Acts chapter 2 tells a story about how the church was formed. The followers of Jesus are filled with the Spirit and begin to speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”. A crowd of devout Jews “from every nation under heaven” gather at the sound and are amazed to hear the disciples speaking in their own language.
And although the Pentecost miracle includes the fact that the diverse crowd of Jews hears the disciples speaking in their own language, the crowd were bilingual (at least) and able to speak in a common language if desired. This means that the miracle of speech in Acts 2 is what some scholars call an “unnecessary miracle”. The meaning of the miracle is about much more than some sort of evangelistic event, it is profoundly symbolic; a symbol that functions as an affirmation of linguistic and cultural diversity.Because language and culture are profoundly and inseparably connected, the inclusion and affirmation of multiple languages holds unavoidable cultural implications.
Further along in the story of the church we find our way to Acts 10 – often called the Gentile Pentecost. In this passage, Peter is challenged in a vision to no longer call unclean what God has called clean. He then goes to the household of Cornelius (a Gentile) and they receive the Spirit. And what we should notice is that the inclusion of is of particular importance because God does not require them to abandon their Gentile identity; that is, they remain Gentiles. This is more than a claim that one can now be included in the people of God “despite” one’s identity as Gentile. The more profound implication is that Gentile identity is affirmed by God, an affirmation of their ethnic and cultural identity. And what we see throughout the early church was that the hard dividing lines between racial, gendered and even religious others are broken down through the work of the Spirit.
A quite beautiful vision; but then some things happen in the ongoing movement of the church that undo this kind of trajectory.
In the 4th century, the church moves from a marginal counter-cultural movement to alignment with the Roman Empire under Constantine. For the first time, being a Christian brought advantage with it (e.g. special tax concessions if you joined the church). Wealth, status and power changed the church; and over the following centuries, the idea of Empire became equivalent to the kingdom of God, and the church. Even theological orthodoxy was used, not as a dialogue for faith but as a force for control to manage religious, political and economic stability. By 528, Emperor Justinian made it illegal not to be a Christian.
In this context, war is seen as the duty of the empire, and supported by divine authority; a fact that ultimately leads to the justification of the Crusades, the Inquisition, violent Anti-Semitism and a host of other atrocities. Even through the Reformation, the connections between conversion, control and sameness did not disappear. This is an emphasis that flows into the Western project of colonisation, in which conversion and sameness came to mean ‘civilising the heathen’ and marginalising or eliminating indigenous cultures.
Sameness is not the story of the early church, but it became the story of Christian colonisation.
We have not been immune from this in New Zealand. The efforts of missionaries and churches have been focused on conversion, but this has often come with a desire for sameness. Civilisation in the name of whiteness, and a demonisation of Māori culture and identity is threaded throughout the history of the New Zealand church.
Along with the harmful impact on Māori, what this has done is rob the church of gift. The gift that comes from embracing a diversity of culture, language and worldview. The gift that comes from honouring and listening to indigenous voices. So our hope is to be on a journey of overcoming our desire for sameness and to colonise others to our way of seeing… and instead, we are hoping to open up and find that in the opening up, we bump into new ways of seeing and experiencing God and one another.