Forty years ago this year the African American Baptist pastor, Rev Martin Luther King, was shot dead in the USA for daring to demand justice and equality for his people who were still denied entry to schools, restaurants and housing areas reserved for whites. He became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement which led in 1964 to the US Supreme Court passing the Civil Rights Act banning racial segregation.
The Irish orator Edmund Burke once proclaimed, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Like the prophets of the Old Testament King refused to “do nothing”. He campaigned fearlessly for justice for his people and, like the prophets, paid with his life. Though a man of great vision he could not have foreseen that just 40 years later a black man, Barrack Obama, would be a leading contender for the office of US President. Extraordinary human progress indeed, though much remains to be done, to bring true equality to his people.
The creation story at the beginning of the Bible tells us that before the earth took shape “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen 1:2). Throughout the Old Testament that same Spirit is seen as an instrument of divine action in the world, inspiring and animating the prophets and leaders of God’s people, as expressed so beautifully by Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up broken hearts, to proclaim liberty to captives” (Is 61:1).
The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost in the forms of a strong wind and tongues of fire, symbols of life, power, vitality and transformation. The Spirit continues to be present and at work as an animating and transforming force in the life of the Church, guiding her progressively into the fullness of truth. We see this at Vatican II, where 2,500 bishops from all over the world, united with the Pope, were truly agents of the Spirit in renewing the Church and responding to the needs of our time.
But the work of the Spirit is not confined to the Church. The same Spirit who hovered over creation at the beginning continues to hover over the earth. St Paul tells us that “all creation groans and suffers the pangs of birth” (Rom 8:22), as we struggle to bring about a better and more just world. Recent centuries have seen remarkable human progress, not only in the US Civil Rights Act, but in many other areas such as the abolition of slavery which saw human beings bought, sold, transported and used like animals; in the ending of apartheid in South Africa through the heroic sacrifices of people like Nelson Mandela; in recognition of the dignity and equality of women who now, in most countries, have equal rights to education and employment, and have even governed countries as diverse as Britain, India, the Philippines and Germany.
All these advances in society and Church still have far to go. They have been achieved in spite of opposition from individuals and organisations who fear change and want our world to be a museum. The Venerable Cardinal Newman once stated that “To live is to change and to live fully is to have changed often”. The Holy Spirit is a powerful agent of change; of transformation and progress, calling on each of us to respond with openness of mind and generosity of heart; to follow our Master in rejecting all those forms of racism, bigotry, injustice and exploitation which still plague our world.
Bro Columba Gleeson