Solemnity of Pentecost
Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Pslam 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / Veni, Sancte Spiritus / John 20:19-23
What do you call a person who speaks three languages, the joke goes.
A person who speaks two?
And a person who speaks just one language?
Implied in the joke is the premise that the ability to speak more than one language is beneficial, though for many Americans, if it’s going to be only one language, it best be English. The readings for Pentecost speak to the point: the Tower of Babel, imaging humanity’s fall into mutual incomprehensibility as the purity of an original language is lost, vs. the Holy Spirit’s gift to the apostles, allowing them to be understood by their listeners who spoke varied languages.
In some way, language was treated a lot like religion when America came to be. Communities were separated by both their religion and their language: the Pennsylvania Dutch, the French-speaking Louisiana Territory, the English-speaking northeast, each mirrored Reformed, Catholic and Anglican religions, respectively. While the children of foreign-speaking immigrants quickly assimilated English as their own, their religion was usually a different story; though, in isolated cases like Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn or the German-speaking Amish of Pennsylvania, adherence to language became as important as adherence to religion.
Apropos this dilemma of what it means to become an American, there’s been renewed interest of late concerning the background of America’s discoverer, Christopher Columbus. Doubts about Columbus’ pedigree first emerged in Franco’s Spain when it was suggested (until Franco quashed the research) that Columbus was either a descendent of a converso or perhaps a converso himself: Conversos being Jews who had converted to Catholicism in fifteenth century Spain. Their conversion, however, can only be understood as a forced assimilation, since they were heavily penalized for remaining Jewish. Finally, in 1492, the same year Columbus made his epic voyage, the Catholic Monarchs of the united Kingdom of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled from their kingdom all Jews who had not converted to Catholicism. The desire for a Spain unified by religion, language and culture would eventually produce the Spanish Inquisition to insure those conversos didn’t lapse into their former religious practices.
On a recent PBS episode of Finding Your Roots, genealogical and genetic research into the ancestry of Linda Chavez uncovered her Jewish roots that had been transported clandestinely to America early on. Evidence of other Spanish immigrants’ Jewish background turned up when tombstones were discovered in Catholic cemeteries carved with Stars of David and notations in Hebrew script. Chavez recalled, as a young girl, seeing her grandmother mysteriously turn statues of saints, which adorned her house, to face the wall; perhaps an attempt to observe the Jewish prohibition against graven images.
The desire for unity is always a good and noble endeavor. But unity is not necessarily uniformity. Uniformity, when imposed, may do more to fracture authentic unity than solidify it. Just remember the Inquisition in Spain or the Know-Nothing and Ku Klux Klan movements of early twentieth century America. The great strength of the American enterprise, it seems, has been flexibility, patience and tolerance in regard to assimilation. And, no doubt, the protection afforded by the government to speak your native language and practice your chosen religion without fear of punishment or threat of exile.
[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break! Until September…tfb]