“‘Other’ No More”
Feast of Pentecost (Whitsunday); Year C
19 May 2013
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland
Feast of Pentecost (Whitsunday); Year C
19 May 2013
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland
The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, Rector
God, take away our hearts of stone
and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
When Elena and I were last living in China, British Prime Minister David Cameron made an official visit the week of November 11, 2010, Remembrance Day. British custom is to wear small red paper poppies to honor the dead of the First World War, the masses who died in trench warfare and buried in military cemeteries where, “the poppies grow between the crosses, row on row.” When Cameron and his ministers showed up wearing the small poppies, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a protest asking that they remove them: they were offensive and hurt the feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens.
The British were completely befuddled. "Gobsmacked" was the term, I think, I heard from colleagues at the British Embassy. The sale of paper poppies supports veterans’ groups in the U.K.: they are seen as a harmless way of showing one’s love of country, supporting the troops, mourning the dead, and perhaps even saying that war is wrong. Cameron is reported to have replied, “You’ve got to be kidding. This is a joke, right?”
But it was not a joke. 2010, you see, was the 150th anniversary of second Opium War between Britain and China, in which British forces burned to the ground one of the great cultural treasures of China—indeed, of the whole world—the Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Imperial Summer Palace. Many Chinese see the ruins, still maintained in glorious disrepair in Northwest Beijing as a symbol of Chinese humiliation at the hand of morally inferior Europeans. British-poppies-opium, get it? The Chinese did not want media images of British leaders wearing poppies on such an anniversary triggering anti-British and anti-Chinese government protests from enraged patriotic Chinese citizens.
The Chinese leaders were horrified that their guests had to be reminded of the history: did they count so little in British eyes that these visitors had never even heard of the Yuanmingyuan? The British for their part were shocked that the Chinese did not understand the deep resonances of the paper poppies for the British public and the absolute political impossibility of an elected British leader taking one off on the week of Remembrance Day to “kowtow” to Beijing. “Your protest hurts the feelings of 62 million Britons,” one wag reportedly said.
Chinese nationalism thus ran headlong into British nationalism: Cameron loudly said he and his ministers would wear the poppies, regardless. Chinese censors quietly ordered their media to not publish photos showing the poppies.
The story shows how profoundly differently one can see the world, understand symbols and events, and attribute motives depending on your cultural tradition. Different languages only amplify this and make the differences all the sharper and more confusing.
What divides us and separates us? What makes it difficult to understand each other, and misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and motives? Differences in culture and language are clearly major points of division, as is not sharing the same stories about the past. But also mere difference in gender, economic class, education, upbringing, religious or philosophical outlook, and sexual orientation are also big.
The problem, however, is deeper than this. It is rooted in the way our brains are hard-wired. Researchers on the development of the brain in early childhood have recognized that a chief element of our becoming able to make distinctions in interpreting faces, their expressions, and the sounds they make (language) is the brain’s tendency early on to block out less-frequently-encountered faces or language as “other,” and not worthy of the same amount of effort. Only thus is the brain able to refine and tune the complicated business of understanding verbal and non-verbal cues in communication. Six-month-old children of whatever culture or race tend to react more attentively and discriminatingly to faces of the colors, shapes, and setting the children are most exposed to, while bracketing out the less familiar, and tending to give them the cold shoulder. When a person of European-extraction says “all Chinese look alike to me,” we might think that this is just a artifact of bigotry. But there is an actual neurological reason behind such statements: our brains tend to process faces of types with which we are unfamiliar or less familiar generically and not individually. Living in China and in Africa, I have hear friends in both places admit with a bit of embarrassment, “All you whites tend to look the same to me.”
