Pentecost: Hearing in Tongues
This Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Today’s post is adapted from a sermon by Fr Jonathan Jong, originally delivered at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. […] What does this mean?
— Acts 2.8-12
I must confess that I am quite unable to tell apart an Ulster accent from a Scots one; or Cockney from Estuary; or Geordie from Scouse. I know RP when I hear it, of course; that’s just what villains in American films speak. Speaking of Americans, there is—as you might know—no better way for an American to encounter British snobbery than to talk about eggplants and cookies, bathrooms and the fall, candy and trash, and, the worst crime of all, pants.
Language is a medium of communication, and one of the things it communicates is identity, and therefore also similarity and difference. And what is communicated is also reinforced, which is to say that language can be a political tool, to create a sense of shared identity or enmity. The obvious cases of this are large scale efforts to standardise national languages or revive regional ones: think of Chinese under the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BCE or Welsh in more recent times. Less obvious are the slangs and dialects of subcultures, from the oft-appropriated vernacular of Black Twitter and drag culture to the highly mockable cadence of evangelical Christianese.
So, what does this mean, that the Parthians and Cappadocians and Libyans and Cretans can all understand these Galileans, whose accents were so strong before that Peter was easily identified outside the high priest’s house as one of Jesus’s disciples? At the very least it means that the good news proclaimed by these disciples was and is important and powerful enough to tear down linguistic and cultural walls. The gospel is universal.
There is at least that, but Pentecost is also the reversal of Babel, if you recall that old story of the people who presumed to build a tower to reach the heavens, and who for their hubris God confounded by confusing their language and fracturing their unity. Here, at Pentecost, the nations are called back together again, in light of the fact that we need neither tower nor winged horse to see the face of God, but God has instead come to live among us and even to suffer and die, one body broken for the sake of the whole world. We are called back together to be redefined; that is to say that we are called to relativize our old tribal identities in order to be adopted in a new one that transcends all other allegiances. In Christ, St Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. And so it is that Christianity begets humanism, that great antidote to ethno-nationalism. There can, of course, be secular variations on this humanistic theme, but the Christianity that birthed it also gives it metaphysical weight.
We are, I am sorry to say, not unfamiliar with ethno-nationalism on these islands. We can tell ourselves if it helps us sleep at night, that we voted to leave Europe for reasons of sovereignty and economic prosperity, but all the social scientific evidence points away from so benign an explanation and toward our attitudes toward immigrants instead . I’ll try not to take it too personally.
And now, of course, we know that 36,000 student visas were revoked when Theresa May was in the Home Office, based on results generated by voice recognition software that may have been wrong up to 40% of the time. At best, 4000-7000 students were deported due to this glitch. And then, of course, there’s Windrush. Not that any of this matters to most voters, most voters being White and as British as potatoes, which of course came from Peru. Meanwhile chicken tikka masala is from the west end of Glasgow.
It is not likely that I will ever be allowed to feel at home here. My children, if I have any, will probably be born in Britain, and will yet doubtless be asked for all their lives where they are really from. People will make it harder for them to get jobs, and then resent them for stealing those jobs. People will either exoticise and fetishise them, or find them too alien to be attractive. People will ask them if they know kungfu.
And it is not as though things have been any better back home, whatever “home” means. For over sixty years, since our independence from the British Empire in 1957, my home country—Malaysia—had been ruled by the same coalition, whose dominant political strategy for decades was to sow suspicion and resentment among the major ethnic groups. Nixon would have been proud. On May 8th 2018—just a year ago—we had a general election that may have escaped your attention: my country went to the polls, and woke up with a new government for the first time in our history. It is early days yet, but the reporting thus far suggests that we are at least trying to abandon our racialised politics. Unlike the ancien régime, the new ruling coalition does not consist of racially-segregated political parties. We will, I am sure, continue to struggle over issues of ethnic identity and indigenous rights and affirmative action for years to come, but this is a good start.
Given all this, the appeal of Christianity is obvious. Except that it’s not, at least not in practice. You may have noticed that the Church of England is super White, and more so in the rooms where decisions get made. Last I checked, there were 7.5 Chinese stipend priests in the whole of the Church of England. Meanwhile, global Christianity is increasingly African and Asian. Even so, back home—there’s that word again—it was regularly insinuated to me that I was adopting the religion of our colonial oppressors. Those who insinuated weren’t entirely wrong.
And, of course, Christianity itself runs the risk of being an ideology alongside other ideologies, an identity alongside other identities, and therefore potentially amenable to perversion for the political convenience of those in power. And truth be told, I don’t know how to avoid people abusing Christianity—or worse still, the idea of a Christian nation, as if the gospel would do anything but repudiate the very notion of a nation-state with its fiercely protected borders and its monopoly of violence. I don’t know how to stop people using Christianity as a bludgeon against Muslims or Jews or those of minority sexualities and orientations. From the Crusades to our current reactionary belligerence—the insecure death throes of a Church in decline—we have not had a very good track record.
All I do know is this: that built into the very foundation of the Church—right there in the book of Acts, right now one the feast of Pentecost—is the bringing together of people by God’s own Spirit: first just Jews, to be sure, but very soon, the world over, sometimes tragically with antisemitic repercussions. This bringing together of people is, by the way, not to be achieved by obliterating difference so as to homogenise. It is, in that sense like neither the Qin dynasty nor the British Empire. Recall that the Elamites and Judeans and Egyptians all hear the Galileans speak in their own languages. There is here no effort to assimilate foreigners, but to understand and be understood: that is, to know and be known: that is, to love and be loved.
And so, if we claim to believe in the Jesus who despite being a Jewish man who spent most of his ministry within a 200 km stretch of the Middle East nevertheless lived and died for the sake of the whole world, and who through his resurrection and ascension has brought all of humanity into the life of God—if we claim to believe in this Jesus—then we have our work cut out for us, the work that is no less than bringing peace to the world, celebrating both difference and unity: or to die trying.