(For those who would rather listen to this post, I’ve recorded it for your convenience. You can find the recording here)
“The controversy that grew up around Pentecostalism and later the charismatic movement has always been an unfortunate misplacement of focus, exposing our modern inability to grasp the desire of God revealed by the Holy Spirit. Neither concern for auditory evidence nor for linguistic authenticity brings us to the heart of the Spirit’s signifying reality. The only real question is, Do we hear what the tongues mean? For this we…need translators, people who will allow their lives to be translated, not just once, but again and again as the Spirit gives utterance.”
-Willie James Jennings, Acts 1
In the previous post in the series, I wrote of how the Spirit works not only, or even primarily, in, but between. When looking at the question, as we will throughout this series, “what does this mean?” (Acts 2:12), we realize that we are meant to live out the implications of the meaning of Pentecost in our lives and through our witness (the two being inseparable). It is important here to note that in Acts 2 we have a unique and unrepeatable miracle. As Chris Green says, what happened in Acts 2 is that,
“The Spirit, just for that moment, heals the brokenness of language so that all of the nations (represented by those gathered to the city for the feast) hear the gospel’s praise of God in their own ‘tongue’ and so see however fleetingly, a ‘preview’ of the eschatological banquet.“ 2
What the future will be like is miraculously on display, and that miraculous moment teaches us how we are to think about difference through the lens of language and, as a result of that thinking, live something of God’s future in the present moment by looking to the past. (Sorry, that was a mouthful). We should note well, then, that God’s future is not a future consisting of one language or culture. I’ve heard some people joke that in heaven everyone will speak their language. I’ve heard others genuinely wonder ‘what language we’ll speak in heaven.’ But God’s future will not obliterate language or culture. Heaven is not Babel. We know this, of course, from another “‘preview’ of the eschatological banquet” involving language:
I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
It is not the task of the Church to recreate the miracle of Acts 2, but it is the task of the Church to be a faithful witness between Acts 2 and the “eschatological banquet,” which means that the work of translation and interpretation is now up to us. We, the people of the Spirit, must learn how to speak the language of the people as the Spirit works in us and between us. That incredible preview in Acts 2 stands, then, as a picture for how we are to be in the world. As per Green, it is “a summons to hear and speak differently.“3
A week ago today, my UCM (University Campus Ministry) colleagues and I travelled, along with a few students, to Brocket, Alberta, where the Piikani nation Reserve is located. 4 We had the troubling privilege of sitting in a small Roman Catholic Church with three of the Elders from the community who told us about their experience at the Sacred Heart Residential School. The first person to speak was a absolutely stunning soul. She was a ninety-year-old woman. She spoke of how she was taken from her home at seven-years-old and brought to the school where her hair, like the rest of the girls, was immediately cut short. “We all looked the same,” she recalled. She told us of a number of terrible things that happened to her, but one thing that surfaced again and again was how she was unable to speak her native Blackfoot tongue (Siksikáí’powahsin). Even as a seven year old she would be whipped if she spoke her native tongue.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
People who were supposed to be priests of the Church rejected their calling and became priests of the colonial empire. But make no mistake, while they rejected their true calling, they still invoked the name of Jesus. They also, while creating a kind of hell for children, constantly threatened children with the fear of hell.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
After she spoke, the other two Elders, also stunning souls, told us their stories. When they were finished, our ninety-year-old-saint came back to bless us and pray for us in her own tongue. But before she did, she said that she forgot to mention something to us. Her children, later in life, were frustrated that she never taught them their own language. “Why didn’t you teach us?” they asked. She told them, and now us, that her language had come to be associated with pain. To speak it was to be whipped, sometimes to the point of physical scars.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
As I sat and listened to her I couldn’t help but think of Acts 2 since Pentecost Sunday was only two days away. The Pentecost banner stood behind her, it’s red fabric alighting her head like a flame of fire. As I listened to her I was struck once again with the fact that Pentecost stands as an infinite Divine rebuke against such inhumane treatment precisely through the use of language. At Pentecost, each person from their respective nation heard those speaking in “tongues,” in their own mother tongue; in their own language (2:8). This “mother tongue”, says Damayanthi Niles, “is not only the language you learned as a child but the language with which you were nursed, the language with which meaning-making began,” and therefore, “holds an emotionally formative place in our being.” 5 Language is inseparable from emotion and formation. Wille James Jennings (whose Acts Commentary you absolutely must pick up) similarly writes that in Acts 2,