Similarly, the sounds, rhythms, and accents of the languages used regularly in the home pique the child’s interest, as shown in elevated brain-wave activity. The sounds and rhythms of other languages increasingly are treated as so much meaningless noise by 3-month to 12-month old brains. Where there is some brain defect that interferes with this normal process and the young brain is unable to filter and block such sounds out as ‘foreign’, the child’s ability to learn its mother language is usually seriously damaged or destroyed.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, on the Tower of Babel, gives an ancient folk story that tries to account for the differences in languages and cultures. But in its telling, the story gives us an example of attitudes and judgments rooted in division and tribalism rather than in its remedy. The story is told from the point of view of a nomadic or agrarian Hebrew living in the land of Canaan. The narrator looks east toward Mesopotamia, that great cradle of early civilization and one of the first city-states to become a transnational empire, Babel, as Babylon was called in Hebrew. He notes the strange practices of that land: where any sensible person uses stone and mortar as building materials, these people use bricks and pitch! And they gather together into a great city rather than staying connected to the land and their flocks! A Babylonian ziggurat, or temple tower, is caricatured and becomes an effort of these arrogant city dwellers to build a tower to heaven to displace God. There is a whole bunch of xenophobia and tribalism buried in this story, as becomes clear with the pun of its good-old-boy humor punch line. God decides to destroy the tower and disperse the urbanites by confusing their language. The Hebrew word for confuse is close to the Hebrew name for the city. Thus the moral of this “Just So” story is this: “That is why they called the City Babylon, because God caused them to babble on to each other!”
Though we may be neurologically and natively inclined to exclude the strange and rule out the “other,” this story itself shows how fear, and a self-seeking desire for the familiar helps turn our hard-wiring into bigotry and chauvinism, which then can be attributed to God himself.
But God has better things in store for us. The Acts story of the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, is about God’s undoing of the confusion of languages at Babel.
We saw last week that even though his Gospel places the Ascension on the evening of Easter, Luke retells the story with a new setting 40 days later (Luke 1:3). Today’s story, set ten days later, is also probably Luke’s effort to put into a narrative scene an early Christian experience that was perhaps something more complicated.
Paul’s letters tell us that early Christians experienced the Spirit in community by some kind of ecstatic utterance that he calls at one point “tongues of angels,” vocalizations that absent someone else to interpret them were meaningless (1 Cor. 13:1; 14:6-19). As Paul tells it, he prevailed upon Peter and the “pillars” of the Church to accept believing Gentiles as full members without requiring them to become Jews because he pointed out that the Jewish Christians themselves weren’t very good Jews (Galatians 2:14). But Luke-Acts puts it more positively: Peter convinces the leaders to include Gentiles because they all saw that Gentile believers equally shared in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1-15). Luke sums up the process he narrates at length in Acts 1-15 by placing the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost and making it the ultimate undoing of the Confusion of Languages and the scattering of peoples.
For Luke, where Babel divides and separates, Pentecost rejoins and brings together. Where Babel unties, Pentecost unites. Where Babel confuses languages, Pentecost infuses power to speak them. Where Babel excludes, Pentecost includes.
Luke recasts the ecstatic speaking in angelic tongues of the early Christians in Paul’s letters into the miraculous speaking of other people’s languages, breaking down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, the very Gentiles who are to be fully included in the Church.
Living in the Spirit means engaging with the new, the foreign, the strange, the ‘other.’ It means getting to know strange faces and making them familiar enough that they no longer all look alike. It is putting aside the fear that is the foundation of all tribalism, sectarianism, faction, and distaste for the new, the strange. It is the way God leads us to give and affirming and thankful “yes” to life in all its variety and glory, and put away any stingy and defensive “no.”
Tribalism, chauvinism, racism, faction, and division come from fear, self-seeking, and that part of us that resists God. Paul urges us, in contrast, “Live by the Spirit. … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5: 16-23). And he says that if we live in the spirit, God’s power, “working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
This week, I want each of us to reflect on areas where we are saying “no” to the foreign, and “not so fast!” to the other. Let’s ask ourselves seriously whether this is really what God has in mind. Reach out, break down barriers, and make more familiar what was a puzzle to us. Let us pray for the Spirit to remove from us undue fear, and to create in us a new heart, and empower us to say “yes,” and “welcome.”
In the name of Christ, Amen.