The Kingdom of Mutual Understanding

"When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language" Acts 2:6

The second chapter of Acts is a good case example of why it's important to read each individual story, dialogue, or monologue of scripture within the context of the larger narrative. Here we have, on the birthday of the church, many languages coming together in mutual understanding. Everyone... not just some but everyone understands what's being said, everyone hears their own language. Many languages, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are made one.

Now, in light of the larger narrative, this story should remind us of a similar but antithetical story found in Genesis chapter 11. It's the story most commonly referred to as "the tower of Babel" of which the opening passage says, "the whole world had one language and a common speech." It starts off the way Acts 2 finishes. But everything goes wrong and by the end of the story the people are divided by their language. Language--the key symbol of human connection--becomes a point of contention, one which eventually leads to wars and violence. So with that in mind, Acts 2 is powerful turning point of the story. The coming of the Spirit of God is the reversal of Babel (among all sorts of other good things). What was wounded under the power of the curse, a point of division, and a source of violence is now healed under the lordship of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. People are brought together in mutual understanding by the gospel of Jesus.

In this story we are given a picture, a foretaste even, of the Kingdom of God--an image of a reality which we as followers of Christ are to somehow make visible in the present. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of mutual understanding. It's where the wounds of division are healed and the many languages are brought together. And the church is the community of people whose one vocation is to make manifest that very reality.

Thus, I am utterly distressed by the arrogance of some white Christians in America (maybe particularly in Southern California). I've heard more than one conversation in which someone was angrily complaining about Spanish being posted on signs or being an optional language for automated phone calls or people speaking Spanish in business or government as though our God given freedoms were at stake. People talk as though English is the national language of heaven. People talk as though there's an invasion taking place. The fear and hatred in their rhetoric displays nothing of the Kingdom of God and perpetuates the curse of Babel itself, the curse of division and disconnectedness. I cannot help but think they must not have many Hispanic friends... they certainly aren't out to find any either.

The truth is that English was not the first language spoken in what's now called the United States. Indeed many different languages were spoken. But rather than take the time to learn the language, we forced the native Americans to learn ours under threat of death... indeed we actually ended up killing the vast majority of those who first occupied this land. But most people who are fearful the the growing population of Spanish speaking people in the U.S. don't look so far back. They look to the German and Italian immigrants of the more recent past, many of which did in fact end up learning to speak English... but many did not.

We're okay with the idea of mutuality... as long as we don't have to do the work. If everyone were speaking English, we'd be cool with it (not that we wouldn't still hold other prejudices against people who are different). What we must remember is as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have no national language. We only have the language of mutuality, the language of kinship. If speaking that language means learning a new one, if only so that I might share with my neighbor, then followers of Christ who are empowered by the Holy Spirit will learn it without fear. We will put God's Kingdom on display in word and deed out of love and out of the knowledge that, after all, everything is a gift.

If Spanish, just for example, happened to develop as the common language of our neighbors, what would we as followers of Jesus have to fear? Instead of fear we will look to the future with joy, knowing that God is the God of all languages and He still can hear us even if we're speaking Spanish.