The Divine Protest of Pentecost

The Divine Protest of Pentecost May 16, 2013

The God of Pentecost doesn’t have an official language.

This is the shocking revelation of the day of Pentecost, but one often  lost amid the day’s more bombastic metaphors of rushing winds, descending doves and intoxicated disciples with tongues touched by fire.

But in a country with a history of suppressing other languages in the name of unity and imperialism and in a nation where a xenophobic English-only movement is gaining ground with ads like this targeting immigration reform, this is the message of Pentecost we need to hear.

Because Pentecost, at its fiery heart, is not only about language, but it is also an act of divine rebellion through langauge. It is the windswept protest of a borderless God, standing against humanity’s misguided preference for the empty language of the powerful. In Pentecost, God speaks against humanity’s tendency to force unity through sameness and exclusivity, to conflate righteousness with homogeneity and to do it all in God’s holy name.

On Pentecost day, God spoke outside the walls of temple religiosity and outside the halls of political power. God spoke in the streets. The divine voice manifested in all languages and in all peoples, not just in the imperial Latin of the Roman occupiers who conquered the promised land and not just in the language of the religious elite who restricted access to God with oppressive temple taxes. Rather, God spoke in the vernacular of the everyday and the everywhere.

On Pentecost, God gives the divine voice to the languages of a bunch of nobodies and a crowd of commoners. It is an act of liberation, both for humankind and for God.

And we should never underestimate the subversive power and importance of the multilingual way in which God enters the world on Pentecost. Language, and the culture it builds, are the mortar and bricks of power. Powerful countries like ours have used language as a weapon and have restricted languages of other peoples in order to oppress and eliminate those perceived as different or threatening.

Our history is littered with examples. Waves of immigration are often met with linguistic repression and ridicule, from the United States’ response to German immigrants and their language in the early 1900s to Britain’s repression of the Irish language. Indigenous langauges fared even worse in the United States, with the government funding Christian missionaries and denominations to forcibly assimilate indigenous peoples into Euro-American culture at boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these schools banned indigenous  languages and punished children for using the languages of their ancestors. As if it wasn’t enough to perpetrate genocide against them, to force their exile and to steal and extort their lands, we wanted to destroy any meaningful future many of their cultures might have had and, as a result, make it easier for the demands for justice by indigenous groups to be ignored and denied without any real ramifications for the powerful.

The ideological descendant of this unjust legacy of language suppression is the political movement that seeks to enshrine English as the official and only language of the United States. It’s an ahistorical notion at best to believe this land we have claimed and occupied as our God-given right and manifested destiny has ever been a land of only one tribe and one tongue. But more to the point, it stands in contradiction of who God has been revealed to be on Pentecost.

A God of many tongues. A God of many peoples. A God who doesn’t have an official language. God is a God who speaks through all and is present in all, who not only welcomes all languages but also actively becomes incarnated through them.

We should listen carefully to the indictments that Pentecost holds against us. We live in a largely post-colonial world, but we remain citizens of the world’s lone remaining imperial power through our economic and cultural might (which is still just as capable of colonization and the destruction of indigenous culture). We remain complicit in the sins against and the ongoing injustice toward indigenous people of what is now the United States. We stand poised to commit sins against many of our immigrant brothers and sisters with laws that target them, profile them, and label their languages as not good enough for our country.

We should listen carefully to the gospel — the good news — of Pentecost. On that day when God moved in fiery inspiration, God gave the divine voice to all the languages, to the marginalized, to the street. Any time a language or a voice crying out is suppressed, it is God’s voice, too, we are attempting to silence. We might do well to participate in Pentecost with this in mind, listening for the voice of God among the silenced, the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten, the oppressed, the nobodies.

Pentecost wasn’t just about evocative images of fiery tongues and a rushing wind.

Pentecost was a rebellion against those that would seek to restrict God to a single, official language, a single, righteous people, a single, systematic theology.

Pentecost was a protest in which God refused to be silenced by the languages of the powerful.

Instead, on Pentecost, God spoke.

And the people in the streets understood.

Nothing could have been more subversive.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    And yet, without a common language, we can’t communicate. This is simply a fact. For any people to have power, they must be able to communicate in the language of those who hold current power. English has, for many centuries, been the language of international commerce. Just as Christians communicate their beliefs in a common language of the some interpretation of the words of the Bible, so do people with financial power communicate in some version of English.

    • baronsabato

      True. But I think David’s point is that in Pentecost, God breaks through the barriers of people with financial power into the hearts of those without.

    • jdens

      Many centuries? A couple centuries at most. It wasn’t very long ago at all that French was the lingua franca in trade, politics, and culture. It still is in many places. And that’s ignoring the East where Classical Chinese has been the predominant lingua franca until very recently.

