By David Hacker
The hearers on that First Pentecost day in Jerusalem heard the same message in their own tongues. All the diversity of people gathered there were united in hearing one message about salvation. But this did not mean they gave up all their unique, diverse language and culture in order to be able to hear this message. The same message of God’s love for the world was translated, incarnated, made alive in all their diverse ways of understanding. You don’t have to first learn Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin in order to be able to understand the message. You don’t have to be able to speak the King’s English to hear the Good News. You don’t have to be assimilated into any dominate culture first before you can know that you are created in the image of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and a member of the Body of Christ. This is the work of the Spirit to manifest this unity in diversity.
Paul tells us that in the Body of Christ, though we have many differing gifts, they all come from the same Spirit. This is not always readily apparent or obvious. Sometimes we use our differences of gifts and talents and skills to divide us. Often our perspectives, our ways of looking at the world, the values and gifts we emphasize over others things become ways to compare and contrast us with others. We form associations of like minds based on professions and education levels. But we also form nation states that can close our borders to diversity. We live in fear of the stranger, those different from us. And we compete; our way is better than yours.
Paul of course had this trouble in the early church as people formed alliances with various early leaders. “I am of Apollo, I am of Cephas,” the people said. But Paul was quick to point that though people had different roles to play, some plant the seed, some water and tend, some get to harvest, yet it is ultimately the One God who gives the growth.
The truth of the Gospel is that we are one in all of our diversity. Diversity – far from being threatening or an excuse to put up walls and barriers and make endless distinctions – Diversity is something to be celebrated, embraced, and reveled in. We live in an amazingly diverse creation that we approach with wonder.
New estimates suggest that there are about 8.7 million eukaryotic species on the planet. That is species, both plant and animal, that have a nucleus and chromosomes etc. We have currently only catalogued about 1.2 million of these. That means that 86% of land species and 91% of marine species remain undiscovered. (1)
This number actually doesn’t includes prokaryote species, singled celled organisms without a nucleus, such as bacteria. “In just a teaspoon of soil there could be 10,000 to 50,000 species. “Bacteria and fungi,” but also “the soil is filled with protozoa, nematodes, mites, and microarthropods. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth.” (2)
This does not even take into account the diversities of soils and rocks and minerals and all the other inorganic matter that make up the earth and the sky; all the varied ways the wind blows, and macro and micro climates, each with their own unique characteristics. And that is just our planet in our solar system, in our galaxy, one minor point created by the star dust that blows across the vast universe forming a seemingly endless number of unique and distinct galaxies.
And in all of this, in all of this, we are told it is the same Spirit that moves and unites it all, and unites it not by forcing uniformity, but exactly the opposite. We are the result of endless permutations of complexity and adaptation. This Spirit, left to its own devices, just creates more and more and more diversity.
But there is another movement at work in the world. Extinction. And although extinction is a natural phenomenon, scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, with literally dozens of species going extinct every day. (3)
As far as people go we too are an incredibly diverse bunch but that diversity is at threat as well. Take just language. Many belong to common family trees, yet the branches of these trees have developed into a dizzying array of diversity. According to an authoritative study, the Ethnologue, there are 7,099 known distinct languages spoken in the world. (4)
Interestingly enough, much of the pioneering work in documenting languages was done by missionaries interested in translating the Bible. As of 2009 the bible had been translated into 2,508 different languages. Far from more than 7,000 spoken. But there are less languages spoken now that there were last month.
Around the world especially indigenous languages are disappearing with the advance of more dominant cultures. “Around a quarter of the world’s languages have fewer than a thousand remaining speakers, and linguists generally agree that within the next century at least 3,000 [of the 7000 languages] will be extinct.” (5)
I don’t think this is the movement of the Spirit. This Spirit that poured out upon the early disciples on the day of Pentecost seemed to be about moving in exactly the opposite direction.
I am struck by the example of the Wampanoag language. This was the language spoken by the Algonquian people, one of three dozen languages in the Algonquian language family. John Eliot produced the first Bible ever published on this continent in Wampanoag in 1663.
Through the processes of religious conversion, laws against the use of the language, mainstream education, and commerce, the Wampanoag language ceased to be spoken around the mid 19th century. There were no fluent speakers of the language for six generations; over 150 years. A remnant of the Algonquian people are still here today, but they no longer speak their language.
The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project began in 1993 under the direction of Jessie Little Doe Baird who earned a Masters Degree in Algonquian Linguistics from MIT in 2000. (6) One of the most significant tools that was used by Baird and her team to reconstruct the language was John Eliot’s Alqonquian Bible.
An interesting thing about the Eliot Bible is the way that regular folks, the Algonquian people of the day back in the 1600s, would write in the margins of the book. These writings still exist today in antique copies of the bible. They would write about their daily lives, even a shopping list, as well as comment on the verses. These margins are a window in the life of the people then. By listening to the text in their language as well as the voices in the margins, whom the dominant culture is squeezing out and silencing, Baird found a way to bring them back to life.
One of the interesting things about the Wampanoag language is that it has animate and inanimate ending, likes Spanish masculine and feminine endings. Now linguists aren’t really sure there is any rhyme or reason to why one word has one ending and another a different one, but rocks and stars are, for example, animate in the Wampanoag.
Just saying . . . each language is a wholly unique way of seeing the world, part of this incredible diversity of creation. As a language is lost we lose part of the way humanity sees the world. We lose part of the revelation of the Spirit of God shining through in all its myriad diversity. Without that language we lose some sense of the whole that is greater than the sum of all the parts. We lose a particular way of accessing the Spirit that lives and is revealed in all of that diversity.
And for us as Christians, it is instructive that this Bible was used in this case to reclaim rather than destroy a culture. Now, thanks to Jessie Baird and the Eliot Bible and all those who dedicated themselves to this work, Wompanaog is the first American Indian language to be reclaimed when there were no living speakers.
“There is a young child now being raised with Wampanoag as a first language. She is the first Native speaker of the language since the mid 19th century.” (7)
Now this seems to me to be the work of the Spirit! New life coming from death. That is the central message of the Gospel.
Would that we could use our Bible, and the message of hope we have to bring, to celebrate and honor diversity, to listen well to the voices on the margins who are being routinely silenced, sometimes forever. Would that we would know that at the heart of the message we have to share with the world, is the truth that we are one in all the diversity of our gifts. Let us cherish both that unity and that diversity.
We recently celebrated Pentecost, this coming of the Holy Spirit. Let us discover that Spirit still at work in the world, and let us be filled with that Spirit! Let us also proclaim the Good News of our unity in diversity, even if people think we are foolish, naïve, crazy, or drunk, like they accused the first disciples of being. In the face of so much that would divide us, what people call reality, the way things are, let us continue to dedicate ourselves to another vision, another way, that leads to the fullness of life.