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A Thousand Voices
Speaking Perfectly Loud


Old Testament Reading: Genesis 11:1-9

New Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-8

Between the two passages you have just heard, the story of the Tower of Babel and that of the Day of Pentecost, the New Testament author seems to intend us to draw a parallel, as if what was done in the one has at length been undone in the other.

God once regarded the human race as a group of dangerous rivals. His watchword then was "Divide and conquer." But now he thinks better of us. He announces a general amnesty simultaneously in all languages, and his slogan has become "E Pluribus Unum"—out of many, one.

This scene in the beginning of Acts is a sign of things to come, a token of the eventual missionary expansion into the whole Mediterranean world. The author of Acts, himself plainly a Gentile with a spotty knowledge of Jewish Law and custom, can look back on a great deal of this mission as a ­fait accompli­, writing as I believe he does, from about the year 125 AD. And thus he writes in hindsight, explaining how he imagines things to have eventuated as they have in his day.

As a Gentile Christian, he cannot help but see the Christian gospel as having a built-in universalizing trajectory, an inborn tendency toward internationalization. Otherwise, of course, it would never have reached him. To justify the Gentile Mission was for him to justify his own religious existence.

But in Luke's grand drama of the expansion of the church, there is one sour note. Jews, by and large, did not get on the bandwagon, and this Luke could not forgive them for, any more than Christians have ever been able to forgive them for it.

In fact, at the time of the expansion of early Christianity, it was in hot competition with Judaism as a missionary religion. Judaism made great strides among pagans, many of whom were attracted to its dignified monotheism as well as its austere code of ethics. It was probably among such Gentiles leaning toward Judaism that Christian evangelists reaped their greatest harvest. Of course there were other faiths busy about the task of universalizing themselves, welcoming into their folds members from many nations besides the one in which the religion as born. There were the faiths of Isis and Serapis, of Mithras, and Attis and Cybele.

And some thousands of miles away there was Buddhism.  It would soon be sending missionaries into Egypt, if it hadn't already. Clement of Alexandria mentions them about 180 AD. Luke may even have heard and borrowed some Buddhist stories. The story of the aged Simeon rejoicing at the birth of Jesus sounds awfully like the Buddhist story of Asita, the elder sage who welcomed the newborn Buddha. John's gospel, too, has a story, that of the Samaritan woman, with a striking Buddhist parallel.

In fact, the Pentecost story itself is closely paralleled by a tale in which the Buddha preaches his Dharma simultaneously in all the languages under heaven for the benefit of all peoples.

There are Jewish parallels, too. In the 3rd century, Rabbi Johannon, perhaps repeating a traditional story, recounts how on the original Pentecost, when the Torah was delivered by the hand of Moses, God's "voice issued forth and divided into seventy voices, into seventy tongues, so that all peoples might hear it; and each people heard the voice in its own tongue."

A great Roman Catholic commentator on Acts, Jacques Dupont, says that the Pentecost scene is trying to tell the reader that on that day, as of the birth of the Christian preaching, the word of God was no longer confined, as it had been at Sinai, to the Hebrew language, to the Hebrew text of the Torah, that the Spirit that speaks in many tongues has replaced the old Law that spoke in one. The way Dupont sees it, Luke has internationalism replace narrow religious nationalism. "From now on [he writes] it will be unnecessary to become a Jew in order to enjoy the blessings of the Covenant." But, I would like to ask the learned exegete and committed Roman Catholic, does it remain necessary to become a Christian in order to enjoy those Covenant blessings?

I think he is right about what Luke meant to tell us. Later on he makes a big deal of the fact that the Roman centurion Cornelius did not have to be circumcised into Judaism before he could be baptized into Christianity. Luke sneers at the narrowness of Peter's opponents who demand Cornelius adopt Judaism before he can convert to Christian belief.

But can we imagine that Luke would act any different from those peevish legalists if someone suggested to him that to demand a ­Christian­ confession of faith is just as narrow? Just as confining? Just as Spirit-constricting? In fact we know quite well what he would say, because he says it! "There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Here is one of those places where the questions the Bible raises are more important than the answers it supplies to them. Has it ever occurred to you that the much-vaunted authority of the Bible may lie as much or more in its questions than in its answers?

What we see in the competition of evangelistic religions, whether in the Roman Empire or today, is a contest among would-be universalisms. Only how is it that they are doing what they are doing if they are what they say they are?

I submit to you that competing universalisms are in fact mere particularisms. The voice that speaks in all languages at Pentecost seems to be uniting but is in fact dividing its audience insofar as its gospel merely supplies something new to divide over! And that's what it does!

Everywhere Paul goes in Acts, from city to city in Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, he succeeds only in dividing his audience. He is quite proud of himself for splitting synagogues down the middle when some accept his sectarian propaganda and others do not (though he'd rather have hauled in the whole net of them, of course!). The result is rioting in city after city, lynch mobs forming, public beatings.

This can perhaps be made to sound good and pious, the beatific sufferings of the martyrs and all that, but how different is Paul's activity from what he himself blames on false prophets in chapter 20? "I know that... fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (20:29-30).

This is just what the Jewish leaders would have said about Paul himself!

That's the irony of the thing! That's the tragedy of the thing! Religious zealots always see their own crusade as the work of God, that of the other guy as the counterfeit propaganda of Satan. Does it surprise you that pogroms against Jews, military Crusades against Muslims blossomed from this sort of thing? Was it a ­distortion­ of Christianity or a logical ­outgrowth­ of it?

Well, it was both. Insofar as Christians embraced the program (I nearly said "pogrom"!) of false universalism, self-righteous particularism, these horrors sooner or later had to be the result.

But I believe that there were other elements of Christianity and its gospel that should have made it impossible to go in this direction at all. All the talk of loving your neighbor as yourself should have militated against it .

Look at it this way. Wouldn't a good biblical definition of piety be loving your Lord and God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? And wouldn't a good biblical ethic be loving your neighbor as yourself?

From these two simple postulates you ought to be able to conclude that you simply cannot love your neighbor as you love yourself as long as you hate as an idol the concept of God which he loves with all his heart, soul, mind and strength

If you hate with perfect hatred what he strives to love with perfect love, you can not but hate him, too!

The First Epistle of John shares a bit of common sense: "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, can hardly love God whom he has not seen!"

Let me turn this around a bit. I suspect that he who does not love or at least tolerate his brother's God (whom he has seen no more nor less than he has seen his ­own­ God!) cannot love his brother who worships that God!

O that we might speak the universal tongue of Pentecost in truth! That we might cease to speak with a forked tongue instead! How can we see our way to fulfilling the implicit promise of a universal Pentecost? Past the Christian imperialism that is one more force of divisiveness?

Christianity's shining moments, the high spots, for instance, in the New Testament, are when we read things like "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male or female."

Is it possible, do you think, that we can come to the point of saying, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Christian, neither believer nor unbeliever, neither theist nor atheist"?  It will be true whether or not we say it, because every Buddhist or Jew or Shi'ite or Communist we reject and damn is a Christ we crucify.


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