Speaking the Language

By The Rev. J.C. Austin

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” But this one about the difference between talking to someone in a language they understand versus their own language, their “mother tongue,” the language that they grew up speaking and listening and singing and dreaming in, is particularly wonderful.

Unlike here in the United States, most people in South Africa speak multiple languages; there are actually eleven language groups there! Under apartheid, not surprisingly, only English and Afrikaans, the two languages spoken as a first language by white people, were official languages. Once South Africa became a democracy, however, they established all eleven languages as co-official. Naturally, the ones with the biggest groups of speakers had more media geared towards them, but it was fascinating during the year I lived there to see how the three TV channels of the South African Broadcasting Corporation each had to dedicate several hours a night to blocks for news broadcasts in the various languages.

And I even managed to pick up a little Zulu by watching the Zulu version of Sesame Street! So it was a significant commitment of time and resources to honor so many official languages, but the country did so as an affirmation of the value of all peoples of that country under the new democracy, and because they knew that if you talk to someone in a language that they understand, it goes to their head; but if you talk to someone in their own language, it goes to their heart.

One of the most significant keys to unlocking the meaning of the story of Pentecost is understanding that what is happening in this miracle is an affirmation of that truth in Mandela’s statement: when you talk to someone in their own language, it goes to their heart. Pentecost is the day on which the “power from on high” that Jesus promised he would send to his disciples arrives, signified by the wind and the divided tongues like fire that appear suddenly among the disciples. So that, in itself, is the gift of the Spirit. What happens next is the outcome of that gift: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin speaking in other languages that the Spirit gives them the ability to speak, and bystanders to all this begin to hear them talking.

Those people are Jewish pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean. They have all come to Jerusalem at the same time because Pentecost already exists as a Jewish holiday: it is known as the Festival of Weeks, because it happens seven weeks and one day after Passover (fifty days, which is what Pentecost means), and it is a harvest festival in which people dedicated the first fruits of the harvest as an offering to God.

Jewish people living in Judaea would have spoken Aramaic as their own language, their first language; but people living elsewhere in the Empire would have spoken their own local language, which is what the bystanders are talking about when they marvel at the disciples speaking the languages of all these places and peoples: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea, and Cappadoccia, Pontus, and Asia…” and so on.

There are two things that are interesting and important about how this miracle unfolds. First of all, the miracle is not that everyone is able to miraculously hear the language of the disciples; the miracle is that the disciples are able to speak the languages of everyone. That’s an important difference, because it means the effect of the miracle is not to temporarily make everyone able to understand the same language, and thus relativizing or erasing their distinctive languages and cultural insights that are embedded in those languages.

And those embedded insights can have powerful and particular meaning within them. For example, you may have heard me say before that, in Zulu, when you greet someone, you say, “Sawubona,” which generally gets translated into English as hello, because that’s the functional equivalent. But that’s not what it means. What it means literally is, “I see you,” to which you would respond either, “Ngikhona,” which means “I am here,” or “Yebo, sawubona,” which means, “Yes, I see you,” which really means “I see you seeing me,” since that’s what the greeter has just said.

Either way, the effect is not just a polite greeting, but the existential establishment of a relationship: I see you, you are here seeing me, therefore we are in community with one another. ‘Hello,” on the other hand, only came into common usage as a greeting after the invention of the telephone; before that, it was just used as an expression to attract attention, such as “hello, what have we here?” So it essentially has no meaning aside from a functional way to communicate that your attention has been gotten by the ringing of the phone.

And every language has its own moments of deep meaning and functional superficiality like that, which I think is why the Spirit does what it does. It does not erase those differences through a miraculous uniformity; no, it doubles down on them by making the disciples able to speak directly through them to the hearts of those who claim a given language as their own, as the Mandela quote goes, in all their particular insight or beauty. And there is no telling what kind of transformation may happen when you do that.

Here’s the thing, though: Mandela never actually said that quote I cited at the beginning of the sermon. It’s not totally made up; it seems to be a popularized version of something he did say, and it was an attempt to both simplify the original quote and generalize it to make it easier to understand. The real quote shows up in the only authorized and authenticated book of his quotations that is available, called Nelson Mandela by Himself.

It includes a quotation from a conversation in which Mandela is talking about why he spoke to his white Afrikaner prison guards in their own language of Afrikaans. He said, “Because when you speak a language, English, well, many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.” At a quick glance, that sounds like it is very close to the more popular general quote, and there are obvious similarities. But in dropping the part specifically about Afrikaans, the popular quote loses the real power and significance of what Mandela said.

