The Euros, Eurovision... and Pentecost?

By Graeme Smith
10 Jun 2012

In the wake of Pentecost, the Eurovision Song Contest, and with football’s European Championship having just started, it makes sense to reflect on the tension between nationalism and pluralism: how local loyalties connect to wider solidraities.

This is all the more the case because, at its best, Christianity’s great contribution to the world is to offer the possibility of a truth commitment that embraces pluralism.

But let's start at the beginning. Some commentators have been lamenting, and others nervously observing, the national pride and implicit imperialism of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. But these are as nothing compared with what is often the case with international football.

Unashamed and unabashed nationalism - already mixed with barely disguised or overtly toxic racism in some quarters - is set to burst forth in far more aggressive, and far less politely 'middle-class', forms as the UEFA 2012 Championships progress.

Many shall shout, cheer, groan and probably weep at the antics of a group of overpaid and spoilt young men for no greater reason than a shared country of birth. Of course Gary and Adrian on the telly will try to convince us it is about skill and tactics, "the beautiful game"; but frankly most English supporters would trade any aesthetic pleasure for a win, preferably over the Germans in the final.

Frankly, I am with them. When, as no doubt will be the case, Roy Hodgson’s “hard to beat” team exits in a penalty shoot out, I shall despair and be depressed for no other reason than a common passport. This feeling is far more primeval than the desire to put up some bunting and have a tea party. The only consolation is that after England’s exit (in my case) the football can be enjoyed without the nationalism.

The emotional intensity of the football follows hard on the heels of the eccentricity of the Eurovision Song Contest. If ever we fear that the world was no longer diverse, submerged beneath a neon sign advertising American burgers and coke, (made in China) then Eurovision comes to the rescue. Indigenous, not homogenous, cultures burst forth in a way we can only observe bemused, or with a Graham Norton inspired patronising mockery. Not only do we get to see what the rest of Europe thinks of Britain but we get to see what the rest of Europe enjoys; and it is a bit scary.

What sandwiches these two secular celebrations of national identity and skill (I can hope) is the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost is the celebration of pluralism. The previously seemingly mono-linguistic disciples, after receiving the Holy Spirit, speak in many languages. They are understood by Parthians, Medes and Elamites, by the peoples of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, by those from Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, by Cretans and Arabs. Each group hears the wonders of God spoken in their own language. Peter has to reassure the crowd no alcohol has been consumed.

What counts here is the way round it is. It is the disciples, at the birth of the Church, who speak the different languages. The Holy Spirit works in the Church, the act of translation occurs within the Church, so that the Church is multi-lingual. It is not the case that the disciples speak in one language, their language, and the crowd then hears in their own tongue. The translation does not occur somewhere between the newly born Church and the crowd, nor in the head of the hearers. It is the Church which contains the paradox. It speaks of the wonders of God, of its faith commitment, of its truthfulness, in such a way that simultaneously pluralism is embraced. One faithfulness, one love, one discipleship, but many languages, many cultures, many societies, many realities, many truths. The love of God is singular and pluralist.

This is the hope for the world which Christianity ought to offer. The Church of Pentecost models a form of faithfulness which nurtures plentiful truthfulness. Peace may come because the Church demonstrates the paradox of both a life of committed discipleship and a life in fellowship with the Other. We can believe, we can commit, and we can recognise diversity, we do not need to dismiss the different. Our singularity is the paradox of diversity.

The hope for the world is that faith leads to a common life of difference. Now, please Roy, get Gerrard on the ball in the centre of the park...

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(c) Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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