South Africa’s uncelebrated Pentecost
- Alan Storey
- 26 May 2015 01:43 (South Africa)
Happy Pentecost! Yes, Sunday was Pentecost. If you didn’t know this, don’t feel bad – I can understand why. You see, unlike Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is yet to be used by marketing managers to get us to buy more stuff. So it has not been covered in chocolate or dressed in a red jump suit, and Cardies has not figured out how to come up with an equivalent to cute bunnies or red-nosed reindeer to mark the day. Most thankfully, Boney M has not written a song about it. But regardless of whether you knew it or not, Sunday was Pentecost.
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish harvest festival (Shavuot), a prominent feast in the calendar of ancient Israel, celebrating the giving of the Law on Sinai. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name Pentecost (fiftieth day). Later, in the Christian liturgical year, it marked the day when the Holy Spirit set a bunch of discouraged and defeated disciples of Jesus on fire to live out his dream for the world.
If South Africa needs anything at this time, it is for us to be set on Pentecostal fire. I know I may be sounding like a smart-suited tele-evangelist at this point, but let me explain.
When the Spirit swept through that upper room of frightened disciples, locked behind closed doors for fear of being picked up by the Roman security branch, three miracles occurred. I say miracles because before they happened, they were believed to be impossible.
The first was the miracle of truthful communication. Communication that is truthful is always a miracle whenever and wherever it takes place. As TS Eliot said: “Too much truth is hard to bear”. We have very refined defence mechanisms that make speaking and hearing the truth difficult. It takes extreme courage to speak the raw truth and it takes huge humility to hear it. The seldom-acknowledged power dynamics that exist between those in conversation often determine and distort the truth. On Pentecost, the miracle of truthful communication took place when some were given tongues to speak and others ears to hear.
For the miracle to be appreciated it is crucial to note who received the tongues and who the ears. The vulnerable, fearful and locked-in disciples were given the tongues and the free and fearless on the streets outside were given the ears to hear. Another way of putting this, courtesy of Eric Law, is that “The powerless were given tongues and the powerful were given ears”. For truthful communication, the power dynamics must be brought to the surface and intentionally addressed in who is to focus more on speaking and who is to focus more on listening. There is very seldom a level playing field.
Concerning racism in South Africa, we desperately need this miracle of truthful communication that addresses the power dynamics that so often distort this vital conversation. Of course, all people can be prejudiced, but only to the extent that one has power to act on that prejudice can one be racist. This is why whites that have been imbued with undeserved power and privilege through centuries of colonial and Apartheid structures need ears to listen. I need to listen to black people speak about how it feels to be black in a world where whiteness is the unacknowledged norm.
More precisely, and more painfully, I need to hear where my own attitudes and actions of internalised white supremacy continue to stubbornly endure. I need to hear James Baldwin when he says: “Whites know nothing but one thing about black people. They know they would not like to be black here... If they know that, they know everything they need to know and whatever else they say is a lie." It is more truthful and more fruitful for me to humbly confess that I am a racist with a longing to be healed of my racism, than to deny it and never change.
The second miracle was that of diverse community. The author of the Pentecostal story writes that every nation under heaven was present. The author’s exaggerated point is clear. No one was excluded. In fact, the author does something even more imaginative. Out of the 16 nations that the author lists, some no longer existed at the time. They were literally extinct. Pentecost is therefore the forming of what is deemed the ‘impossible community’. This is the only community worth striving for, because it is the only community that will save us in the end.
As deep and as difficult as the race issue is in South Africa, I think class is our biggest challenge when it comes to forming a truly diverse community. Having worked in many non-racial church communities, I am yet to find much evidence that the rich and poor can come together to form any sort of authentic community. It seems impossible.
In short, the rich fear the poor and therefore avoid the poor. Who am I talking about when I refer to the rich? I am speaking about myself and others like me. According to www.globalrichlist.com, when I plug in my + R15,000 p/m (R180,000 p/a) net salary into their smart little app, I end up in the top 0.95% of the world, making me the 56,932,476th richest person on earth by income. It further tells me that I earn R93.75 per hour, while the average labourer in Zimbabwe makes just R2.89 in the same time – and it will take the average labourer in Indonesia 44 years to earn what I do in a year. This means the next time I protest about the world’s wealthy 1%, I should look in a mirror. One point to note: www.globalrichlist.com use 2008 figures for their calculation, so they may be a little out of date, but the point still stands).
These sobering stats should give us a clue why the rich fear and avoid the poor. I fear and avoid the poor because I know that for authentic community to exist, the inequality must end. This will demand that I change my lifestyle, which feels too much like loss, until of course my eyes are opened to the richness of a truly diverse community where no one is excluded. Rich and poor forming authentic community may seem impossible but what really is impossible is the continued sustainability of the divide. If this divide is not addressed voluntarily then in the end it will be addressed violently. A nation that has bricks to build high walls to insulate the wealthy but not houses to shelter the poor will collapse.
This leads us to the third miracle of Pentecost, which was economic justice. A further result of Pentecost was the radical re-distribution of wealth. We are told that they “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds”… “and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common….there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…it was distributed to each as any had need.” [Acts 2 and 4].
A truly Pentecostal people practice the ancient Hebrew law of Jubilee [found in Leviticus 25] which instructed that every 50 years society should push the reset button and redistribute wealth according to everyone’s needs. Sadly there is little evidence that this was ever widely practised. Sadly too there is plenty of evidence that those of us today who aspire to be Pentecostal have ignored this. Instead we have been better at sanctifying wealth by baptising it as a “blessing from the Lord”. This may go down in history as the Church’s greatest sin. To slightly adapt what G.K. Chesterton wrote in What’s Wrong with the World, “The [Pentecostal] ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Whether you knew today was Pentecost or not is less important than whether we commit ourselves to doing what is thought to be impossible. Little else will secure a healthier future for our nation. As Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” DM
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