Mandela wasn’t talking about connecting with the hearts of people in general by using their own language; he was talking specifically about connecting with the hearts of his enemies by using their own language. It was the Afrikaner nationalists who established and ruled the apartheid South African state, and who had sentenced Mandela to life in prison for his role in the resistance, that he was talking to by using Afrikaans.

And more than that, the language of Afrikaans was at the very heart of Afrikaner nationalist identity: they literally built a giant monument to their language, the ONLY monument to a language in the known history of the world, high on a mountain overlooking a valley near Cape Town. And the language of Afrikaans was a significant tool of dominance and oppression in the apartheid state. In fact, it was the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of school instruction that led to the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

Schoolchildren were so outraged by the command not only to have to learn Afrikaans, but to have to learn every school subject through Afrikaans, that they rose up in massive protests in the segregated township of Soweto that lit the fire of the anti-apartheid movement and ultimately resulted in the dismantling of the apartheid state. Yet here is Mandela, who spent 27 brutal years imprisoned for his resistance to apartheid, saying that he intentionally learned Afrikaans from his jailers and used it with them and others intentionally and specifically to reach not simply their heads, but their hearts.

And reach them he did: Mandela used Afrikaans to forge almost unthinkable connections between him, seen by Afrikaners as a vicious terrorist bent on the destruction of their society and the death of their children, and a series of guards, police officers, and Afrikaner leaders who represented one of the most racist and brutally oppressive regimes in world history.

But over time, Mandela was able to win not only their respect, but their trust and affection and even partnership in building the new South Africa, a multiracial democracy that has often itself been called a miracle simply because it came to be instead of devolving into a perpetual civil war along racial/ethnic divisions as most people believed it would. And Mandela made those authentic connections with people by learning their language, the very language of his enemies, and speaking to them and through them in order to reach their hearts and effect transformation.

We often talk about Pentecost as the “birthday of the church.” And that’s true enough; this is the day that the beleaguered remains of Jesus’ followers multiplied to over 2000 people by the end of Peter’s sermon. But I don’t think that’s what’s most important for us to take away from it, especially these days. Because, like the first century, we live in a culture that is deeply divided by language. Not primarily literal language, though we are more and more diverse as a society along those lines, and that obviously has implications for us as a congregation that claims being “welcoming to all” as a core value.

No, I’m talking about language in its primary sense: a tool for communicating with others to mutually share meaning. And it feels like we do that less and less well every day that passes. We retreat into communities, both in real life and online, where everyone speaks our language: thinks and believes and hopes and fears and loves and hates the same things.

If someone says something we don’t like online, we block them. If someone says something we disagree with in real life, we walk away from them and instead talk to others who speak our language in order to be reassured in the rightness of our perspective, rather than talking directly to that person and trying to understand why they think and feel the way they do, and perhaps discover that we disagree on far less than we thought we did, perhaps inspire them to reconsider some of their own perspectives and convictions, and perhaps even reconsider some of our own in the process.

Lord knows that though the Christian Church didn’t invent such divisions and rejections in the midst of disagreement, the Church has historically been one of the foremost practitioners of it. You can see it happening in the book of Acts, not long after the Pentecost story, when the question of whether to admit non-Jewish people into the Christian faith without fully adopting the Jewish Law threatens to tear the church apart, and it comes up over and over again in Paul’s letters.

Which is all the more reason to focus on the power and meaning of Pentecost, because the Church begins not with a stampede of believers responding to Peter’s sermon, but with the Holy Spirit using Christ’s followers to share the meaning of the gospel with people from all over that part of the world by speaking with them in their own language; it is that miracle, and that faithful response to the direction of the Spirit, that enables the church to be “born” in the first place.

Because that very history of division and disagreement and enmity within our history and ourselves today means that we cannot hold ourselves apart as a group for whom these problems do not exist. On the contrary, the Church has the opportunity to model something much more than a pristine ideal to the rest of the world: it has the opportunity to demonstrate what it means to establish a great unity without erasing diversity of language, of thought, of identity. It has the opportunity to exhibit the transformative possibilities of coming closer to those with whom we disagree rather than walking away, even of making our enemies our partners in establishing peace and mutual understanding.

If we didn’t have those distinctions and disagreements and divisions within ourselves, we wouldn’t have that opportunity. And I believe that in that opportunity is one of the great callings of the Christian Church by the Holy Spirit, including even (and perhaps especially) this congregation, in how we follow Jesus Christ in the world today, no less than on the day of Pentecost: to follow the Spirit’s power and guidance in speaking the language of others, to share the good news of Christ’s transforming grace and love for them, for us, for this broken and divided and hurting world, in words that they and we can hear, and understand, and feel in the deepest places of our hearts, until there are still differences and distinctions, but no longer divisions and enemies, but only neighbors and friends and peace.



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