JESUS MAFA. Pentecost, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48388 Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
When I moved up to Boston for a new job in 2012, I found a couple of things to be troubling, especially having lived in the southern United States my whole life. Most obvious was the winter- it was no mistake that I interviewed for that position in September, and not in January. I suspect that if they had done that in January, no one would have accepted it. But over the next few months, Shannon and I realized something more subtle, yet still disconcerting to us. We rarely heard Spanish!
My roots are, of course, here in Miami, and even in North Carolina where I spent my teens and early twenties, there was a sizeable Hispanic community. Shannon grew up in Houston, Texas, and we met in Dallas, where Spanish speakers are a sizable minority.
Yet in the first ring suburb that we landed in in Boston, we didn’t. That wasn’t to say there wasn’t diversity there; Watertown, Massachusetts is the home of the second largest Armenian community in the United States, behind Los Angeles, yet that wasn’t the language of the streets, English was.
Thankfully, we found out in our exploring that this wasn’t the case for all of Boston; the town over from us, Waltham, has been a refuge for immigrants since the 1800s, with successive waves of English, Irish, Welsh, Italian, Mexican and now Guatemalan and Indian immigrants landing there and leaving their imprint on the town. We often preferred the vibes there. It’s good to be around people who are different.
That’s because human diversity, in all its forms, is not a curse. It is a blessing. Unfortunately, in the past and in the present, the Bible has been misinterpreted to support ethnic nationalism, and in the United States, racial segregation and white supremacy. Yet I believe a closer read of the Bible, and especially our stories today, tell a different story. One where every person on the planet, no matter who they are, is a beloved creation of God, and part of the great work of humanity is to not just learn to tolerate one another, but celebrate and love one another.
Our first bible reading, our first story, is one you probably know, if not from Sunday School, then from popular culture. The story is mythic in its quality, a just-so story, attempting to explain the diversity of language and people in the world. There is but one tribe or group, it seems, and they come and build a city in what the Bible calls Shinar, this ancient tribe decides to settle down, build a city and eventually a very large tower.
The land of Shinar was in modern day Iraq, and which the Hebrews knew most intimately, but not fondly as part of Babylonian Empire.
Scholars tell us that This part of the story was probably influenced by the Jewish experience in the city of Babylon, where they were exiled from about 597BC to 537BC. It was the largest city in the world at the time with a population of close to 150,000. If this seems small, Jerusalem wouldn’t achieve that population for 2,000 years, in 1944. It must have been incredibly diverse; as the administrative center of a sprawling multiethnic empire, we can imagine it as a city of dozens, if not hundreds of tribes and nations, with as many languages.
It also boasted one of the tallest buildings in the ancient world, the Etemenanki. A temple dedicated to the Babylonian God Marduk, it stood close to 300 feet tall, something like a 25ish story building- still very tall today. Now imagine if you’re used to two story houses, something this size would have been unfathomably big, so large that it challenged the heavens themselves. Although it was shorter than the pyramids in Egypt, this was a building people walked in and around on. Priests of Marduk, a sky God, did ceremonies at a shrine at the top of the building. We can see the ties here between the story of the tower of Babel and the Israelite experience of Babylon: lots of people, lots of languages, a very tall building, and worship of a foreign God!
We all know the aftermath of the tower; the people are dispersed and form many nations and languages. This is often called a curse, but I refuse to call it such. My reading of what God says, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” does not sound like a curse of humanity, but instead recognition that humanity’s potential is great in a way that we can best describe as awe-ful, in the old sense of the word- that the awe we feel about it should have a little bit of wariness in it.
Power, be it political, technological, or economic, is a tool; there are countless examples of it being used for the common good. But, we also should remember that the pursuit of power was behind the worst moments of the 20th century and indeed, of human history, as dictators attempted to bind together the forces in nations to the will of state and leader, and the terrible results were paid out in the blood of the innocent, and in crimes against humanity.
What if our vast human potential were instead redirected away from the pursuit of power and directed instead to the pursuit of love. What if we understood that our primary calling in life was not to accumulate power and wealth, but to learn to love our neighbors who are of different religions and races, who have different political views and gender expressions and sexual orientations. To learn not just to tolerate them, as the line between tolerance and intolerance is a thin one, easily crossed back and forth, but to celebrate each other.
This means that God’s action at the tower of Babel is not a curse, but a blessing. In creating our diversity in race, gender, sexuality, thought, etc., etc., God transformed the richness and beauty of creation from a mono color canvas into a rich tapestry. Our differences do not make us weaker, they make our experiences richer. Yes, we have to talk and compromise, and sometimes we can’t build a tower to the moon as quickly as we might, but the purpose of humanity is not to build towers, it is to love our neighbors.
Why does this story of Babel matter on the feast of Pentecost? The traditional teaching of the church has been that the story of Pentecost, detailed in our second reading, is the reversal of the story of Babel. Recently, however, we have noticed that it is not the case; the story of Pentecost is not that diversity is bad, and that we should become one people. Indeed, the great miracle of Pentecost, the tongues of fire that settle on the crowd, is not that everyone speaks the same language. No, the great miracle is that the crowd understands each other as in their own languages. This is not a call to a monoculture or even a one language state, but rather once again, recognition of the diversity that exists, and a call for us to learn about our differences and reach across them.
So friends and neighbors, let us go into the world, not to build monuments to our power and pride, but to love our neighbors a little bit better, a little bit more. Let us learn to recognize our differences, reach across the gaps as we find them, and fulfill our calling as a people of God.