This is what it means to be speaking in tongues: not what the empires and the sub-empires of today want to hear—the sound of one voice, one language—but the vulnerable dissenting in their own—the sound of many, the sound of chaos, the sound like the “rush of a violent wind” (verse 2).
Rather than portraying human difference as the punishment of God, Babel and Pentecost are complementary stories, each highlighting God’s intention for cultural and linguistic diversity. As we draw near to Pentecost Sunday, may we also consider the inherent value of language as a cultural identity marker and partner as advocates for language preservation.
The gory fate of Judas is an unsettling feature of the narrative of Acts for many modern readers. Yet recovering the New Testament authors’ sense of the fearful consequences of opposing the reign of Christ is a necessary task for political theology.
Pentecost does not present us with the ideal of the uniform, homogeneous community, but with a divine power that traverses all of our differences. God’s will is to unite us in our diversity, not to extinguish it.
Beyond mere understanding—which we can arrive at with languages not our own—God’s communication in people’s native tongues at Pentecost manifests a deeper commitment to the recipients of revelation. The Holy Spirit addresses us in the language of our hearts and our dreams.
Luke’s account of Pentecost frames it as the installation of a prophet. As we reflect upon the shape of the prophetic vocation and the content and shape that Luke’s narrative gives to the Church’s calling we will be empowered for our political vocation in the twenty-first century.
As the people of Pentecost, our political vocation is to manifest the reality of God’s worldwide kingdom, to be a place where the enmity between peoples is overcome and the many tongues of humanity freely unite in the worship of their Creator. Amidst the Babelic projects of the ages, the Church proclaims by its existence that the kingdom belongs to God, that there is no other true ruler over all the nations.
Although often lost in a generic celebration of the giving of the Spirit, this text is one that is filled with questions of ethnicity, language, and diversity. It speaks to the American debate of whether this nation can or should be a melting pot that blends and ignores culture and ethnicity or a mosaic and celebration of the diversity that exists in our midst. But first, some background: