“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability?… How is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language?” Acts 2:1-8
The story of the Tower of Babel Genesis 11:1-9)was often misused during our apartheid years to justify the separation of people from each other. The argument was that God punished our primordial ancestors for trying to build a united nation to which all people belonged. And God did so by confusing their language. This, it was said, was why there are different cultures each with their own language. This was God’s doing, and God, they declared, intends people of different tongues to develop separately. It was all bad theology and distorted logic based on a misreading of the Babel saga. It was also a very bad understanding of the amazing history of how languages actually originated and developed over the millennia of human history. That story as any philologist will tell you, is truly remarkable. Today there is not a corner of the world without a language, grammar and vast vocabulary shaped by context and experience.
Language is the basis of human well-being and social life, of knowledge and science, and the way we share information and wisdom. Language links us to our ancestors and introduces us to our descendants. And the birth of language in all its splendid variety is repeated with the birth of every human being in every culture. Our lives may begin with grunts, but unless there is a speech impediment we soon begin to speak the language in which we are nurtured We find our voice. And in doing so we discover something fundamental about being human. We are created in the image of God by whose Word the world came into being. Being human is not being a parrot. In order to become truly ourselves, more truly who God wants us to be, we have to discover our own voice and learn to listen to the voice of others. So with our own words we establish relationships, name animals, flowers and mountains, we share the peace, bring healing, express love speak truth to power and spread the good news.
Some languages have become international through conquest and trade. As a result English-speakers have an enormous advantage and often forget how difficult it is for non-English speakers to be educated in English. But millions have successfully done so leaving us who are English-speakers also at a disadvantage. While others have learnt English we have not felt the need or to learn theirs. We can speak in our own tongue, but we cannot understand those who speak differently. Worse still, we sometimes think we are somehow superior and have the right to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak English properly. Like children struggling to express themselves, the voiceless, we say, need our voice. We forget that they actually want and need to speak for themselves. They also fear that we will put words into their mouths to ensure that they say the right thing, the words we want to hear. Parents often do this on behalf of their children; husbands and wives on behalf of their spouses. We forget that unless children find their own voices they do not grow up, and unless spouses listen to each other and allow each other to speak for him or herself, their relationships will remain superficial. Learning the art of mutual listening to each other’s voice and speaking in one’s own, is fundamental to any worthwhile relationship.
Part of what is happening today in our universities is that students are finding their own voice. as they do in every generation, but they don’t think they are being heard. As always, the issues are complex but I think the students are right in their demand for free education; I also think that this demand might be met if the government dealt with corruption and the misuse of tax-payers money. What if the 6 billion Rand bail-out for SAA could have been used to meet the fees crisis? Students are rightly tired of an older generation that does that kind of thing telling them that they know what is best for them. They want to speak their own mind in their own voice. And when they do, they want others to listen to what they are saying even if others may disagree. There is no solution to the conflict that has erupted without all sides learning to listen to the voice of the other, and learning to speak to the other in ways that foster understanding and trust.
If the Tower of Babel is a mythical attempt to explain the origin of diverse languages, the story of Pentecost marks the beginning of a new movement in history to promote understanding across language difference and so build community. That we should each understand one another even though we speak in different tongues is part of the reason why the church exists. The church is not meant to be culturally uniform but pluriform; the church is not meant to sing in one language but with one voice; the church is not meant to be the church of one nation or tribe, but the church for all nations. The church is meant to be the new humanity in which everyone can speak and be heard in his or her own tongue in ways that build relationships and community. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. And when the church listens to the Spirit it becomes part of the solution to human conflict instead of being, as it too often is, part of the problem.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 22 September