The miscommunications American corporations make when they move into foreign cultures are legendary. When Coca-Cola expanded into China, it wanted to use a symbol that phonetically represented the sound of its name. Sales were small, to begin with since the new campaign was built on the slogan: “Bite the wax tadpole.” Frank Perdue wasn’t clear on Spanish idiom and his famous phrase “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken” became the disturbing claim “It takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate.”
It doesn’t require a different language for people not to be able to understand each other. Accent and idiom can be confusing. When we moved to Canada in my childhood, I thought they were calling our lunch boxes “chew bags.” It turned out everyone took off their outdoor boots at school and put on indoor footwear, so you needed to carry a “shoe bag”.
Even Americans, born and bred, have trouble understanding one another –especially across the space of race. African Americans say “black lives matter” and White Americans hear “some lives matter more than others.” “Affirmative action” sounds like “access” to most minorities and “discrimination” to some of the majority.
The differences that are apparent between us – whether they are based on national origin, regional accent, ethnicity, or race, however, that is defined–provoke strong, divergent and problematic reactions. That has been as true in the history of the Christian church as anywhere.
The Bible says that God created the peoples of the earth – all the various peoples of the earth. But our responses to our differences has often led to corrupted relationships and missed opportunities for communication and community.
For centuries, the Christian Church in America and Europe used both the Old and New Testaments to justify segregation, slavery, and subjugation of particular races by identifying passages of scripture which reflected the racial and ethnic oppression of the times in which the passage was written. As the sin and devastating consequences of slavery, segregation and racism were understood, Christians throughout the world have sought to live into the radical acceptance of all people that Jesus lived and to affirm with the Apostle Paul that “we are all one in Christ.” Often that has led to a naïve assumption that we are all the same. The frustration of finding we cannot always understand one another – that we are still different – has sent conversations about race scuttling into hushed whispers, missed communications and a fundamental lack of hospitality.
The first description of differences between communities of people in the Bible occurs in Genesis 11. A common Christian interpretation of the tale is that the tower of Babel presents a problem that Pentecost has to cure. In this interpretation, the creation of many languages, cultures, and races is a punishment to keep humanity in its place. It looks as if God must banish humankind into divisive separateness to control us.
An older interpretation, supported by Jewish scholarship and an understanding of the culture and history of Bronze Age, suggests that the tower of Babel offers diversity as a cure for a disease of imperialism.
The descendants of Noah were hill farmers, shepherds, hunter-gathers, who lived in the land between the Euphrates and the Tigres Rivers. They were on the outposts of the great Sumerian empire, which was attempting to dominate the entire region. The chief city of Sumeria was called Bav el and the Israelites called the Sumerians Babylonians. The Israelites told a story in which the Sumerians intended to use one language, one-word set, one culture, to dominate the world and assume a divine power.
The Israelites told of the Spirit of the one true God blowing on the brittle tower and presumptive power of the Babylonians. Their single language is turned into babbling.
In this interpretation, the diversity of languages, the scattering of people across the earth, the emergence of race and ethnicity is not punishment. It is the creative restoration of God’s plans for God’s people.
This reading of the tower of Babel prepares us to hear again the story of Pentecost. When the Spirit of God blows upon the followers of Jesus, it does not eliminate difference. The Spirit speaks through and to the differences of the people present. Peoples hear and receive the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in their own languages. The Spirit of God is continuing to create a body that is a community of communities.
We see the early church, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, struggle to live into a spirit filled understanding of race. For Jews, including those following Jesus Christ, all non-Jews were another race – Gentiles. That included Romans, Samaritans, African, and Asians. As the dominant or majority race, the first impulse of Jewish Christians was to oblige other races to assimilate fully. Believers of other races were to take on the customs and behaviors of Judaism.
But the Spirit of God was still blowing. Through visions, revelations, debate and sometimes disagreement, Jews were led to listen to the needs of the minority cultures and opened themselves to understand and appreciate the practices and customs of other races. Circumcision as a sign of the covenant became optional. Maintenance of ritually clean and unclean food was removed. When racial bias was noted in the early community – the minority culture points out that Jewish widows and children are receiving more of the community’s benevolence than they are – a whole different system of accountability and monitoring is developed. The teachings of the Apostle Paul and other writers urge all followers of Jesus Christ to listen carefully to the customs and needs of the minority and – if to change their own patterns of speech and practice– even those that are comfortable to them and fully justifiable – if they are an impediment to others.
When Paul declares “We are all one in Jesus Christ,” he says there is “neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female.” It was not a pretense that the differences did not exist. Some believers were still in bondage. Women and men were biologically different, with gender specific functions. The unity Paul proclaims in Christ Jesus is not the obliteration difference or ignorance of difference. It is not assimilation into a dominant culture. It is not the longing for us all to be the same as if difference of language, accent, culture and race should not exist. Life in Christian community ends racism. It is not the end of race.
A professional English as a Second Language teacher told me she tells her student not to try to sound like a native speaker. Keep your accent she counsels them. But speak slowly and enunciate and learn the words that matter. For the native English speaker, she urges: Listen carefully, don’t expect English to sound the same. Make an effort. Take what you can understand and build on it. Your role is not correcting but creating connections.
It’s a good model for a Christian and a Christian community. We do not always speak the same language, with the same understanding. We have – sometimes different cultures and practices. We are not to stop talking, but to keep talking. Slowly and carefully. Not to eliminate our differences but to understand each other. We are not to correct one another’s race. We are creating connections.
We will get it wrong plenty of times. I know I have – in my family, in my communities, in the church’s I have served. Yet, the Spirit of God continues to blow upon us and through us and among us. It is still creating us to be a community of communities – the body of Jesus Christ.