It’s Pentecost this week– it’s a significant time in the Church’s calendar – but it doesn’t tend to be one that we particularly associate with justice. I think, though, that there are some really significant justice implications of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.

One route for understanding the justice implications of Pentecost is to start with the story of Babel.

Have a read of Genesis 11.1-9.

In Sunday School, I was taught that God punished the people of Babel because of their arrogant desire to ‘make a name’ for themselves (11.4).[1] That certainly seems to be a factor at play. That same verse (11.4), however, also identifies their fear of being ‘scattered over the face of the earth.’ That seems to be important too, because this fear of being scattered was a direct violation of God’s command to fill the earth (Genesis 1.28, 9.1). [2] It seems that the people of Babel got two things wrong: their arrogance, and their inward-looking cliqueyness.[3]

God responded to their arrogance and cliqueyness by confusing their language and ‘scattering’ (11.8) the people. There may be an element of punishment here, but in the ‘scattering’ there seems to be a positive action – God pushing the people of Babel towards a better way. God wanted them to spread out. They gathered into a little clique where everyone was the same. But God intervened to spread them out anyway.

What does any of this have to do with justice? Bear with me. If part of the sin of Babel was their cliqueyness in defiance of the command to fill the earth, then it follows that we ought to understand the story not so much as the tragic end of the uniform human clique, but ‘rather the release of a divinely intended cultural diversity.’ [4] The fact we speak different languages is not an unfortunate consequence of human sin and divine punishment – it was God’s intention all along, and he actively intervened to encourage humanity in that direction. Cultural diversity is a good thing. A God thing.

This means that what we see at Pentecost is not a reversion to the Babel project of cultural uniformity, it’s the continuation of God’s will to cultural diversity. In Acts 2, the disciples are gathered in one place (2.1) just like Babel, and God intervenes to scatter them – to send them out to the nations.

They didn’t all start speaking the same language, but rather they spoke many languages and were understood by people ‘from every nation under heaven’ (2.5).

As he addressed the astonished Jerusalem crowd that morning, Peter quoted from the prophet Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people…

All people. Sons and daughters, old and young – this new humanity is emphatically not a clique. It is not the reserve of powerful people, or a dominant culture. It is for all people. It is a community of understanding in which cliques are broken open and difference is embraced.

Miroslav Volf, in his masterful book, Exclusion and Embrace, unpacks how this will to embrace rather than exclude people who are different from us underpins God’s justice.[5] We who are a new humanity in Christ, who receive the Holy Spirit, are moved to embrace others – to understand not dominate, to celebrate not squash cultural diversity. Embrace flows into justice.

We see this in Acts 2 – those who are filled with the Spirit, who understand and embrace people of different cultures, then share their possessions (2.45). ‘There was no needy person among them.’ This new humanity, filled with the Holy Spirit, temporarily ended poverty. The flow is simple. The anointing of the Spirit leads to the embrace of people who are different from us, and embrace leads to justice.

What difference does all this make?

Think about your Just Love groups – how diverse is the community you are cultivating? Is it a community of rich diversity where difference is actively embraced? Are you engaging with people from different backgrounds and church traditions, with diverse personalities? Or, if you are honest, are most people in your group pretty much like you? How welcome would someone different from you feel at a Just Love event? Is your group just a bit cliquey?

What about your church? Does is closer resemble the inward-looking sameness of Babel or the outward-looking, difference-embracing, Spirit-filled diversity of Pentecost?

My guess is that neither your groups nor your churches are perfect. So, as we celebrate Pentecost this weekend, let’s pray that God would awaken in us a greater will to embrace people who are different from us. Let’s celebrate the diversity of the new humanity in Christ. And let’s allow that embrace to lead us to justice.

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[1] Gerhard Von Rad, ‘The Story of the Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Language,’ in John H. Marks (ed.; trans.;) Genesis: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1972), 148, 151

[2] Richard S. Briggs, ‘The Book of Genesis,’ in Richard S. Briggs and Joel N. Lohr (eds.), A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012),40; Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim & David L. Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, second edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 58

[3] Birch et al., Theological introduction, 58

[4] Briggs, Genesis, 41, 44, 48-9; Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 226-7

[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 193-232