The Divine Protest of Pentecost: The Politics of Language and Respectability (Homily for Pentecost, Year B)

The Divine Protest of Pentecost: The Politics of Language and Respectability (Homily for Pentecost, Year B) May 20, 2015
By Madison Baran (Flickr Creative Commons Copyright)
By Madison Baran (Flickr Creative Commons Copyright)

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 some still push English-only legislation, 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, to demand people conform to arbitrary standards of respectability and to do it all in God’s holy name.

On Pentecost day, God spoke outside the walls of temple religiosity, outside the halls of political power, and outside the bounds of respectability. 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.

One of the ideological descendants 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. But there are also more subtle ways the powerful polices language to suppress and oppress the already marginalized. We’ve seen this in attempts to silence and delegitimize people of color who are speaking out and demanding justice for victims of systemic state violence in the form of police brutality, mass incarceration, and economic oppression.

These 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. A God who doesn’t silence but empowers the speech of the oppressed, brutalized, and marginalized.

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.

Americans, particularly the wealthy or white, should listen carefully to the indictments that Pentecost holds against us. We remain citizens and beneficiaries 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 and people of color of what is now the United States.

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, respectable or official language of a single, righteous people or a single, systematic theology.

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

Instead, on Pentecost, God spoke.

And the people in the streets understood.

They spoke, too, in the tongues of angels, the divine voice.

Nothing could have been more subversive.

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  • Anna Smith

    Or… God decided it was time for folks to hear in their own languages since he is the one who confounded the languages at the Tower of Babel in the first place.

    • Gary Roth

      One of the major themes of Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. Babel comes because of sin – because of sin, we no longer really communicate with one another or God. But Pentecost is the undoing of Babel, not through human activity, but through the activity of God, who enables us to hear, in our own language, the Gospel. The Gospel breaks down the barriers between us, whether or race, gender, or language. Paul says that it is this breaking down of barriers, and not the reanimated body of Christ, that is the chief evidence of the resurrection.

      • I’m not sure I agree that a major theme of Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. I think it’s a fun connection to play with, and I see where you are coming from. However, I think if we are going to make a comparison to the Hebrew scriptures we should look to where the text points us — to Shauvot, the festival that commemorates the giving of the law on Sinai and the backdrop against which the Christian Pentecost story occurs.

  • Stephen Notman

    I like the Taoist belief,

    “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.”

    Language is insufficient for describing God. Only the divine language would suffice. We’ll never be able to fully understand the divine language as earthly creatures. But we certainly aren’t getting any closer to understanding it by silencing the voices of those who need to be heard most.

  • CroneEver

    Thank you for this. Wonderful!

  • Kate Dix

    I would prefer that we don’t lable God as “the God of Pentecost”. There is only one God and that is the same God who poured out the Holy spirit with power on the day of Pentecost. There is no other God who is called the God of Pentecost

    • Gary Roth

      In the Old Testament, there were many ways of identifying God, connecting God to God’s acts of salvation. It is fully appropriate to identify God as the “God of Pentecost,” just as it is to call God the “God of the resurrection,” for instance. Pentecost reveals something central about who God is and how God acts in the world.

  • Gary Roth

    On Pentecost, those from every region heard God speak in their own language. It is not only a rejection, or correction, of imperial language, but an affirmation of the God who hears us in our own language. Language conveys meaning. In Genesis, God gave human beings the ability of language, which is the ability to define and construct our world and, in this, to become the “image of God,” co-creators, if your will, with God of the world. Each of us continues to do this – out of our experience and understandings, to continue to create, to define, to understand the relationship between us and what we encounter in the world. The God of Pentecost is the God who comes to us where we are, in our understanding of the world, who speaks to us in ways that we can understand, who fully understands our world, and there proclaims the Gospel, the good news, to us. We do not have to use another’s understanding, another’s language, another’s cultural references in order to receive the Gospel – that is imperialism. Rather, God comes to us where we are, not only speaking to us, but truly communicating with us, speaking to us in language we can understand, to free and redeem us. In that respect, God speaks to the smallest minority even – the minority of one – and therefore answers the deconstructionist dilemma.

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      That’ll preach!

      • Gary Roth

        I noticed your last name was Gottschalk – any relation to Leslie Gottschalk, of Pgh Pa?

      • louismoreaugottschalk

        No relation. The name I use is not my real name. He was an american composer famous in the civil war era. BTW smashing posts by you today! Greatly appreciated!

      • Gary Roth

        Silly me – I should have recognized it! Just saw the last name, and didn’t look at the beginning! Thanks!

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    Speak holy spirit I am listening. I will keep on listening!

  • SeriousQ

    Pentecost was the birth of Christianity. Only God could devise this, so that every person present heard the Gospel in their own language. The missionary outreach took off after this, enlarging the number of believers in diverse places near and far. 🙂

  • Without Malice

    The story of Pentecost is, like most things written by Luke (whoever Luke was) pure fiction. The tongues of flame and the drunken babbling are taken from stories told about the cult of Dionysus and the rest of the story is a mishmash of unbelievable contradictions. Here we have 120 followers of a crucified rabbi, who are supposedly being hunted down by the authorities, renting a large room in the middle of Jerusalem when the spirit descends upon them, making them praise God in a multitude of tongues. And then what? Why all the Jews of the diaspora hear them talking in their native language and are filled with wonder. Why? If so many Jews from foreign lands are in Jerusalem why would anyone be surprised to hear their language being spoken? Wouldn’t it be more likely that they would just think that some Jews from different areas were just holding a gathering and praising God in their native language? There would be no surprise in any of this. And why would there be some great crowd down in the streets to begin with? And what did that crowd do, rush up the stairs en-mass to the upper room in just because someone was praising God? And then they’re flabbergasted that these ignorant Galileans are speaking their language. What? Did the Galileans wear some kind of ID badge to distinguish themselves from everyone else? How in the world could the crowd have possibly know they were Galileans? And just how many of these foreign Jews could have made it up to the upper room to hear Peter’s less than convincing preaching? Do you really think it probable that thousands (how in the world could thousands have heard Peter preaching in the upper room) were persuaded to become Christians on the spot just because Peter claimed that some crucified Galilean rabbi that they had most probably never heard of had been exalted to godhood and the proof of it was that a few Galileans were speaking in what must have been gibberish to most? The whole scenario is just bizarre, and . . . unbelievable.

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      it is bizarre! but what if it’s true?

      • Without Malice

        What if Joseph Smith really did find a golden book? The odds are about the same for either one being true.

      • louismoreaugottschalk

        naw I don’t believe joseph smith, but I do love and respect the mormons. Ya know jackson browne says in one of his songs everyone must have a thot thats gunna pull them thru somehow. So is mockery getting you thru your today? That’s pretty sad I think.

      • Without Malice

        You love and respect the Mormons? You must know a whole boat load of them to say that you love and respect the whole group. And why don’t you believe the story of Joseph Smith? It’s no more far fetched than Acts or the gospels, and there about the same amount of evidence to back up both; which is as close to zero as you can get.

      • louismoreaugottschalk

        Yes w/out god I think it is impossible to love anyone. I love you athiests too. Are you, mal, lovable? I don’t need evidence I just know you are! ;•)