Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 2: 1-18) transports me to a former mountain-top removal site in Holden, West Virginia, September 7, 2009, for a big Labor Day “Friends of America Rally” sponsored by Massey Energy, emceed by Ted Nugent, and headlined by Hank Williams, Jr. Thousands showed up for the event and saw Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship come to the podium decked out in his American flag hat and American flag shirt as he welcomed them: We have come here from all across America to stand up for American workers and the American Dream. Six months later, Blankenship was again before cameras, this time without the flag costume, this time not talking about the American workers or the American Dream, instead defending the company in the face of the worst mine disaster in 30 years, the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners. A more appropriate “dream” for the Upper Big Branch community would have been that sung by Phyllis Boyens in the movie Harlan County, USA –
A miner was leavin’ his home for his work
He heard his little child scream
He went to the side of his little girl’s bed
Oh, daddy, I’ve had such a dream
Oh, daddy my daddy, oh don’t go away
For dreams have so often come true
Oh, daddy my daddy, oh don’t go away
I never could live without you
I dreamed that the mine was all covered with flame
The men all fought for their lives
Just then the scene changed, and the mouth of the mine
Was covered with sweethearts and wives
Today’s passage recalls a time when another fiery blast hit a community, this time in first century Jerusalem. A sudden sound like that of a violent storm rushed through a house as flames licked the believers who gathered there for Pentecost. This spiritual explosion had a dramatic effect on the faithful, causing observers to mistakenly believe they were three sheets to the wind. Peter rose up to address the crowd, and explained that the believers were intoxicated by a different wind, the Holy Spirit, and he quoted an ancient prophetic text to interpret the day’s events: old and young, men and women, will see visions and dream dreams when the Spirit is poured out on them. Imbibing the Spirit, much like eating spicy foods before going to bed, inspires vivid dreams. The question is, what kind of dreams? For those early Christians described in Acts 2, the spice of the Spirit led them to dream radical dreams of a Utopian community, where people sold everything they had and shared all things in common, living a simple yet profoundly rewarding life. It must have been an appealing dream, for the text tells us that God added to their number on a daily basis.
Selling all you have and holding all things in common is hardly the stuff of the American dream, though. Don Blankenship is the icon of this dream, with a rags to riches story that culminated this week in the golden parachute he received when he retired from Massey. Blankenship had spent a lifetime strategically using his riches to erode not only the West Virginia mountaintops but to erode the regulatory structure of the coal industry, to the extent that hundreds upon hundreds of safety violations went unpunished. And that lifework ultimately led to the nightmare come true for the miner’s child at Upper Big Branch, where the mine was all covered with flames and 29 miners fought unsuccessfully for their lives. But this is not Don Blankenship’s nightmare. He is living the dream life. His reward, the golden parachute announced this week, was estimated to be between 10 and 30 million dollars. This is the “job creator” the American dreamers are all talking about, the one who needs a tax break. I’d like to hear what the Pentecostal Peter would have to say about that dream. I’m not holding my breath, though, for the day when Peter’s vision replaces Don Blankenship’s as the stuff of the American Dream.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.