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Politics of Scripture

The Sound of Many Tongues

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).

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 nation 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, “Men of Judea 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 (NRSV)

In India last September, the Minister of Home Affairs rallied the people of India to embrace one language, Hindi, claiming that Hindi alone will unite the people of India and give the nation an identity in the global market. In the nation’s bid to create “One India,” Indians, whose native language was not Hindi, felt the endearment towards their own languages and dialects were being invalidated. The discontentment initially voiced on social media, not surprisingly, turned into social protests. The censorship of many tongues by the superimposition of a language, then, evidences an endorsement of the politics of exclusion garbed in the language of oneness.

Pentecost holds a prominent place in Christian history and religiosity. While our understanding and interpretation of it might differ based on the traditions we belong to or don’t, the meanings we make of it, much like life itself, is undoubtedly informed by our identity and social location. Belonging to a city where Tamil is not the official language of the state, my identity as a Tamil Dalit Indian Christian allows me to read multiplicity into the Pentecost story by contesting the dominant understanding of and call to oneness, a colonial ideology undergirded by the logic of boundary maintenance and binary thought. The colonial ideology of oneness dismisses relationality and in doing so accords utility to one or some over the rest, polarizing people into centrality and marginality, marking the latter as incomplete.

As we read the text, it is clear that multiple languages were known and spoken by those in and around Jerusalem. While Latin was the official language of the Empire, other languages such as Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew (spoken in different accents of course!) were not new or alien to the inhabitants and visitors alike. Yet interestingly, the text tells us that Jews from fifteen nations were present and happened to hear the sound of their native languages being spoken. Any attempt to picture this scene would be enough to suggest how a sudden agglomeration of voices would have undoubtedly left its hearers disconcerted.

Language has always played a significant role in establishing, sustaining, and furthering imperial power. The need to unify a nation linguistically, or for that matter religiously or culturally, is synonymous, either in part or full, with just about any imperial and political power. In his article, “How Language Use Forces Minorities to the Margin,” scholar-activist Miguel De La Torre notes that the insistence on the predominance of a language is an act of the dominant defending their position of power by ascribing to the/ir language “some alleged intrinsic virtue.” Linguistic nationalism becomes a mechanism for imposing and stabilizing imperial ideologies. Therefore, imbedded in the quest to unify lies a process of systemic alienation of peoples, languages, and cultures, and the erasure of collective memory.     

While multiplicity should be embraced, it is important to recognize how empires have created multiplicity by forcing people off of their lands. The speaking of many languages heard by the Jewish diaspora that gathered in Jerusalem, while understood as an affirmation of diversity and multiplicity, also evinces that this multiplicity was an outcome of a cyclic dislocation of Jews from their homeland, even before the Roman Empire came into power. That is why this act of gathering together—reminiscent of the mother hen gathering her children under her wings in some sense­—is of deep significance. It not only allows for the acknowledgement of difference and diversity, but compels us to be aware of the violence behind forced multiplicities caused by imperial regimes.

In verse 7, we read that the ones speaking in different tongues were identified as Galileans. Obery M. Hendricks Jr. notes that Galileans were “twice marginalized” and often discriminated against by the Jerusalemites, with one reason being their accent (The Universe Bends Towards Justice, p. 68). What we read in the ancient text is what we see today: the invalidation and mockery of the spiritual practices and experiences of marginalized communities as byproducts of intoxication (verse13). Furthermore, they are perceived to be apolitical. But if truth be told, such practices and experiences, even in their most rudimentary expressions, are political for their protest against and resistance to wrong power, whatever shape or form it may take. It is an act of non-compliance to the morality and religiosity of the dominant culture.

Reading scripture from the perspective of those at the margins helps unmask structures of oppression within the text, and places primacy on the oppressed: their ethos, their vision of liberation, and their modes of achieving liberation. Therefore, understood within the contexts of oppressions, the Pentecost, in denouncing the rhetoric of exclusion, oneness, and linguistic nationalism, can be seen as an act of protest. Yet, as Dalit Theologian John Boopalan reminds us in his recent essay,“Resisting Colonial Logic in Christian Thinking,” one must not get caught up with assigning colonial logic to erstwhile empires, such as the Roman empire, but take notice of its perpetuation in today’s times. This calls us to pay close attention to the violations and protests against such violations that take place in our locales and on the global map.

Given this ethical responsibility of ours, one cannot bypass the recent demonstrations that took place across the United States to protest the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who became yet another victim of racial profiling. Similarly, migrant workers’ protests against lockdown extensions in India calling out the government for its lack of action; the continued protests by Palestinians and Kashmiris against the purging and retrenchment of the right to self-determination, and the right to freedom of speech and movement; resistance against authoritarianism in Hong Kong; Chilean protests against economic elitism; and indigenous peoples and children taking to the streets holding politicians and governments accountable for the lack of deeper care for the earth cannot be ignored, disparaged, or derided.

Suffering communities use their powers of imagination—emerging from histories of oppression, pain, and denial of self-worth—to speak truth to power, expose draconian policies and vengeful politics, challenge the moral conscience of the oppressors, contest universalized and objectivized norms, and resist the invisibilization of bodies and memories. 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, onelanguage—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).

The (promise of the) outpouring of the Spirit “upon all flesh” (verse 17, emphasis mine) and its future iterations attest to the embodied interconnectedness shared by humanity, rendering the long-standing colonial notion of inherent separateness as a myth. The Spirit of God obliterates the politics of exclusion to include all. All means all: no one is left out. The Spirit of God endorses a profusion of voices, and the multiplicity and interconnectedness of all peoples. Everyone, I believe, is multiple—either one is unaware of it suppressed by histories and cycles of rhetoric insisting on conformity, singularity, and purity, or one simply refuses to acknowledge it. If multiplicity is written into all bodies and if interconnectedness is intrinsic to all creation, the privileging and the ascendency of a species, culture, language, religion, tradition, sexual orientation, gender, and ethnicity needs to be contested, and the gated comfort derived from maintaining inviolable boundaries needs to be unsettled.

The Pentecost is not an event; it is a dynamic, revolutionary process and it continues today. The counter-imperial aspect of the Pentecost reminds us that the agents of transformation are not the elite and the powerful, despite their wealth or influence, but rather the vulnerable, the disenfranchised. Marginalized communities—as storehouses of histories and wisdom—are stepping out into castecized, racialized, masculinized, and heterosexualized spaces to disrupt the normative. We must listen and hearwhat is being prophesied (verse 17). To disregard such prophetic outpourings is to be complicit to the workings of the empires of today, to disregard such prophetic outpourings is to be absorbed in one’s privileges, and to disregard such prophetic outpourings is to espouse exclusivism. May every unjust power, every empire be expunged at the sound of many tongues.  

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Many Tongues

  1. Arvind, thank you so much for articulating an example of how loss of individual and corporate voice is so devastating, and how it is related to the oppression of all people. As a woman of Middle Eastern descent who had to fight to find my own voice, I am grateful for the examples you used and conclusions you draw. I am including some of what is posited here, with attribution to you, in my sermon this week.

  2. Thank you for this. I am incorporating your insights into my sermon for today, Pentecost Sunday. Blessings.

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