The Feast of Pentecost

A Reflection: A Call For Moral Passover From Babel To Pentecost

Sri Lanka is a land blessed with people from various cultures, languages and religions who live on this Island, making it their motherland. History tells us that although at times they have had tensions, generally they have been living together with a spirit of tolerance, respecting each other’s differences. This was apparent in Sri Lankan kingdoms before the 16th century, prior to Western colonisation. For instance, in medieval times the image of the bull was removed from the moonstones - Sandakada pahana - as it was a sacred animal in Hinduism. In this way people lived in diversity but in unity rather than unity in diversity.

Things began to change in the 16th century with colonising by the Portuguese, Dutch and British who came from homogeneous, ethnoreligious identities dominated by one language. Portuguese spoke Portuguese and acknowledged the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, while the Dutch spoke Dutch and accepted the 'reformed' faith. The British, who were the first foreign power to conquer and occupy the whole island, spoke English and their established Christian religion was that of the Anglican Church. Drastic changes took place under British rule and the whole island was governed by a homogeneous ethos, giving prominence to the English language and Anglicanism. English gradually became the official language and the Anglican Church was the main Christian church of the colony of Ceylon.

When Sri Lanka gained independence from the British Empire in 1948, Sri Lankans did not have a clear model to replace this homogeneous form of English and Anglicanism. Each group was determined to promote its own language, religion and culture without having a clear vision of harmonious existence as one nation in their motherland. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, this has led to ethnoreligious and cultural tensions, bringing chaos to this Paradise Island. How, then, should Christians live in harmony in this multi-religious, cultural and linguistic context? What sort of inspiration can we derive from the scriptures?

The story of the tower of Babel tells us how human beings who spoke one language wanted to build a tower to reach up to Heaven so as not to be scattered over the face of the earth. They became inward-looking and sought to create a powerful culture of their own based on one language. This is a valuable lesson for us today in Sri Lanka. As Sinhala, Tamil and Eurasians we have been trying to build our own towers of Babel to reach Heaven. We have become very self-centred and selfish with our own languages and cultures. We have become confused, having to speak many languages. It is evident that our towers of Sinhala, Tamil and English are falling down, but we make desperate efforts to keep them standing and active. This is true both of the church and of the state. Christians often boast that we have people from all three main language groups in Sri Lanka. Does this mean that we are free from contributing to the building and maintaining our own towers of Babel?

The story of Pentecost gives us the best model to adopt in this chaotic situation. The first Pentecost brought people from many cultures together, but not on the basis of one language or culture. What brought them together was the spirit of truth rather than their religious institutions. Though they spoke in their own languages they were able to understand each other.

How is it that today we can speak in our own languages yet understand each other? We see this among small children. I have seen this at the Theological College of Lanka Pilimatalawa. When children come together from Sinhala, Tamil and English backgrounds they speak their own languages yet understand one another. Then gradually they begin to speak each other’s languages. I remember a small Tamil boy challenging me when I spoke to him in my broken Tamil. He said: “Why are you speaking to me in Tamil? Speak to me in Sinhala because I understand Sinhala.” He said this in English!

We should remember that God has created diversity for us to celebrate, not to divide us. In the sight of God all languages and cultures are equally valuable. Let us not be in such a hurry to condemn sister faiths in our country. As Christians, we are called to have the mind of Jesus. When the Samaritan women at the well asked Jesus the right place for worship, He said it was not in the mountain nor Jerusalem but we should worship God in spirit and truth. He told his disciples that when the spirit of truth comes he would lead them into all truths. The most important thing is to obey the spirit of truth in all our endeavours and not condemn those who are not in our camp. Remember the response of Jesus when his disciples rebuked those who healed the sick in His name. Jesus said: “Those who are not against us are for us”

As human beings and Christians, we should learn to live in symbiosis with other people of cultures, religions and languages. To do we must learn to think globally but act locally. Otherwise, we may become global people who forget their roots or have the temptation to become too local and ignore the global realities.

Therefore as mature human beings and Christians let us learn to be local in the context of our global world and to think globally without being isolated from local realities.