Christians have often hoped for a time when our racial and economic differences would cease, when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses are earnest but fundamentally misguided.
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Many such interpretations emerge from a fervent hope that the specters of racism, sexism, and myriad other destructive “isms” would no longer bind us to cycles of violence and hate. Many such interpretations emerge from a misreading of texts like Galatians 3:28. Such readings imagine that becoming Christians means becoming all the same in all ways. There are no ethnic differences between us (“no longer Jew or Greek”), no differences of class and status between us (“no longer slave or free”), no gendered differences between us (“no longer male and female”).
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Galatians teaches that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26). Our adoption as children of God, however, does not erase our differences. We are not the same, but we are reminded that our differences are not ways to measure our value in the eyes of God and one another.
How Pentecost Helps Us Think Differently about Difference
The story of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21 helps us understand how God sees human diversity: one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.
First, a quick recap. The final chapters of the Gospel of Luke and the first chapters of Acts finds the disciples and other followers of Jesus regrouping and discerning what a life of faith together looks like after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Both at the end of the Gospel of Luke and again at the beginning of Acts, Jesus promises that he would bestow this gathered community with the gift of the Spirit (Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8).
The gift arrives in grand style.
These early followers of Jesus gather in Jerusalem along with fellows Jews from around the Mediterranean world (Acts 2:5-11). They are gathered together in one place when suddenly tongues of fire descend from the heavens on the day of Pentecost. The gift of the spirit precipitates an extraordinary event. As the disciples proclaim the good news, everyone hears the good news proclaimed in their own language.
Many interpreters have viewed this Pentecost moment as a direct response to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), a fantastic story that seeks to explain how a people once united by common ancestors eventually became peoples with many different languages. Some have forwarded that Pentecost reverses the punishment God meted out at Babel. Finally, we can understand one another because the Spirit enables all to understand one language.
To me, this is a significant misreading of Babel. Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures? That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so, and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.
Most importantly, if Pentecost were a reversal of Babel, if Pentecost undid the diversity of human languages precipitated by Babel, why would the Spirit enable everyone to hear the gospel preached in their own languages? Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?
Notice what happens at Pentecost. God, through the Spirit, chooses to meet us where we are: in the midst of a multitude of languages and experiences. The Spirit translates the gospel instantly into myriad languages. If you think this is easy, then you have never tried learning a new language! You don’t just substitute one word in one language for a corresponding word in another language. Language is messy and intricate. Language is rooted in a wider and complex culture and way of thinking and living. Even when we speak the same language, don’t we still have a hard time understanding one another? Imagine then the miracle of Pentecost and what it means for us today.
God meets us in the messiness of different languages and does not ask us to speak God’s language. Instead, God chooses to speak our many languages. God does not speak in a divine language beyond our comprehension. At Pentecost, God speaks in Aramaic and Greek and other ancient languages. Today, God continues to speak in Spanish, Greek, Hindi, and Chinese alike.
At Pentecost, God makes God’s choice clear. God joins us in the midst of the messiness and the difficulties of speaking different languages, eating different foods, and living in different cultures. That is good news indeed.
Embracing God’s Gift of Difference Today
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, political pundits rejoiced that we had finally brought about the dawn of a “post-racial” society. If we were paying attention for the last few years, we know this was naive, maybe even foolish. Our differences linger, for worse and for better.
Just last week, the Census released an important statistic, which reflects a fundamental reshaping of American culture. The majority of children now born in the United States are from minority, non-white populations. Some among us will see these massive demographic shifts and fear that the character of a nation will be irretrievably lost.
However, the problems we face across cultures are not our differences. Instead, when we imbue those differences with prejudice and rank, when our differences become a way to determine who is in and who is out–who is better and who is inferior–then we corrupt God’s gift of difference.
So, let us set aside the prejudices that infect our relationships with one another. They are poisons that only lead to hatred and destruction.
But let us also set aside the equally infectious, equally destructive delusion that our differences are a problem to be solved, that the solution to our many problems is a color-blind society where, as Stephen Colbert so brilliantly satirizes, we “don’t see race.” Such a dream is just as harmful as rank prejudice, for they both work on the same logic. It is better to be the same than to be different.
For Christians, nothing could be further from the truth.
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