By REV. LUNA L. DINGAYAN
“Now let’s build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.” – Genesis 11:4
“…all of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!” – Acts 2: 11
Alienation and Fragmentation
Let me start our reflections by underscoring the fact that we live today in a world of alienation and fragmentation. The recent midterm elections in our country had shown us clearly how disunited we are as a people. The whole electoral process tainted with all sorts of fraud, leaving a bloody trail of people killed in election-related violence, had exacerbated even more our existing alienation and fragmentation as a nation.
Of course, globalization promises a global village wherein people all over the world will live together in unity and harmony. With all the advancement in science and technology, people all over the world can now easily communicate with one another and can efficiently move from one place to another. With the lifting of government restrictions, people all over the world can now effectively exchange with one another their goods and services, their culture, knowledge and technology.
It does not mean, however, that globalization brings us more unity and harmony. On the contrary, it causes more alienation and fragmentation between and among peoples of the world. It causes more wars and conflicts in many parts of the world as well as the destruction of the cultures and economies of small nations, like ours.
According to the International League of People’s Struggles, the gap between the poorest 20 percent of the world’s population and the richest 20 % increased from 30 times in 1906 to 78% in 1995. The wealth of the world’s 225 richest individuals was equal to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the entire world’s population. The three richest individuals in the world had assets larger than the combined domestic products of the 48 least developed countries. The combined sales of the world’s ten largest corporations in 1991 were greater than the combined gross national product of the world’s 100 smallest countries. All these figures show us that globalization succeeded only in making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
What is worst is the fact that alienation and fragmentation are also seen inside the Body of Christ. The ways of the world also entered the sacred confines of the institutional church. The numerous splits and divisions among churches and the emergence of a great number of new religious movements in our country and elsewhere are clear indications of the growing alienation and fragmentation between and among God’s people.
Now, we may ask, why is there so much alienation and fragmentation in our world today, including the church? Why are we so divided and confused in this way?
Source of Alienation and Fragmentation
I would like to approach the problem of alienation and fragmentation by using an old story recorded in the Scriptures.
Once upon a time humanity was not divided against itself. Everyone spoke the same language and got along with one another reasonably well. But then, one day the people chose to challenge God. They decided to build a tower in a land in the East that would be so magnificent that it would reach the clouds, making the people become like the gods. They thought that this would make a name for them.
The Almighty God reacted to this challenge by confusing their language so that they no longer understood one another, forcing them to leave the tower unfinished.
Now, ever since that time we, human beings, have been alienated and fragmented, and unable to understand each other. We are unable to live and work together as we ought to be. This story is known as the Story of the Tower of Babel found in the Book of Genesis chapter eleven.
Of course, this ancient story does not intend to explain the origin and development of language within the human species. This is not a scientific explanation on the origin of languages. The real intent of the story is to explain the human inability to live together in harmony. The story has a profound truth for us who are seeking to understand the origin of human alienation and fragmentation. And on this account, the story is extremely accurate.
The Story of the Tower of Babel traces all human conflict to our human desire to make ourselves our own god, to make a name for ourselves. We do not want to submit to authority, to anyone or anything else beyond ourselves. We want to do what we want to do when we want to do it. We have our own selfish interests at heart. Indeed, alienation and fragmentation are the unavoidable results of the human refusal to submit to the will of God.
God’s will for humanity is for us to live in community with God, with one another, and with the rest of God’s creation (cf.Gen.1-2). God has intended to have equality and mutuality in the created world.
Empowering of God’s People to be One
Now, in the midst of alienation and fragmentation in our world today, we are called upon to work and pray that we may be empowered to be one. I would like to believe that we are empowered to be one when the Holy Spirit comes upon our community of faith.
The story of the first Pentecost as recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 2) was about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people in a way and with a power that was never seen before. Before his ascension, Christ promised the disciples that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But like many of what Christ told them, the disciples did not fully understand what he meant.
Now, ten days after Christ’s ascension the disciples gathered together for the Festival of Weeks called Pentecost in Greek which celebrated the harvest. At about 9:00 o’clock that morning, there was a sudden whooshing sound like a great wind that filled the house where they were sitting. Next, there appeared to them what Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, would call “like tongues of fire, distributed and resting on them” (Acts 2:3).
Honestly speaking, I have no idea about what this was all about. I have yet to read a single commentary that gives any insight as to what was being described. This is like a person from the province coming to the city for the first time, trying to describe the city to his friends. He knew what he had seen, but his language didn’t have the right words to explain it. The event being described in the Book of Acts is outside of any previous experiences. That’s why there are no words to explain it adequately.
And then, the people began to speak in tongues in a unique way. In the New Testament, speaking in tongues means speaking in unknown “languages” just as it does today. But at Pentecost, these “tongues” are real languages from all over the known world at that time, so that people from every corner of the known world can hear the mighty works of God being proclaimed in their own language.
Thus, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the story of the Tower of Babel was somehow reversed. The alienation and fragmentation was replaced with the empowering of God’s people to be one!