    • doug

      I think that it is OK to acknowledge the usefulness of having an “official” language in which we conduct business, take our SAT test, and make our political speeches. It is equally important to educate all persons with whom we share our society to have proficiency in our official language so that all persons can effectively conduct their affairs. I took a class on American ethnicity while an undergrad. The professor (an Argentine Jewish immigrant to the U.S. (she spoke a lot of languages (do we really care that she leaned to the left politically?)) thought it was important that we have proficiency in English. She used the word picture of a bicycle wheel. The wheel needs a strong hub to support itself. But it has many spokes. One end of the spoke connects to the hub. The other end connects us to the rim. When we are living on the rim, we are interacting we people with whom we share a language or religion or heritage or culture or interest. Those places should be safe and equal and available for all. While in the hub, we interact with persons who live at many different places on the tire’s rim. We want to be able to do that well. The strongest tires have many spokes, each of which is well connected to both the rim and the hub. BTW, each person has connections to many different spokes. This makes sense to me.
      What do you think?

      • Y. A. Warren

        I Love the bicycle wheel analogy. The Holy Spirit may be the hub of speaking in tongues for spiritual communication, but common conversations are not all inspired by The Holy Spirit. We, therefore, need a hub language in order to communicate as humans on a global basis. The USA is a nation of immigrants that all had to learn the language of ENGLAND in order to prosper. Render unto Caesar…

  • David, for whatever it’s worth to you, this is shaping some of my liturgical language (pun intended?) for Sunday. Thanks for sharing this take on the Day.

  • Christopher Otten

    Language facilitates and brings us together. Language can also divide and isolate. Thank you, David, for your writing. Whether I agree or disagree with what you write, that’s not the reason I follow your blog. You are insightful and you can communicate with sensitivity and depth. I love this line, “Pentecost was a rebellion against those that would seek to restrict God to a single, official language, a single, righteous people, a single, systematic theology.” Thanks!

  • Hanan

    There is a reason that progressives, and perhaps progressive religious scare me. The ability to take something of religious significance to push some progressive agenda is simply amazing. Equating official language with xenophobia!!?? I should not be surprised. Here is a mental exercise and this will help in understanding the other side. Is it possible that instead of accusing the other side of xenophobia, your side simply CHOOSES to feel offended and alienated? Think about it and whether it is a possibility.

    • baronsabato

      “There is a reason that progressives, and perhaps progressive religious scare me. The ability to take something of religious significance to push some progressive agenda is simply amazing.”

      Man, if you think progressives are scary because of that, then conservative Christians must REALLY freak you out, since they’ve managed to take the Bible and turn it into a pro-free market, pro-gun, anti-abortion political platform.

      Anyway, did you click on any of the links David Henson helpfully posted within the body of his article? I think just checking those out will show exactly why xenophobia (along with racism) goes hand-in-hand with the English-only movement. You don’t have to be xenophobic to believe in an official language, but xenophobic people make up a lot of the largest and loudest supporters of the movement.

      Finally, I’m honestly not sure what you mean by “your side simply CHOOSES to feel offended and alienated” and why thinking about that might “help in understanding the other side.” Nope. I don’t choose to feel offended. I AM offended because my brothers and sisters who don’t speak English are worth just as much as my brothers and sisters who do, and I get offended when people argue otherwise.

    • mountainguy

      I also wouldn’t equate official language with xenophobia, unless it is done within the context of offering a critique of the concept of state, or the origins of state, or something like that.

      “There is a reason that progressives, and perhaps progressive religious scare me. The ability to take something of religious significance to push some progressive agenda is simply amazing”

      There are a LOT of reasons that conservatives, and perhaps religious conservatives scare me.

  • Bruce Huffman

    I believe that God speaks in “sigh” language through the Holy Spirit.

  • God acts.

    In spite of us and our acting.

    – the Old Adam lives!

  • I teach writing classes at my community college. In doing so, I look at it as giving my students access to the halls of power – for much of White American Middle and Upper Class discourse and power is shaped through the written word of American Standard English.

    But I make it very clear, though, that there is no such thing as a proper English or proper language. That no language is better or worse. That is important to teach, I think, because much of the discourse about language in the US is about shame and othering. Accents are seen as signs of intelligence. Mixing of Spanish and English phrases are seen as merely humorous, instead of being a natural outpouring of how people combine their two worlds.

    And the powerful are supposed to be kowtowed to and their ways are supposed to be internalized. Yeah…

    Love this post, David. As usual.

    • jdens

      That sounds like wonderful work you’re doing. I wonder if you’ve ever read any David Crystal? I find his work really accessible, even for non-linguists, and so sensible about it all. He did a lot of work I think for the English curriculum in England and encourages teaching language variety while also teaching about using the appropriate register for a given situation.

  • jdens

    I absolutely love this post. It reminds a little of a sermon I heard on the Tower of Babel, which suggested that the confusion of languages was not a punishment for being too ambitious, as it is often presented, but rather an affirmation of diversity and an undermining of monolithic culture. I had never seen Pentecost as a callback to that story, but now I think there’s something there. Thanks for such a stirring, thought-provoking post!