Not too long ago I taught a seminary class on racial reconciliation and the Church. At the end of the semester, one of my most endearing and engaged students approached me and told me that while he had greatly enjoyed the class and thought that this “racial reconciliation stuff” was interesting, he didn’t believe that God even wants churches to be diverse or engage in interdependent cross-cultural relationships. Obviously, my interest was piqued.
“Tell me more,” I said.
“Well, obviously God doesn’t want us to interact with people who are different than us,” he replied. “I mean, the story of the tower of Babel[i] is proof that God never intended for churches to be diverse.”
I took a deep breath and gently reminded him that the tower of Babel story in which God created cultural/linguistic divisions takes place in Genesis 11 and encouraged him to also consider the vast story that takes places after Genesis 11. I also suggested that he pay special attention to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 since many scholars believe that, among other things, it “reversed the curse” of the tower of Babel and unified all cultures through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me that the tower of Babel story was totally on this guy’s radar but that the reconciling, multicultural, unifying nature of Pentecost was clearly not. The segregated reality of the tower of Babel makes sense to him – it’s consistent with his understanding of and experience with the present-day Church in North America. As a child he attended a homogenous church that was situated in a diverse community. As an undergrad he attended a homogenous Christian college that was situated in a diverse community. As a seminary student he attends a homogenous seminary that is situated in a diverse community. Based on his experience and as far as he’s concerned, we’re still under the curse of of Babel. The people of God doggedly stick to their cultural enclaves even when their surrounding communities are diverse! In fact, we often use the so-called “language barrier” as an excuse to not interact cross-culturally. It’s as if Pentecost never happened.
So even though I spent 3+ months talking about the theological foundations for racial reconciliation and the societal need for Church-led reconciliation efforts, he was probably blinded by the glaring reality of his Babel-cursed segregated world and could not envision or see a need for a post-Pentecost world in which the Spirit is bringing all people together. I’m guessing that other Christians who, like my student, have yet to experience the richness of diversity in church also wonder why racial reconciliation is necessary.
This is unfortunate because in order to fully embrace the kingdom of God we must turn our backs on Babel and turn toward the Spirit of Pentecost. Only then will we truly live out our calling as the people of God. Paul, Peter, Luke, John, James and the writer of Hebrews repeatedly and emphatically make the same point: the unified church is the vehicle through which the kingdom of God is powerfully communicated to the world.[ii] A church that is still operating under the curse of Babel is a disempowered church.
In many ways we’re still searching for the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. We must keep searching for it, calling for it and fighting to embody it in our churches, neighborhoods and lives. Only then will our Genesis 11 world be transformed into an Acts 2 world.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tonguesas the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2)