In our summer series on reaching shalom, peace, using the book The Very Good Gospel, we are looking this week at shalom with nations/race. I am so happy to say that at LCCC, we do have some countries other than the United States represented in our congregation. We could always use more, but we won’t require a person be from another country before joining!
To determine what God’s intention is with the diversity of nations, it isn’t so easy as looking at the traditional Creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis. We have to jump forward a little to the story of the Tower of Babel.
Some of you may only be familiar with this story through the musical rendition of Godspell, while others of you are very familiar it.
For those of you who have heard of the Tower of Babel story before, I’m not sure how you remember it being framed, but I always had a picture in my mind of it being a punishment of sorts. The people were getting too big for their britches and God needed to bring them down a notch.
So, I very much appreciate a spin on this interpretation, as presented in Harper’s book and also supported by many others. What if God destroying the tower was not so much a curse or punishment but a blessing and redirection.
If you’re a teacher, or have ever interacted with a toddler, you may have caught the wording there - a punishment or a redirection. A slightly different interpretation makes the story seem less like God is shaming the people and more like God is moving the people toward God’s intended shalom.
The Methodist pioneer, John Wesley, commented as such: “And if they continue [as] one, much of the earth will be left uninhabited, and these children of men, ... will swallow up the little remnant of God's children, therefore it is decreed they must not be one.” (Wesley’s Notes on the Bible) Wesley noted that earlier in Genesis, after the Flood, the people were commanded by God to replenish the earth, yet here they want to build one huge tower and city so that they are not spread across the land.
They were looking to preserve themselves, but they were doing it with bitumin and brick. I’m not a brick laying expert, but from what I have read, that combination makes for an extremely unstable foundation.
Literally and metaphorically, the people were relying on their own strength to preserve themselves and were laying down a very shaky foundation.
So, God redirected them. God brought in a beautiful variety of languages so that communication was hindered and diverse nations began.
Interestingly, if you fast forward in the Scriptures to the story of Pentecost - where people were gathered from many different nations - the Holy Spirit brought the people back together. It was there that the Holy Spirit made it possible for people of different languages to still speak their native language but everyone understood each other.
One theologian notes: “By one miracle of tongues men were dispersed and gradually fell from true religion. By another, national barriers were broken down—that all men might be brought back to the family of God.” (Commentary on the Whole Bible)
All of this interpretation tells me that God intends for the earth to have diversity upon it, that there is beauty in the different cultures and languages, and that we can be unified, despite that diversity, with the leading of Jesus and God’s Holy Spirit.
In order to help this process along in reaching God’s intended shalom, we need to admit that we assume some things about certain people, because of their outward appearance.
Some of those assumptions are not meant to be hateful. For example, when I look at our dear Ellen, I see her skin tone and I assume that she was either born in or near India or she has family members that were. It is no assumption about her character, about what she likes or dislikes, or about her path in life. It is though an assumption simply based on her skin tone.
When we make assumptions about a person’s intentions or character based solely on the color of their skin or the nation from which they come, that is harmful. We need to make ourselves more aware of the times that we do that, and then consciously make an effort to correct ourselves.
I know I get annoyed with someone assumes I am ditzy because of my hair color; I cannot imagine the frustration of being assumed a criminal if only because my skin were dark.
Simply acknowledging these assumptions based on a person’s skin color is step 1 in not letting those assumptions rule how we ultimately perceive a person.
Also, we need to recognize the ways in which race has been associated with power.
- The quote on our bulletin is from Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime. It is a book that recounts his childhood as a “colored” child, a mixed race child, born into South Africa during the apartheid. He clearly describes how the government used the color of people’s skin and their native tribes as a way to classify people and abuse power. Legally, the “black” race was only allowed to live in certain regions, was not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, and was questioned for even traveling through certain parts of town. That was all endorsed legally by the government. (How often does that still apply today? It’s scary how some of that still applies today, just not as directly.)
A sometimes less obvious misuse of power and race is found in environmental issues. Just this past week, we hosted a prayer breakfast for area clergy to hear about environmental policies affecting the bay and area flooding. Through data, it was easy to see how areas where more minorities lived were more greatly affected by environmental abuse and neglect. In some instances, these are neighborhoods founded decades ago on poor land and the minorities were told to go live. In other cases, these are neighborhoods where minorities have naturally gathered and the environmental care is being neglected there.
Acknowledging how race has been misconstrued and distorted in order to wield power over a group of people sheds light on the challenges that some people, particularly minorities, are born into and face overcoming their entire lives. It humbles those of us with the “right” skin tone. It helps us shift our perspective toward compassion and striving for change.
God does not mean for any one race or nation or culture to have dominion and power over another. God intends for all nations and all races to equally live across this land.
We are so fortunate in the U.S. to live with many freedoms. It is not a perfect country, though, and it is not more worthy than another on Earth. As many will celebrate this week our nation’s birth as an independent country, I pray we remember that freedom comes at a great sacrifice of lives and that our fortunes are not meant to be flaunted in front of others; rather, they should be used in a way to help bring equality and shalom to others.
God created all humankind in God’s divine image. In God’s creation, there is a beautiful diversity of people; all are to be celebrated. Amen.