“the homes of mothers are announced in the mouths of those who were far removed from those mother tongues.” 6
Stunning. Jennings notes that “to learn a language requires submission to a people.” 7 Good missionaries – and there have been good missionaries – have always known this. But this understanding stands starkly against the missionaries of colonial hegemony, like the ones that created hell for seven-year-old girls. How I wish the testimonies I heard last Friday were unique. They aren’t. The colonial missionaries didn’t even try and hide their agenda. We read, for example, in G. E. E. Lindquists’s 1951 missionary handbook:
“Do not spend too much time trying to learn the language…If the Indians among whom you are to work do not speak English, they will soon do so.” 8
The goal of colonial mission was to force the other to become like us; insisting they learn our language. This is consistent with the story of Babel. In Acts 2, however, we see the work of the Spirit leading the speaker to play a lesser role than that of the hearer since the power and “the wonders of God,” were primarily found in the hearing. As Jennings says,
“Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” 9
Gayatri Spivak once said that “solidarity comes from exchange of information and a bonding through acknowledgement of difference.” 10 In Acts 2 we catch a vision of this “exchange” and “bonding” happening through the Spirit as interstice. The Spirit, between speaker and hearer, makes porous the once solid boundaries, and does so by putting the mother tongue of the recipient in the mouth of the speaker. And it is this miracle which sets the precedence for what God expects of God’s people. It is not enough that we “be on mission.” How we are ”on mission” matters immensely. The Spirit surely empower us, but this empowerment takes place in a particular way. That way is to humbly submit ourselves not only to God, but also to the places and people where God sends us. We are empowered, in other words, to translate the wonders of God in the language and culture of the people.
It is tempting for this strange sign of tongues to be quickly removed from its original and powerful significance. As Jennings said in the quote I opened this post with: “Neither concern for auditory evidence nor for linguistic authenticity brings us to the heart of the Spirit’s signifying reality.”11 I was thankful to see that the denomination of which I’m a part, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), has recently moved away from the language of evidence and instead leaned into the language of sign. A sign is a thing which points to another thing. And so the temptation that we fell prey to, and fall prey to still, is to make tongues the locus of our experience. But tongues are not the locus, they are the sign which point to something else, namely, to the way that God equips us to be in the world. And how are we to be in the world? As Jennings puts it, “We need translators, people who will allow their lives to be translated, not just once, but again and again as the Spirit gives utterance.” This is the power of Pentecost, having our very lives translated by God’s Spirit for the people that God loves in order that both they through us, and we through them, may be transformed by the Wild Fire that is the Holy Spirit.
1 Willie James Jennings, Acts. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2017), 33
2 Chris Green, Sanctifying Interpretation: Vocation, Holiness, and Scripture, second ed. (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2020), 51
4 As our host, Deacon Thomas O’Toole reminded us, this nation does not exist within Canada and the United States, but parallel to it. This is an important distinction to make, especially given the nature of what this post is about.
5 Damayanthi Niles, Doing Theology with Humility, Generosity, and Wonder: A Christian Theology of Pluralism, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), 44.
6 Jennings, Acts, 29
8 G. E. E. Lindquist, New Trails for Old: A Handbook for Missionary Workers Among the American Indians (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ, Division of Home Mission, 1951), 33. Quoted in Gregory Lee Cuéllar and Randy S. Woodley, “North American Mission and Motive: Following the Markers” in Smith, Lalitha and Hawk, Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations, 69.
9 Jennings, Act, 30
10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Bonding in Difference, Interview with Alfred Arteaga (1993-1994),” in The Spivak Reader, ed. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean (New York: Routledge, 1996), 20. Quoted in Joya Colon-Berezin and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Jesus/Christ the Hybrid: Toward a Postcolonial Evangelical Christology” in Smith, Lalitha and Hawk, Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations, 162.
11 Jennings, Acts, 33. Emphasis mine.