Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 1: Pentecost or Babel?

I said two weeks ago that you wouldn't be hearing from me about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church until it was over, and I stuck to that promise.

Now the Conference is over, with unfortunately predictable results. Some people are saying that unity is worth it all; others are agitating for splitting up. Which is pretty much what I remember happening 4 years ago.

And I'm still not going to say much about it. I wasn't there, and there are other places you can go if you want analysis of General Conference itself. Better places. More informed places. Let me suggest Jeremy Smith's blog, which includes guest voices; or this helpful article from Dr. Darryl Stephens; or this one from Rev. Mary Sellon Huycke.

What I have been thinking quite a bit about, and what I would like to spend some time writing about, is the idea of unity and being united. What does it mean to work for, pray for, seek unity in the Church? What would it mean to be "united"? Or to be "divided"?

I've been thinking about that a lot over the past week, and I started sketching out a blog, and before I knew it had gotten way too long. So I'm actually going to write a few posts on this topic, and post them here.

First, I'm going to talk a little bit about two stories that, in many churches, are read together 50 days after Easter.

Then, I'm going to talk a little bit about a very old song.

Then, I'm going to talk about a prayer that Jesus prayed, at least according to one storyteller.

And finally, I might get around to saying a thing or two about the United Methodist Church.

So with all of that said, here's part 1:

Pentecost or Babel?

There's a Sunday in the church calendar called 'Pentecost.' The word just means 'fifty,' and refers to the 50th day after the celebration of Easter. Originally, the term referred to the Jewish festival of Shavuoth, which occurs fifty days after the celebration of Passover. In churches that follow the traditional cycle of readings, there are two stories that are usually read on this day. The first tells of what happened to the disciples fifty days after the Jesus' resurrection, as recorded in Acts 2. It's a story about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is often regarded as the birth narrative of the church. The second is commonly referred to as the Tower of Babel. It's found in Genesis 11, It's an ancient, mythical story about a society in which everyone speaks a single language, and which decides to build a massive city (or tower), which God then knocks down, scattering the people and making it so that people speak different languages.

These two stories, in juxtaposition with each other, say something about different understandings of unity. In the older story, the society that will become known as 'Babel' seems remarkably unified. They have a single language, and are able to mobilize a vast amount of resources to construct a massive metropolis. So why would God want to break this thing up? Why would God confuse and confound this unity? At first glance, God in the story just seems like a jealous guy, taking vindictive action against humans who pose a threat to the Divine.

There are a few clues in the story. The word 'brick' is only used for one other thing in the Hebrew Bible -- to talk about the bricks that the Hebrew slaves were forced to make in Egypt. The city of Babel is coded to sound like Egypt, and then again to sound like Babylon, where the Jewish people were dragged into exile and where many of the Hebrew scriptures were first assembled into texts. And so we are given a hint that the monolithic monoculture being described in this ancient tale is an oppressive one. Perhaps the reason people have one language is that their different languages were stamped out, that they were forced to adopt a single, imperial tongue.

And then we have the story of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples and everyone is able to understand their preaching, even though the people gathered are from different places and have different languages. At first glance, it would seem that this was a restoration to a time before the scattering of Babel. But a closer look reveals that the people do not all speak in a single language; rather, they are able to understand each other each in their own language. In other words, the differences between the people are maintained, but in the Spirit they are able to understand each other.

In the story of Babel, there is a forced unity, a monolith, which God shatters and scatters.

In the story of Pentecost, difference is maintained, but there is an invitation into a deeper form of unity, not forced but rather made possible by the movement of the Spirit.

And it strikes me that the former, forced unity is an institutional form of unity, based in human constructions, not allowing for difference. While the second is a charismatic form of unity, made possible (but not forced) by the wild and unpredictable action of the Spirit.

Now, I don't want to force a too-quick, cookie-cutter "application" out of the juxtaposition of these stories. I think institutions can do some wonderful things, and not every movement out there claiming to be led by the Spirit necessarily is.

But I do think, at least when it comes to conversations about church unity, we need to be careful to talk about the unity of the Spirit rather than the unity of Babel.

Big institutions can do a lot of things. But if we rely on them for our understanding of unity, that unity will tend toward the monolithic and the mono-cultural. It will be a single-tongued unity, rather than an empowerment to hear and understand each other while maintaining the beauty of difference.

And that institutional form of unity is built, I fear, with all the wrong kind of bricks.

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