The Politics of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-21)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

About seven years ago, when I was curate, I remember cycling up to one of the less attractive bits of Manchester to visit a middle-aged man who’d started attending the church. If my memory is accurate, he’d fled Iraq during the violence that had beset his country post-2003 invasion. He was wading through the almost cruel and ruthless UK asylum-seeking process – which had left him in a situation where he didn’t have permission to work and was living on food vouchers – and it wasn’t going well. He’d arrived in London but had been dispersed to Manchester and placed in a shamefully ill-equipped flat with inadequate heating and facilities. It felt like a flat from a horror movie rather than a place fit for a human being fleeing a war zone. Time was running out for him. His process was coming towards the end. He’d been told that his application for asylum had been turned down and he was – understandably – very distressed.

I’d been asked by my colleague to meet him because I’d had some small involvement with supporting asylum seekers and refugees in the early 2000’s through some work I’d done with a government agency. He’d hoped that I might offer some advice and leads for the poor man. I did my best, offering such contacts and connections I could still rustle up, mainly being a useless, if well-meaning pastoral presence. By 2006/7 it was clear that the asylum seeking process had only become tighter, harsher and more bureaucratic.

I’d been part of an action team that had sought to help a number of excluded and marginalized groups gain access to training and employment. The truth is that through that project I’d seen and worked with dozens of asylum-seeking people in desperate situations. For every moment when I felt I could make a difference (e.g. enable an Iranian doctor – escaping persecution for being gay – to have his qualifications recognized in the UK) there were ten where the savage mechanics of ‘the system’ got in the way. I have sat in too many dull offices tearful with anger and frustration as a weeping asylum-seeker, unable to work and wanting to work and train, pleaded with me. I was not cut out for that kind of job.

This anecdote, I trust, strikes you as a very long way away from the kind of narratives we typically play with on the day of Pentecost. Our standard pictures of the events described in Acts 2 are all about energy and fire and excitement. They tyrannize the church’s imagination in such a way that we can almost only think in clichés. We are, understandably, inclined to talk about ‘The Birthday of the Church’, for through their encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the early band of disciples was energised and their mission, in the physical absence of Jesus, took off. Just as Hollywood uses mood music to guide and shape our emotions in the cinema, the church’s self-understanding works as a kind of ambient guide to our perceptions of this event.

As if they were mythic heroes – and this should perhaps give an indication that the events of Pentecost might not actually have happened as described – the disciples have been through trials and tribulations (not least the loss of their guide and leader) and, having done so, they experience revitalization and, in one sense, purification. They are made ready to act.  In countless sermons this Pentecost, we shall be reminded how in those days the whole ‘church’ numbered very few souls and how, on the day of Pentecost, the apostles huddled together waiting for direction. We shall be invited to be expectant for the blessings of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this minute, this second, a great roar from heaven shall tear through this building and the Spirit like fire shall rest on us and we shall prophesy and see visions and dream dreams!

The events of Pentecost and the blessing of The Holy Spirit as we have received it via Acts is pure, delightful and in many ways inspiring theatre and the constant risk is that it invites us to depoliticized and self-indulgent readings. The modern church – feeling itself under strain in places like the U.K. – is perhaps inclined to use the narrative simply as a kind of exhortation to open ourselves corporately and individually to the Spirit, that the church may be renewed and revived. It is a moment to recommit ourselves to the culture of Acts – of spirit-filled warriors of faith bringing the broken and the lost into the comfort of the church. On this picture, it can seem as if there is a profound sense in which the situation I outlined at the start is incommensurate with Acts 2.

The U.K. has, I suspect, always had a complicated relationship with immigration, with who is to be counted as ‘in’ or ‘out’ in our society. Recent events – in which the right-wing UK Independence Party, led by a former commodities broker Nigel Farage, has won a number of seats in local government – have led to a frenzy of debate about not only the U.K’s relationship with Europe and the world, but have also made the question of immigration a lively topic. During the recent Queen’s Speech, which sets out the national government’s legislative plans, proposals were put forward to ensure that fewer perceived ‘illegal (undeserving) immigrants’ make use of the national health service. In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death, many of her friends on the right of the Tory Party have come out of the woodwork suggesting that it’s time to step away from membership of the European Community. Fear of ‘the outsider’ – of the illegitimate incomer, cast as an asylum seeker or so on – has been a key theme of much government policy over the past twenty years. However, in the febrile political environment we currently seem to be in – fed by a sensation-hungry media – a ‘Little Englander’ mentality grounded in fears of ‘the undeserving’ is apparently fashionable.

The Pentecost story is no idle depoliticized ‘spinning wheel’ however. One of its truths lies in its prioritization of subaltern voices. For who are these apostles presented as what U.A.Fanthorpe might call ‘tongue-tied yokels’? Having witnessed the Ascension, the apostles are gathered together in Jerusalem as the Jewish harvest festival Pentecost dawns. And they experience a violent wind crashing through their house, and fire rests upon the apostles, those tongue-tied yokels, enabling them to speak languages they had not known before. It is as if they are drunk. And the noise and commotion draws a crowd from among the many different peoples gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. And this crowd hear the apostles – described as Galileans in the text, which is surely code for ‘provincial bolshie scum’ – speaking of God each in their own tongue. Then Peter stands up and, perhaps for the first time in his life, speaks with genuine authority. After quashing all rumours that the apostles have been having an early morning drinking ‘sesh’, he quotes the prophet Joel – in the last days, God declares I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh and the young shall prophesy and see visions and the old shall dream dreams and there will be signs and wonders and all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Even if you read that as a charming fantasy it should signal something significant about both God’s economy and priorities in relationships. If the formulae ‘the young shall see visions’ and ‘the old shall dream dreams’ and so forth need unpacking, it is precisely significant that those who speak do not do so from the privilege of ‘Above’. They are not representatives of The Temple or The State. They do not represent the powerful or even the respectable. They are the kind of people that those present find easier to characterise as drunks rather than eloquent. In the poorer and more disadvantaged parts of U.K cities and housing estates, the dominant media narrative has become one of a ‘drunken’ underclass, incapable of sense because they are always intoxicated. As a strategy for ignoring subaltern voices and needs it is a powerful means of control.

From subaltern voices come powerful and prophetic words, the Holy Spirit their advocate and voice coach. It is startling how the narratives of the powerful, comfortable and the vain – perhaps encapsulated in the kind of ‘U.K needs to go it alone, let us be suspicious of outsiders’ rhetoric of the likes of Nigel Farage and his ilk – have seemingly gained respectability and traction. This may reflect the fact that current government is about half way through its term. Worries about ‘The Other’ and the outsider may act as a distraction from the issues which will act as crucial during a proper election campaign – jobs, economy and welfare for example. But the present mood in politics – seemingly fearful of ‘the undeserving’ without and within, which forces the poorest and most vulnerable to bear the brunt of government cuts – is likely to colour the legislative agendas of the coming years. It runs counter to the revolutionary community politics inaugurated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – where the cultural and political differences signified by the notion of ‘different languages’ is broken down; where the impetus comes from those who are seen as insignificant and valueless. Where the Advocate gives voice to the voiceless.

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