When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All 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 nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, 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. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.Acts 2:1-21
(This essay was originally posted on May 29, 2017; we’re republishing it this week.)
In college I spent a semester abroad in Namibia. The official language of Namibia is English; however, it is the first language for very few households in the country. As a result of their colonial history, the first language of the majority of the country’s white population is Afrikaans, while native families speak a variety of tribal languages in addition to English and Afrikaans.
As a part of my study program I had the privilege of spending some time with a family in a rural farm in the Northern part of the country. My host family primarily spoke Damara-Nama; however, they were all fluent in Afrikaans, and my host sister, who was also a college student, was fluent in English as well.
When I arrived at their farm, my host brother, Geno, who couldn’t have been more than five, greeted me with wild enthusiasm, chattering away in Afrikaans. I stared at him blankly and his sister translated, explaining to him that I didn’t understand Afrikaans. She told me later, “He doesn’t believe that you don’t speak Afrikaans. He’s never known a white person who didn’t speak it.”
About a week into my stay, the rest of the family was out working away from the home compound, when a rapid dust storm came out of nowhere. Geno quickly sprung to action, herding all of the goats into their corral for safety. “Kom! Kom!” he shouted to me in Afrikans as he was working. He clearly wanted me to come and help. So I did. And mimicking his actions, the two of us quickly had the goats corralled. We returned to the house and Geno seemed pleased with himself—and me.
Later, when our sister returned, Geno explained to her excitedly that I had helped with the goats. She told me, “He says you do speak Afrikaans. Because he called for you ‘Kom’ and you came.” Geno nodded enthusiastically and I’m fairly convinced that for the rest of my stay he just thought I was either stubborn or dense when I was unable to converse with him fluently.
Language is a lifeline. It is perhaps the primary means by which we forge relationships, solicit assistance, and achieve understanding in human community. As a child, Geno was convinced that kind of understanding was not only a possibility, but a reality. Had anyone asked him, “What does this mean” (cf. Acts 2:12) when I responded to his call to “Kom!”, I suspect he wouldn’t have sneered or speculated, but rather, replied confidently, “It means that all is as it should be.”
At five-years-old, he was bi-lingual, speaking both his families’ native Damara Nama tongue and the colonial Afrikaans. It was apparent to him that I spoke English along with his older sister (who was fluent by that time in at least five tongues), but it was inconceivable to him that I, a grown woman, would only be able to speak one language, and at that, not one that was convenient to him.
The meaning of this is not lost on me in light of the Pentecost text. Geno and I were both raised in multicultural environments, exposed to people of different national and ethnic languages, and who spoke different languages. However, for Geno, who was raised in Namibia among a plurality of languages, the assumption was that in this environment, there would and could still be common understanding.
In contrast, I entered into Geno’s context with the assumption that because I did not already speak the language of that context, there would be no understanding. This came from having been raised in the language hierarchy of the United States where, if Geno had entered into my context, it would have been incumbent upon him to learn English to fit in.
However, really, my experience and Geno’s were not so different, since his assumption that we could communicate was based already, at his young age, on his concession to communicate—for the sake of the white woman—in the language of the colonizers. Geno never even tried to speak to me in Damara-Nama. He assumed I wouldn’t understand. And so, even in a multi-lingual context, the hierarchy still stood.
Language is a lifeline, but it is also an instrument of power. The very fact that the official language of Namibia is English is itself a resistance to the colonial power, represented by Afrikaans, in the form of the language—English—introduced to the country by Nelson Mandela’s youth leagues in the fight against apartheid.
Language has power. And, often, it is used as a means to attempt to entrench power and those who hold it. This can be seen as far back in the biblical witness as the building of Babel (Genesis 11). Those in power—the colonizers—wished to create a homogeneous tribute to their power, a power they deemed greater than (or at least equal to) that of God, whose height their project sought to reach.
Tradition has often portrayed Pentecost as the reversal of the Babel narrative—the scattered, many languages, returning to one common understanding. However, this is too simplistic of an understanding. Michael Nausner suggests that it is unlikely that the pre-Babel community spoke only one language, coming from all the ends of the earth. Rather, he suggests that Babel was a representation of human community coming together under one colonial project through which the diversity of human community was subjected under one language for the purpose of this prideful conceit.
Nausner posits that human community has always been and was intended by God as a diverse multilingual community. It is this same community that is already gathered in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descends (Acts 2:5). As a result, Nausner concludes,
The descent of the Spirit on an intercultural multitude gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2) is then not so much an undoing of the scattering after the disaster of the tower project (Gen 11), but rather a continued blessing of the multilingual community…The Spirit’s gift is not an erasure of such ethnic and linguistic difference but rather a new gift of communication across difference.
Which brings me back to Geno and that moment when he celebrated that I finally understood. I may not have been able to speak the language Geno thought I could, but he had worked in me a sense of understanding. He had brought me to see what he needed me to know. And we worked together for the better because of it.
This, I believe, is God’s wish for the Church as a Pentecost community—not that we settle upon one common (or colonized) way of doing or communicating things, but rather, that we recognize the one power, the true Power, is broader than any one (or group) of us. I believe that God’s will for the Pentecost community is that we live together in our diversity (not in spite of, or overcoming it).
To the colonial, homogenizing force of the Roman Empire, this must have been quite a threat. To the post-colonial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural churches in Namibia in the early 2000’s, I heard this message proclaimed and celebrated with hope.
For us, today, in 2017, what do these politics mean? How might we live together and grow together across our differences, with God’s Holy Spirit as our guide?
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.