost – they had followed Jesus, and they would have heard him teach – announcing a world of power-over turned rightside up.
“Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be fed.”
They would have heard the sounds of healing. The groans of pain. The weeping of those who grieve. They would have heard Jesus speak healing words – sometimes words of comfort, sometimes words of challenge. And then they would have seen together the tears of joy and relief, heard the quiet “thank you,” and then the shouts of wholeness and healing and joy.
They would have heard the sounds of miraculous feeding. The grumbling of a crowd standing in the sun all day: “Bring us out into the middle of nowhere. No bathrooms. Nothing to eat.” But then, after the baskets went round, they would have heard the silence of a crowd digging in to a good meal– and then the lively conversation as a community shares a feast.
They would have heard the sounds of crucifixion. The mob. The soldiers. The scorn. The sound of nails, and anguish, of the women weeping near the cross after all the men had fled. The last cry.
And they would have experienced the quiet of the deep dawn on the third day – the echo of an empty tomb – the words beyond comprehending, “He Is Risen.” They would have heard the sound, once again, of breaking bread – the voice they knew assuring them: “It is I myself.” They would have laughed together again and wept again, maybe even argued again with Jesus. And then, just before Jesus ascends, they would have received his blessing and his promise – “Wait here, for you will receive power when the Spirit descends. You will be my witnesses.” And Scripture says, as they waited, they prayed, and praised, and worshipped.
They witnessed all these things together – listening together – all these sights, all these sounds.
And on Pentecost, they gather in this upper room. They hear the roar of a mighty wind. Maybe shaking the whole house. Maybe whipping through the room with force. They see tongues as of fire, descending, resting on each. And they are filled with the Spirit – each of them – all of them – everyone.
And in this moment of shared witnessing – they begin to speak. They begin to speak in languages not their own – languages of those who would have heard them as they poured out into the streets – they speak. And they are heard. They are heard, and they are understood. And the crowd responds, “How is it that we hear them speaking in our own languages?”
Someone once said that we think of Pentecost as a miracle of speaking – everyone speaking different languages – but it’s really a miracle of listening. They experience all this together. They hear all this together. And then they speak. And they listen. And they speak, and they listen. They understand each other. And they see visions. And they dream dreams. Everyone. All of them together.
Filled with the Spirit together, it is a moment of shared witnessing.
Now of course, there are two complementary senses to the word “witnessing.” There is witnessing that is the hearing and the seeing and the experiencing of the event. And there is the witnessing that is the telling and the living out of what one has seen and heard and experienced. These moments of shared witnessing are not just about what the audience sees and hears; they are also about the story we then tell – the lives we live – the song we sing.
I remember the first big concert I ever went to. Billy Joel in the Philly Spectrum. Years later, I went to see him perform with Elton John in the Georgia Dome. I still remember that moment – in the encore – when they were singing “Piano Man” together. Billy Joel at one grand piano; Elton John at another, facing him. About halfway into the song – they just stopped – stopped playing – stopped singing. But the audience didn’t. There we were. Thousands of us singing together, “Play us the song, you’re the piano man, Play us a song tonight, We’re all in the mood for a melody, And you’ve got us feeling all right.” That moment when the audience took it all in and then began to sing the song.
I remember another concert that I stumbled into on the Washington DC Mall. I was in town for a wedding – heard about a concert celebrating the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday. I didn’t have anything else to do that night – and I was on my own – so I went. The concert featured Buffy Saint Marie (an Indigenous songwriter – who wrote “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” – and who won an Oscar for Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong); country music artist Trisha Yearwood; and Aretha Franklin. The audience stretched all up and down the Washington Mall. I remember that night vividly. I remember the five women who took pity on me – all by myself, sitting on the grass – and invited me to share their picnic blanket. I remember total clarity as to why folks call Aretha Franklin Queen. As the night rolled on – artist after artist – all the music – I remember the laughing, the singing, the dancing – as the audience became a community on the nation’s front lawn.
Hanif Abdurraqib writes about Aretha Franklin in his book A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. He writes of his experience of the 2019 documentary “Amazing Grace.” You may have seen it. It’s a film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 live recording of her gospel album – Amazing Grace – at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA – Aretha Franklin, the Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community Choir. It is still the best-selling gospel album of all time. The documentary gives a glimpse of its creation.
Gathered together, Rev. Cleveland is the first at the mic. He welcomes the audience to the recording, saying, “We want you to be a part of this – we want you to get into the Spirit, or if you’re not into the Spirit, get into the next best thing.” And then, from the moment the choir walks down the aisle singing “We Are On Our Way,” and Aretha Franklin takes her seat at the piano, as she sings – they sing – Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” and then “How I Got Over,” and then “What a Friend,” and on and on, it is miraculous to behold.
