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Politics of Scripture

Pentecost as A Graced-Gift of Disruption: What Can the Church and Society Learn from the Pentecost Experience?

Pentecost experience offers a vision of surplus that allows all people to flourish because the source of meaning and purpose for each society is grounded in a God of surplus.

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
         and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
         and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
         in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
         and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
         and signs on the earth below,
         blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
         and the moon to blood,
         before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Acts 2:1–21 (NRSVue)

Living in a multicultural and multilinguistic community comes with its own advantages and challenges. One is drawn to the cultural world of those who embody a different cultural heritage from theirs. Today, in most cities in the United States, one gets to enjoy the wonders of Asia, North and South America, Africa, Oceania, and Europe without ever traveling to the regions or continents that bear these names. This reality points to the fact that globality is now part of the human condition. One may be drawn to the cultural world of those who embody a different cultural heritage from theirs. However lovely this expression of globality may be, multiculturalism faces an existential threat in the imperialistic posturing of the drivers of globality in our world.[1] The imperialistic turn to conformity that the structure of a state protects and validates assiduously demands that globality be interpreted through the lens of erasure. By this, I mean that though multiculturalism is welcomed within the spaces and places that the state has jurisdiction, there are limits to its expressions. Such limits are couched in what Jacques Derrida calls “conditional hospitality.”[2] Here, the guest who is culturally different from the host enters into a world that is alien to theirs. The guest must abide by the rules of encounter that the host instantiates on behalf of the state. The law is the validating guide for such an encounter.[3] In the encounter, the guest becomes alien even to herself as she must embody the world of the host if she is to be given the space and place of belonging in the land she seeks refuge.

In the world of conditional hospitality, multiculturalism is only skin deep,assimilation is the operating philosophy. Those familiar with the realities of French colonialism in Africa know how assimilation was used by the French colonial government to make Africans an embodiment of Francophile both as individuals and as social beings. Assimilation as an imperialistic tool for control produces and instills the markers of predictability in the behaviors and mannerisms of subjects of empires. A sense of identity and notions of belonging code such behaviors and mannerisms Aesthetic expressions such as music, dress codes, and even hairdos are subtly shaped by a sense of conformity. Even accents of the empire’s recognized languages conform to a predictable norm. Foreign accents evoke the question at the boundaries of alienation: where are you from? – legitimizing a hierarchy of belonging. One emboyding the so-called virtues of such an empire stands proudly at the apogee of the social world legitimized by the empire. Nations like China, Russia, United States, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan, Brazil, Myanmar, Nigeria, India, and many more have perpetuated a culture of assimilation in the past and present. Sometimes, this is done through the power of the state and/or through the tenets of religion. In the context of the United States, “Americanization” is a term that evokes a hierarchy of belonging based on how one has assimilated into what is considered the correct way of being an American.[4]

In the world of conditional hospitality, the state has the duty to maintain the status quo that perpetuates a vision of the fundamentals of nationalism or imperialism. When threatened, the state uses its power. When force does not curtail what is considered anarchy and, alien to the status quo, then the survival of the nationalistic identity that defines the nation-state is supposedly at stake. Looking closely at all nation-states in the current dispensation of the world, a global paranoia seems to be unfolding as migration offers nations and empires the opportunity to embody radical diversity. Such paranoia is not limited to the context of the secular world. The religious world is also experiencing this reality. Global Islam, for example, struggles to define what ought to be considered orthodox Islamic boundaries. The question is raised with a rebellious twist, who is a Muslim? Islamic fundamentalism has offered an existential threat to what was previously considered proper Islamic etiquettes. The same reality is faced by the Christian world. Social and moral issues have raised the fundamental question of who belongs and who is an outsider.The question of same-sex relation, the roles of women in ministry, and issues pertaining to ecclesial governance threaten the familiar comfort of denominations, whether in Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Methodism, or Roman Catholicism. Boundaries of belonging are carefully crafted and backed by doctrinal appeals to give credence to alienation and erasure. These are the realities that are unfolding in the religious and secular world of the 21st century.

However bleak the realities of the 21st century may be, a turn to the Pentecost experience opens up a horizon of hope for our world. Pentecost embodies disruptions and the upending of laws, traditions, cultural norms, and even doctrinal regulations. One can even say that the Pentecost experience is God’s validation of existential anarchy that makes redundant the claim to social order by secular and religious institutions. It is anarchy with an intentionality of allowing a new hermeneutical turn to unfold; one that radicalizes inclusivity without legitimizing the dualism of centers and peripheries.

The reading from Acts 2:1–21 begins with a focus on how the followers of Jesus “were all gathered in one place on the Day of Pentecost.” The author points to the fact that the gift of Pentecost is meant to offer a new way of understanding place and belonging. Unlike the world of assimilation that conditional hospitality perpetuates, the Pentecost experience offers a different form of hospitality; one that is “unconditional.” It is unconditional because it transcends the hermeneutical world of the familiar. It goes against the imperialistic bias for conformity. The Pentecost experience offers a reminder of the prophetic echo of Zechariah that Jerusalem shall be a place of belonging for all of God’s people in a world where injustice and violence reign supreme. All peoples who seek peace and belonging shall find it in Jerusalem. In this place, God’s abundant life will be experienced without bias (Zechariah 12:1–9).

