I recently moved to Derby, forty miles away from where I grew up, and boy, do people know I’m not a local. “You’re not from the East Midlands!” people say when I give them my address, often just before imitating how I say “Dudley” and name-dropping Lenny Henry.
Now, I can live with this – it’s rarely meant in a negative way and it forces me to overcome my natural anti-sociability and actually interact with other human beings. But let’s not kid ourselves, accents are one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. Oh, we pretend to be all about equality and fairness, but then we read articles like “ESSEX ACCENT VOTED WORST IN UK POLL!”
(I should also mention that it was felt necessary for my dialect to receive its own translation of the Bible.)
Anyway, you know who else faced this sort of prejudice? St. Peter, that’s who.
We see it at his lowest moment, as he sits in a courtyard and denies knowing Jesus. Those he sits with are suspicious; they ask questions, too many questions, and they know he’s from Galilee because they recognise the accent, and they keep pushing and pushing and pushing…
And Peter snaps and says he’s never met Jesus.
His accent gives him away, after all, he’s a Galilean, and therefore a working class bumpkin who could only possibly be in Jerusalem because he was following a Galilean rabbi, right? That’s how we tend to read the story, because our view of accents is that they play into certain social stereotypes.
But Galileans weren’t hicks. They lived on a trade route, in a centre of religious learning. Besides, there would have been plenty of visitors in Jerusalem for Passover. Yes, people are sneering towards the region throughout the gospels (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?!”, for instance), but at least some of this seems to be based on local rivalries. You know, like a poll that says I have the second worst accent in the country.
But maybe something darker is going on. After all, Jesus has just been arrested because he was allegedly fomenting, which ties in with current affairs: only a couple of decades earlier, Judas of Galilee lead the Zealots in a failed revolt, and the region was also a hotbed of Sicarii activity. Now here’s a stranger with a Galilean accent showing up just as an alleged religious terrorist gets hauled away by the authorities. Maybe people weren’t laughing at him because he sounded like a chav, maybe they were expecting him to pull out a sword and start swinging.
Peter’s distinctive way of speaking gets mentioned again, this time in Acts. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and crowds of pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in different languages, some dismissed them as uneducated drunks. But again, this seems to be down to local snobbery, considering how many important leaders and rabbis came from the area, and maybe this is the lesson of Peter’s accent, because accents are an easy way for us to judge people; sometimes that’s just in fun (frankly, I can cope with being called a Yam-Yam), but sometimes it shades into racism, fear and genuine prejudice – think of how attitudes to Muslims degenerated after 9-11 and 7-7.
And so the leader of the church that emerges after the resurrection has an accent that gets him in trouble – so what? God doesn’t see the world as we do, doesn’t fall prey to prejudice or stereotyping, doesn’t fit in with our class distinctions or our snobbery. He pours out the Spirit on all people.
Even those who talk funny.