If there is any historical moment that demands some homiletical work on the ethnic diversity in Acts 2, this is the time. The “Great Replacement Theory” of White Supremacy is in the headlines. States continue to pass laws banning the discussion of racism as a central feature of American history under the façade of opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory. White Christian Nationalism is no longer a construction of the lunatic fringe, hiding in the intellectual and informational shadows. It is now a talking point for a number of local, state, and federal candidates for elected office.
These ideas are embodied in individual and institutional lives, and on the basis of these ideas, people are being murdered.
We all know that we prefer to gather with people “like us.” That’s been demonstrated in numerous psychological and sociological experiments and studies. The “us” that we are “like” is a socially constructed reality. Race, class, gender, generation, national origin, political affiliation, and other differences are things that at some point did not exist as they are now. Therefore, these realities were created, not discovered. What can be made can be unmade as well, even if that unmaking is difficult.
We prefer to gather with people “like us” especially when that gathering supports and enhances our self-interest. We tend to gather in ways that promote our power and privilege. Then we tell stories to account for the “like” and “unlike” we have constructed – stories that root our power and privilege either in our natural superiority, the natural inferiority of the “unlikes,” and/or some combination of both. The historic construction of Whiteness in the Enlightenment era West is a textbook example of the formation of such a story.
The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 is all about embracing and celebrating our God-created differences. It is a text that rejoices in all the “unlikes” who hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Temple that day. I would encourage you to read and reflect on Eric Barreto’s article at enterthebible.org as you prepare for this Sunday. I want to engage in a bit of that reflection here as well.
“Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease,” Barreto writes, “when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses,” he argues, “are earnest but fundamentally misguided.” I’m not so sure about the “earnest but misguided” piece.
I have served my entire adult life in a denomination which has expressed that hope for the disappearance of differences in a variety of ways. There was a time when my denomination aspired to have one in ten of its members to be BIPOC (although the term wasn’t current thirty-five years ago). What we should have known and only gradually admitted was that this was an assimilationist and colonialist strategy.
The ten percent solution, if it had come to pass, would have provided an ideological salve to the consciences of White Lutherans who knew that our segregationist history and practices were contrary to the inclusive nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This solution would have been just enough “diversity” to meet our institutional needs but not enough to bring about even a small bit of transformation.
An incarnation of this Whiteness protection strategy was the effort to launch and plant ethnic-focused ELCA congregations in communities of color. These projects were required to conform to the standards of the White power structure of the denomination and to operate according to the neoliberal economic model of financial self-sufficiency within three years (or else). Those congregations formed in economically oppressed communities that could not meet the financial independence standard were either shuttered or regarded as embarrassing liabilities.
I write this as one who has participated in efforts to achieve the ten percent solution personally and institutionally. As a denomination, we now know better – at least in theory. We would be well-served to make financial and institutional reparations to those communities which we sought to exploit for our own emotions and ends.
I could rehearse much more history regarding our failed and disingenuous efforts at racial “reconciliation,” diversity training, additional efforts at institutional representation, corporate repentance and apology, and shared leadership. These efforts have not all failed or been unconsciously cynical ploys to make our White selves feel better. There has been some good mixed in, but on balance we have failed as a denomination, judicatories, congregations, and individual White believers.
Barreto encourages us to allow Pentecost to “help us think differently about difference.” We humans prefer to gather with people “like us.” But the mania for monoculture is a mark of sin, not a sign of the coming Reign of God. “Simply, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world,” Barreto writes. “At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences,” he continues, “but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.”
Barreto disputes the reading of Acts 2 that regards the event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11. He argues that such a connection misreads what happened in Genesis. The “confusion” of languages was not a punishment for the arrogance of the Tower builders. “Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures?” Barreto asks. “That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so,” he continues, “and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.”
In fact, the gift of the multiple languages in Genesis 11 protects the Tower builders from themselves and their own hubris in seeking to become like God and to take heaven by storm. This is the conclusion of the Primeval history that began in Genesis 2, when the man and the woman, desiring to be like God, took the fruit and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the uniformity of language and the collective arrogance that uniformity facilitated which was the danger in this text.
Difference is not only good (indeed, it is). It is a way that God saves us from ourselves, from our sinful desire to create a god in our image rather than to live as those created in the image of God.
Barreto asks an important exegetical question. If, in fact, Pentecost reversed Babel by undoing the multiplicity of human languages, why then did the listeners in the Temple hear the gospel, each in their own languages? And, I would add, why is that diversity of ethno-linguistic groups so lovingly detailed in the text if the purpose is to wipe out that diversity? “Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?” Barreto asks.
His answer is worth quoting. “Perhaps because the writer of Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God’s commitments to our differences” (my emphasis added).
I like that phrase, “God’s commitments to our differences.” If God preferred to gather with those “like God,” then God would spend eternity enjoying the diversity of the Triune community. God must like diversity, otherness, difference. Otherwise, there would not have been a Creation. No finite creature can be “like God” in any substantive way. We can and do reflect the image and likeness of God, as human beings. And, miracle of miracles, we each do it in a different way!
Therefore, we humans would most fully reflect the image and likeness of God by gathering with people who are not “like us.” I cannot reflect the image and likeness of God by myself. I can only do so in the company of others who are not me and not like me. Yet, we White Christians continue to gather in our segregated congregations and to act as if it’s all good.
“I think this is one of the most powerful messages of white supremacy,” Robin DiAngelo writes in Nice Racism, “there is no inherent loss in leading a segregated life.” I can live my entire White life with no significant interaction with BIPOC people. And I can live that way under the impression that nothing is missing or deficient. “Most white people will go from cradle to grave with few if any authentic sustained cross-racial relationships with Black people,” DiAngelo continues, “and not see that anything of value is missing” (page 83, my emphasis).
I can only plead guilty as charged and work now to do better because I know better. I’m not doing very well, and neither is my denomination.
“Lots of Christians hope to transcend ethnic division by erasing ethnicity,” Greg Cary writes in his online comments for The Christian Century. “’I don’t see color,’ some will say. But Acts sees in color and values ethnic difference,” Cary continues. “Acts imagines unity that embraces diversity rather than bleaching it out. The miracle of Pentecost is not that one language brings everyone together. It is not that everyone learns English Aramaic,” Cary concludes. “It is that all the people hear the gospel in their own languages.”
The texts for the Day of Pentecost and for the Sundays following will offer the opportunity for sustained reflection on God’s delight in difference and our calling to embody and enact that delight as followers of Jesus. I will seek to lift up those opportunities, and I hope you will partner in that effort.
References and Resources
DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2021.
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