Over the course of two nights, Aretha sings and – in the traditions of the Black church – draws the audience – the congregation – into conversation. Abdurraqib describes it better than I ever could: Aretha sings, and the audience responds – “half to her to keep her going, and half to God to keep pushing her forward.” It is a visceral, embodied experience. Abdurraqib takes all this in – including his embodied experience of the performance and the film – and then says this: “In the gospel setting, the audience is part of the stage. The audience through its engagement cannot be separated from the experience, or from [the telling] of the experience.” And of Aretha Franklin’s genius, he says: Her renditions of the songs are not so much “about extracting the divine for the sake of vague romanticism, but rather about finding new ways to get the divine into the bodies of the listeners.”
Throughout the Gospels, the life of Jesus is in focus – God’s love for us in human flesh. It’s also true that as that life unfolds – the disciples – those who follow Jesus – they are on stage too. And at Pentecost, what becomes manifest is that the divine – the Spirit – the Spirit of Christ has made its way into the bodies of those who have experienced Jesus. They have experienced the life of Christ together – and in this moment of shared witnessing – all that they have seen and heard – culminating in the rush of a mighty wind – and tongues as of fire – in that moment, they begin to speak – and to listen – and to see visions – and to dream dreams. In this moment of shared witnessing, they find the life of Christ alive in them.
Something happens when we listen together – in moments of shared witnessing. Abdurraqib wonders if it has something to do with this: “As we live life, we feel big feelings – and in experiences of shared witnessing we come to realize that we don’t feel them all alone – we don’t have to feel them all alone” – “we enter into the well of emotion and emerge with something useful for ourself and for the world.”
We have experienced so much together this past year – in our families, in this community, as a nation, as a global community. We continue to travel through pandemic together. We’ve listened together. We’ve heard the silence of people speaking on Zoom, not knowing that we are still on mute. We’ve tried to hear and understand the muffled messages we try to speak through our masks. We’ve heard the stifled sobs of families unable to sit in the hospital room with dying loved ones.
And, though we have these shared experiences, we also know the way that power works, and we know that across the nation and around the world, we have experienced pandemic differently. The pandemic has hit harder communities of color. So many across the country have navigated pandemic through economic hardship and loss. Seeing these inequities laid bare – and naming it – that, too, is part of our shared witnessing.
And this week, we should note that one year ago – we witnessed together the murder of George Floyd. For Black Americans, this was yet another killing of an unarmed Black man – the latest in more than 400 years of systemic American racism. For white Americans – and for the nation as a whole – it has been a moment of accountability. There we all were – sheltering at home – and there was the video – the video witness of the event – and we couldn’t look away – or pretend it wasn’t so. Black voices too long silenced now had a more expansive audience – an audience humbled and horror-struck by what we had seen. And even in pandemic, folks followed the Black Lives Movement into the streets in public witness.
And then, this March, those who had witnessed in person – took to the stand – witnessing – testifying as to what they had seen and heard in those long 8 minutes, 46 seconds of murder – even some police officers took the stand as witnesses to say what they saw was wrong. And that moment of shared witnessing became a moment of conviction – at long last – for the one who had killed George Floyd – and for a nation now summoned to tear down the racist structures we have for too long allowed to persist.
On the day of Pentecost, the voices that begin to speak – the voices that are heard and understood – are voices too long-silenced. They are voices from the margins of power – voices from throughout the known world – the voices of immigrants – indigenous voices in an imperial world – the voices of women no longer muffled by patriarchy – the voices of those too long held down by systems of oppression – voices too long considered somehow less than. At Pentecost, those voices emerge in this moment of shared witnessing – and in those voices, the people see visions and dream dreams. As Gilberto Ruiz notes, what we witness at Pentecost is “the vivid language of all flesh – persons of all genders, ages, races, and social statuses” – speaking and being heard. Together, they have witnessed a lifetime of Jesus, and, now, by the power of the Spirit they experience the life of Christ coming alive in them. All of them. All of us. Everyone.
At Pentecost, all God’s love for the whole world in Jesus Christ is poured into us. All that we have heard and seen together – the power and the healing and the love of Christ – comes to life in our flesh – in our lives. In this particular moment of shared witnessing – in our moment – as we consider this year that we have lived together: Will we have listened with honest ears? Will we listen to voices long-silenced as they lead us to turn the world rightside up?
And then in our shared witnessing of all this, what is the witness that we now will live out? What is the story we will tell with our lives? In this particular moment of shared witnessing, what is the song that we will sing?
© 2021 Scott Clark