Note: This is part of an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
How is it that we heard, each of us, in our own native tongue?
Since the dawn of colonization, the Americas have been defined by the struggle between dominant culture ideologies of conformity imposed by those in power, and grassroots cultural diversity among those on the margins. This tension between fantasies of racial supremacy and realities of racial diversity remains one of the supreme challenges facing the U.S., and thus our churches, today. The future of North American society depends upon our ability to live peaceably and justly with human diversity — and the same can be said of the human experiment as a whole. The question is whether we can, in church and in society, forge models of coexistence-with-congruence rather than unity-by-uniformity.
This question is as ancient as our scriptures. In particular, two related texts, one from each Testament, articulate key issues of cultural heterogeneity, social health and human freedom. One is the divine deconstruction of imperial homogeneity represented by the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The other is the multicultural insurrection against Roman imperial monoculture on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
In the former tale—one the oldest in the Bible—the divine “council” that created human beings (Gen 1:26) and that had to expel them from the Garden (3:22) intervenes against the centripetal, homogenizing project of Babel: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (11:7). This is the closing warning tale in the overall narrative arc of Genesis 1-11, concluding that the way to resist social and political forces of centralization is to reassert the Creator’s original intention that human communities be “scattered abroad over the face of the earth” (1:28; 9:1). The divine antidote is a re-dispersion of peoples (11:8), symbolized here by both linguistic/cultural variety and geographic diffusion.
This “scattering” is portrayed in Genesis not as the tragic result of God’s judgment, as is usually preached in our churches, but rather as an act of centrifugal liberation from urban monoculture and superconcentration. This is archetypal movement from center to margins finds further articulation in two foundational stories in Torah: that of Abram (Gen 11:31-12:5) and Exodus.
The ancient Hebrews, repeatedly displaced or colonized by urban civilization, seem to have developed a paleo-psychic impulse toward such centrifugality, summarized in the Psalmist’s later reiteration of Babel’s lesson: “Truly, I would flee far off; I would lodge in the wilderness… Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city” (Psalm 55:7ff). Israel’s survival was predicated upon resistance to successive empires through a stubborn maintenance of its own cultural, linguistic and religious distinctiveness and nonconformity. Centuries later, Jewish Christians surrounded by the dominating architecture and homogenizing social forces of the Roman Empire renewed this ancient tradition of resistance, as narrated in Luke’s story of the birth of the Christian church that we celebrate at Pentecost.
Acts 2 narrates the inauguration of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit—though what sort of practices the Spirit empowered has been a divisive issue among Christians ever since. Today ecclesial debates about what it means to be “Spirit-filled” usually focus on individual charismatic gifts, rather on the church as an alternative social model. But in Luke’s narrative, the Spirit ignited a multilingual eruption at the heart of cosmopolitan Jerusalem and in the face of Roman social control, in the long tradition of Jewish centrifugal challenges to centripetal empire.
In this multilingual insurgency Luke is affirming the diverse cultural contexts in which the new Christian movement would soon take flesh as the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world. But the echoes of the ancient Babel tale are unmistakable: “And at this sound the multitude came together and were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in their own language” (Acts 2:6; Gk sungcheō is the same root word used in the Septuagint text of Gen 11:7,9). This is not, as it is usually misconstrued, a reversal of the alleged “curse” of Babel. Rather, Pentecost re-iterates that tale’s polemic, and the divinely-sanctioned strategy to deconstruct pathological imperial homogeneity by reclaiming cultural diversity. The gift of tongues communicates across linguistic differences without suppressing or eradicating those differences. That is what distinguishes true gospel mission from cross-and-sword conquest in the service of empire that has characterized Christendom all too often. Unity through the Spirit does not mean monoculture, but the celebration of human variety.
The local cultures around the world that are carried by today’s immigrant poor have been eroded by centuries of colonialism, and are in danger of being extinguished by the onslaught of global capitalism’s drive for commodified homogeneity. The church must reassert the Genesis wisdom of a “scattered” human family by nurturing diversity, and must reaffirm the Pentecostal vocation of native-language empowerment. For in the great narrative of the Bible, God’s intervention is always subversive of the centralizing project of empire, and always on the side of the excluded and outcast, the refugee and immigrant. The Spirit has busted up business-as-usual many times since Babel and Jerusalem, and she is waiting to do the same in our own time—if our tongues would but dare to loosen.
Note: This is an edited excerpt from Chapter One of Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (Orbis, 2012), which can be purchased here. See also the longer reflection here. These themes will be discussed in our next BCM webinar on June 16th 2015.