Acts 12:1-21 also captures a central motif of the Pentecost experience, the relationship between power and language. In Genesis 11:1–9, language became a source of division among humans because humans weaponized as a tool to challenge God’s majesty. Humans were discontent with the world God had created for them. Rather, they wanted to dominate the domain of God itself. In response, God upends the unhealthy power inherent in language. This urge for power is at the core of empire dynamics and the current realities defining the relations among nation-states. Each nation seeks to dominate the other as though the other is always an existential threat to it. But the Pentecost experience offers a balanced understanding of language and the turn to diversity as a source of unity in abundance. 

As the followers of Jesus proclaimed the wonders of God in the risen Christ, the representatives of the world heard them in their own languages. The hierarchy that unhealthy use of language produces is upended. Those in the upper room and those on the streets all experience the wonder of God as the Spirit mediates the process in a manner that escapes from the controlling tendencies of some religious leaders who position themselves as the middle person between God and all of God’s people. 

Furthermore, language becomes a source of validation of the quest for meaning that all humans have a right to irrespective of their cultural or linguistic heritages, or their national origins. The Pentecost experience offers a vision of national identity and the use of language that is not nationalistic. Where nationalism creates a world of hierarchies that validate hatred among citizens from different nations, the Pentecost experience offers a world of equity that is grounded in dignity. Where nationalisms validate a sense of scarcity that offers credence for unhealthy competition among nations for global resources, the Pentecost experience offers a vision of surplus that allows all people to flourish because the source of meaning and purpose for each society is grounded in a God of surplus. This is enacted by the fact that each nation represented in Jerusalem that heard the followers of the risen Christ proclaim the wonders of God hear God’s word without the biased medium of interpretation that is often the case when religious praxis of orthodoxy takes the center stage. In this case, the Holy Spirit becomes the source of divine orthodoxy by using the source of social meaning to mediate the praxis of reception – language. Language becomes a unifying source because its role is grounded in a moral dictum – access to surplus meaning by all. No one is deprived of the full message as intended by the Holy Spirit as the disciples proclaimed the wonders God has done in Christ. This inherent turn to surplus and the welcoming of difference that defines the Pentecost experience will become the driving force behind the growing community of believers in Christ as Gentiles are welcomed into the fold. Each time, divisive ritual praxes are used to create boundaries of exclusivity, the Spirit of Pentecost steps in to remind the followers of Christ that both Jews and Gentiles are welcomed by God to partake of the good news inherent in the Pentecost experience.

The Pentecost experience is not one that remains in the world of intellectualism. It evokes the ritualization of the praxis of reform for ecclesial traditions. If ecclesial traditions are to embody new ways of seeing the world and of creating spaces and places of belonging that mediate life for all, a constant critique of doctrinal claims is required. The prophetic witness of Zechariah is given validation by the Holy Spirit as a way of reminding the followers of God that God is radically inclusive. It is a reminder to all that God has a preferential option for those who are made to live at the peripheries of church and society. Consequently, Christian communities must ask themselves the fundamental questions, how do our ecclesial praxes reflect radical inclusivity? Have we become institutions that perpetuate exclusion? Do we embody the biblical vision of the role of Jerusalem in the plan of God for our world?

The Pentecost experience also has a social justice component to it. It forces the following questions to be asked, what type of world are we living in? How can we explain the current atrocities playing out in Palestine as Israel and Hamas continue to fight each other, while tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed? How can our world justify the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia? How can society justify the realities of global wealth disparities? A turn to the Pentecost experience demands that humans take seriously the reimagination of the global order. This reimagination ought to address squarely the narcissistic qualities of the nation-state. The earth is the common home of all humans. The praxis of abundant life ought to be one that is enshrined in the psyche of the social institutions humans uphold. Consequently, the right to life for every person, the right to sustenance, the right to education, the right to security, the right to a healthy environment, and many more rights ought to be universally accepted. For these to be realized, a turn to the vision of Zechariah that was also validated on Pentecost Day ought to be the norm. Let us embrace a Jerusalem that all of creation can joyfully call its home.

Finally, the Pentecost experience offers a way to upend power in relation to hospitality. The socio-cultural biases defining the early church were addressed by a turn to the inclusive virtue and generous practice of hospitality by the followers of Christ. It is as though the Pentecost experience is the Spirit’s gift to humanity to help address the unfolding social systems of exclusion. Unlike conditional hospitality that locates power within the domain of the host, the Pentecost experience makes God the holder of power that is understood as abundance of encounter. One observes how the author of the narrative in Acts positions the following in the plot: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). The author is intentionally making the case that in fidelity to the prophetic vision of Zechariah, God will be the one to validate the unconditional hospitality for all persons who come to Jerusalem for refuge. In our case, Jerusalem is our neighborhoods, communities, nations, churches, and denominations. In fidelity to the pneumatological vision of this new Jerusalem, there will be no need for the use of abusive power of exclusion.[5]

[1] Bruce Mazlish, “The Hi-jacking of Global Society? An Essay,” Journal of Civil Society, vol. 1, issue 1 (2005): 5–17, https://doi.org/10.1080/17448680500166031.

[2] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[3] See Søren Rafn, “Reading Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond,” V!sAvis: Voices on Asylum and Migration, February 27, 2013, Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality – visAvis.

[4] See Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen, editors, Immigrant and Refugee Families. Global Perspectives on Displacement and Resettlement Experiences, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, Minesota: University of Minesota Libraries Publishing), Immigrant-and-Refugee-Families-2nd-Ed-1578317699.pdf.

[5] See insights on Jacques Derrida’s unconditional hospitality and the undoing of power matrix in Gerasimos Kakoliris, “Jacques Derrida on the Ethics of Hospitality,” in The Ethics of Subjectivity: Perspectives Since the Dawn of Modernity, ed. Elvis Imafidon (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 144–156.

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