When I bought a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference, I asked the friend who had recommended it if he thought the cover illustration of the Tower of Babel was appropriate. His response was that it was, so long as we understood the story in Genesis the way Prof. Christopher Duraisingh interpreted it. Christopher is on the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School and I was on sabbatical there when I bought Sacks's book, so it did not take long for me to learn about Christopher's understanding of the Tower of Babel story.
As that story is often linked with the story of Pentecost in Acts, it has been in my thoughts as I have prepared to celebrate Pentecost. Far from being a story about division and disunity, the Tower of Babel story is, I think, a story about God's love for unity with diversity. In this fascinating story, God responds to the human desire for uniformity by affirming diversity. The desire for uniformity, while a good thing in many circumstances, can lead to a totalitarian suppression of all differences. Even in its more benign forms, this desire can lead us to overlook or dismiss the wonderful diversity that exists in creation. For me, as a white male, to assume that we are all alike would be a failure to honor the distinctive cultures, experiences, and perspectives of those who are not white males.
The story of Pentecost is not, I think, a story of the reversal of what happened in the Tower of Babel Story. Yes, there is unity in the story, but not uniformity. Those who hear the disciples "speaking about God’s deeds of power" do not hear some sort of universal language, but just the opposite. They hear them speaking in their native languages, in the languages of their childhood, their mother tongues. There was an almost universal language available, Greek, but they each heard the Good News in their own languages. Unity, yes, but not without diversity.
Pentecost is not only about the Good News of what God has done in Jesus the Christ, it is also about the Church's participation in the missio Dei, in God's ongoing work of reconciliation and renewal in the world. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has asserted that our work in mission needs to be marked by faith, hope, and love. Far too often in the past these three virtues have been in short supply as we engage in mission. We too often have acted as if we had all the answers and that we didn't need to walk by faith because we had absolute certainty about our own understanding of the Truth. We too often have acted as if we had already arrived, had reached the goal, and no longer needed to travel in hope. And we have far too often been so dismissive of the cultures and experiences of those we meet in mission that it would be nearly impossible to say that we loved them.
I recently read a story about different approaches to language training for missionaries and about how those approaches effect their mission work. When missionaries attend language school before they are sent to the communities in which they will serve, there is a tendency for them to long for the camaraderie of those with whom they attended the language school and to welcome the chance to meet with them again. However, when the missionaries attend language school after some months in the communities in which they are serving, the pull of those reunions is much less, and when they attend meetings with other missionaries, they are anxious for the meetings to be over so they can get back to their work.
When we engage in mission, whether in our own communities or in other countries, honoring and even celebrating diversity is a Gospel imperative. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we don't have all the answers and might have something to learn from people of other cultures, other faiths. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we haven't arrived and don't even have a perfect road map for the journey. It is often fear that keeps us from becoming vulnerable by loving others. But perfect love casts out fear and we are loved perfectly by God, so let's get on with the mission of reconciliation and renewal in faith and hope and love.