Lament at Pentecost, the Benefits of Drink and the Scourge of Technology

Was invited to debate with Steve Chalke last night on the topic of ‘the Politics of Pentecost’ – which was designed to think about issues of multiculturalism and inclusion over the Pentecost festival.

Steve gave a very interesting opening talk about this, which we then argued over afterwards, drawing in questions from the floor too.

In the relevant bit of Acts 2, the group of believers are gathered when ‘tongues of fire’ come down on them, and they spill out into the street where they are miraculously able to speak to people from all over the world in their local language. Some people think that they’ve just drunk too much, but Peter stands up and denies this, and contends that they are seeing ‘God’s spirit poured out on all people.’

What’s interesting though is that all the people gathered there were Jews. From round the world, yes, but Jews nonetheless. So in fact Peter’s assertion of God’s inclusivity here is bounded, and it takes a massive kick up the backside in Acts 10 for Peter to be persuaded that God accepts non-Jews too. And not just accepts that they can be circumcised and become Jewish – but that they can be fully-functioning believers without any of the Jewish cultural trappings.

The tragedy of church history is that the group of believers went on from this to become institutionalised and ended up drawing up cultural entry-tests for people that still results in large amounts of exclusion, and an even larger perception of exclusion too. Quite simply, people think Christians are bigoted. And for that, Pentecost should be some kind of lament, not celebration, because the situation is so dire.

The question last night turned to what we do to practically engage ‘the other.’ I was struck that the answer was right there in the passage. People thought that Peter and the disciples were drunk. Why was this? It seems to be because they were garrulous. They’d lost some inhibitions and were getting out and talking to people. This is one of the benefits of (moderate) drinking… it gets people talking. I’m not suggesting asking Muslim friends for a beer and pork pie… but the general principle is this: barriers come down when people share food and drink because these are the most ancient rites of sustaining life. No matter who we are, what colour, gender, orientation, background, age – we all need to eat and drink, and where there is food and beverage, there is life to be had.

Feasts are also important because they are temporary – and the feasting / TAZ idea is something I explore in depth in Other.

But there is another axis that struck me last night too. The shadow passage to Acts 2 is the story of the tower of Babel, where people used the best technologies they had – unified language and advanced building skills – to try to reach up and poke the underbelly of heaven. God sent confusion of language to stop that little project – for very strange reasons really.

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Thanks for that, God. Nice one. We are perhaps developing  another common language though, one that is seeking to unite all people: it’s the language of the web. Techno-optimists will tell you that social networks are going to lead to peace and love because people will engage ‘the other’ online.

No they won’t. Rather than enabling us to engage those who are different, our social networks actually serve to create sterile virtual communities consisting only of those who agree with us and are like us. Our friendship circles on Twitter and Facebook are not like local villages, where lots of interesting characters interact. They are, in the main, bland mono-cultures. When we do engage with ‘others’ online, what we see is a tendency to ‘flame’ far more easily than we might do face to face, thus ramping up the walls, rather than dissolving them.

So my advice would be this: if you want to engage ‘the other’ in your community, then forget about social networks, other than for arranging physical meetings. And if possible, try to add a little drink and food too.

Until then, think about framing Pentecost this year as a lament for the lack of inclusivity and diversity in most of our churches. And for the high walls and tough entry tests we’ve given people to make sure that the ‘dirty scum’ stay away. Shameful.

Update: audio of the discussion now available here.