A New Pentecost for the Brexit Babel

10 June 2019


Assault on London Bus


We will all be familiar with how the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem and how the Spirit came down upon them like tongues of Fire. People from all around the known world with different languages were suddenly able to understand one another.

We will probably have been told that there is a correlation between the Day of Pentecost and the Tower of Babel: that Pentecost reverses Babel. The writers of Genesis sought to understand why it was that there were different ethnicities, races and religions in our world. The only way they could make sense of this was to develop a myth of the people who were once one but who sinned and, like the story of Adam and Eve, God casts a spell upon them: they are forced into having different languages so they can no longer understand one another.

For the disciples who wanted to gather the nations around the teaching of Jesus Christ Babel was reversed as the Spirit enabled them to understand each other in each other’s languages.

Now the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost assumes that God has forgiven that sin, he has been reconciled to his people. Please notice not that his people have been reconciled to him but that he has been reconciled to his people. This is because in one version of the atonement one man died on the cross reconciling not only us to God but God to us. This is how we have come to believe that Pentecost reverses Babel.

However the truth of the matter is that the Jewish people believed for a very, very long time, centuries even, that God’s purpose was to bring all people together as one. We only have to read passages from the 8th century prophets to know this. What happened was that the disciples saw in Jesus the one who could do this. And yet for 2000 years the Christian church has divided and put people into different camps. So much for no longer Jew, Gentile, Greek, slave, master, free, male or female. All too many have gone to the stake for using a different phrase in a prayer.

Today we might consider how we can be one without such division and tribalism; to ask ourselves if Pentecost is possible in world where Babel still exists.

If Pentecost was the day different peoples understood the language of others – we need a New Pentecost for the Brexit Babel that has caused hate crime to soar, so that we might better understand one another.

Personally I believe that we are able to communicate without words. I grew up at a time when pop music was almost a religion. Some of us got our spirituality from John Lennon and later the Sex Pistols. One particular track comes to mind when I think about imagery and conveying a message. In the early 70’s I was a big fan of Kojak. I wasn’t into Starsky & Hutch – far too good looking and smooth for my liking! Telly Savalas was the star of Kojak. With his catchphrase ‘Who loves ya baby?’ and lollipops meant that many of us could often be seen at lunch time walking round school with a lollipop stuck in our mouths. And then in 1975 he came out with his hit song ‘If’, a remake of the David Gates track. It began ‘if a picture could paint a thousand words then why can’t I paint you. The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.’

There’s a limit to imagery but also there is nevertheless the possibility of communicating across nations with imagery. A picture does indeed paint a thousand words.

Why is it that Karen and I travelled all the way to Amsterdam to go and see the painting of Rembrandt’s Nightwatchmen? We know that there are some paintings that will never be loaned out to overseas galleries. So if they can’t come to us we have to go to them. Hence the pilgrimage that millions are prepared to make in order to see the greatest paintings artists have ever produced. This is in my view a modern day pilgrimage, it carries with it a similar sense of awe and reverence for so many people that once did a reliquary carried for the medieval Pilgrim. As pilgrims we travel at great cost and make great effort to stand before something that takes us beyond ourselves. When Karen and I went there to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the place was absolute crowded around the painting. This was the same when we went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. People from all around the world were gathered, people of different languages, different races and different religions gathered around a single image in deep admiration and awe. It spoke to us, drawing on a universal language. A picture can indeed paint a thousand words.

This past week many, many people have been deeply moved and horrified by another image: two women on the top deck of a London bus, recently spilt blood all over their tops. One is looking as if she’s in pain with her head turned away from the camera. The other stares beyond the lens, her eyes conveying that she is completely dazed by the attack. All that they were doing was sitting on the double-decker bus in London in 2019. Their attackers tormented them; they had urged the two women to kiss for their sadistically voyeuristic sideshow. And when the two women refused to do so they attacked them viciously. This is an image that should change a nation. You don’t need words to convey the horror and righteous anger.

Just as the image of the little Vietnamese girl running naked along the road following a napalm attack steeled the anti-Vietnam war protests, so this should move even the most indifferent to the plights of our sisters, brothers and friends in the LGBTQI community. You don’t need words to convey sorrow.

Sorrow is an international language. So too is love. You don’t need words to convey love just as you don’t need words to convey sorrow. It crosses boundaries. It crosses all sorts of human made barriers. The Methodist Conference in a few weeks’ time is to bring a report on marriage and relationships. It is called God in love unites us.

There is no place in this world for homophobia. So why some in the Church should give fuel to it by false and outdated doctrines that draw on selective texts whilst missing the bigger picture is beyond me. It is time for us to move forward.

It is time for us to embrace all people of every race, every religion, every ethnicity and every sexuality knowing that all are the children of God, loved by God, welcomed by God and if we can’t do the same then we have turned against the goodness of God.

Brexit has unleashed a multitude of hatreds – prejudices once frowned upon are now being normalised, be they xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia or homophobia. Hate crime, such as the attack on the innocent two women on a night out in London last week is rising rapidly. If Brexit is our Babel, dividing and disfiguring our nation, then we need a new Pentecost where the universal language of love is spoken and heard by all people.

Telly Savalas was right: a picture could paint a thousand words but remains inadequate because it still couldn’t convey the true love that he had. Love demands action. And after all is said and done actions speak louder than words. ‘I may speak in tongues of men or of angels but if I have not love then I am nothing.’

And a verse to conclude:

‘What language shall I borrow

to praise thee dearest friend

For this thy dying sorrow

Thy pity without end?’


Paul Gerhardt 1607 – 76









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