Unity, Power, and Vision
Now, we may ask, in what way would the coming of the Holy Spirit empower us? First and foremost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us, we would experience unity. This does not mean we would suddenly all think alike or do everything the same way. Rather, it means that we would love one another and accept these differences rather than letting them divide us.
If we were totally immersed in the Holy Spirit, we would no longer be divided by issues of language or theology, of economics or politics. If we were united in the Holy Spirit, it would be impossible anymore to speak of “Greek or Jew, rich or poor, male or female, slave or free” in the Christian community as well as in the larger society (cf. Gal. 3:23). There would simply be Christian communities filled with people blind to differences in culture, in language, in theology, in income or social status.
Secondly, with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us, we would experience power. Apostle Peter, infamous for his threefold denial of Christ, boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, no longer afraid of the consequences. The result was the power to convert 3,000 people with just one sermon and the faith to spread the Gospel throughout the world. For it is actually the Holy Spirit, not us, not so much the ability of Apostle Peter to persuade, that really converts and transforms people’s lives.
A third result of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is the fulfillment of a vision. Quoting from Prophet Joel, who prophesied of the day in which God’s Spirit would come upon the people, Apostle Peter said that the day has come when the sons and daughters would prophesy, the young would see visions and the old would dream dreams (Acts 2:17). The fulfillment of a vision is perhaps the most remarkable result of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The word visionary is often used to mean a person who is naively idealistic. Yet the Book of Proverbs says that “without vision, the people would perish” (Prov. 29:18). For where would we be if Moses had no vision of what God could do to set the Israelites free from the bondage of Egypt? Where would we be if Apostle Paul had no vision of spreading the Gospel to the Gentile world? Where would we be if Martin Luther had not prophesied with his 95 theses?
Empowered by the Holy Spirit
Our world today continues to be a world of alienation and fragmentation simply because we still continue to build our own Towers of Babel, and try to make our own selves our gods. Our conflicts and divisions as a people are enough to convict us of not being fully empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, people grow cynical and disillusioned, because of these conflicts and divisions prevailing even in our faith communities.
The Early Church is often held up as an example of what we should be. Yet we may ask: Is the Early Christian Community really the best model for us? I’m just wondering whether or not those who believe in this claim, really read the Book of Acts beyond the Second Chapter.
True, the Day of Pentecost was so great. But within days or weeks after, we already hear stories of confusion, conflict and strife. Ananias and Sapphira, for instance, sold some land and claimed to have given all of it to the Christian community in order to gain prestige in the eyes of their fellow believers (cf. Acts 5). But, in reality they held some of the money back, which was their right, anyway. Their sin however was in lying. They lied against the Holy Spirit.
Then, we also read that a dispute arose between the Christians who spoke Greek and those who spoke Hebrew (Aramaic). The Greek-speaking Christians felt that favoritism was shown to the widows of the Hebrew-speaking Christians in the daily distribution of food (cf. Acts 6). Thus, there came division and strife over ethnic and language differences.
Well, we can go on cataloguing these disputes in the Early Christian Community, for there were a lot of them. This is not however necessary for the point is simply that the Early Christians seems to have also failed to live up to the great possibilities revealed to us at Pentecost.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that nothing substantial happened at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came upon the Christian community with power and in a manner that was never seen before. True, there was division between Gentile and Jewish Christians, like many Christians today. But only the Spirit of God could lead these two kinds of people to worship together in spite of differences.
Yes, there were and there are conflicts and divisions in the church as well as in society, but only the Holy Spirit could open our eyes to see this reality as sinful. Yes, the Christian community often fails to have a vision that transcends the mundane self-centeredness of this world, but only the Holy Spirit could have kept the church from surrendering to the world and from disappearing many years ago.
We should not let our disappointments blind us to the many signs of God’s presence in the Christian community and in the world around us. We are the church, and we are justified by grace and not by works of the law. What happened at Pentecost is a sign of what God has done, is doing and will do in and through us to bring about unity, power, and vision in our hopelessly alienated and fragmented world. It is the Pentecost experience that provides us a sense of direction that would help us overcome every crossroad in our common journey to genuine peace and freedom.
Continuing Vision of God’s Reign
Now, there is still one part of the story that I left out when I was re-telling the story of the Pentecost. While it is true that 3,000 people from every known part of the world joined the Christian community on that day, it is also true that some made a mockery of the faith, claiming that the disciples were drunk on cheap wine.
Sometimes, it is easy to make a mockery and to misunderstand the church’s claim to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Many would dismiss the church as nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. It is easy to dismiss a vision as an illusion.
Some would tell us, for instance, that part of the reason why mainline Protestant churches today are declining in membership is that we have been too active on social issues affecting people’s lives. They would say that for our own institutional survival and growth, we should do away with our vision of God’s Reign and not to challenge the way things are.
However, if we were to be a true and genuine church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we cannot give up our vision of God’s Reign. We cannot give up our struggle to help bring about a society that is just, peaceful, humane and truly free. Thus, it is our hope and prayer that God’s Holy Spirit will continue to descend upon us so that we may be empowered to be more effective instruments of unity and transformation of our church and society in the midst of today’s alienation and fragmentation. # nordis.net