I recently read Pastrix, written by the tattooed, recovering alcoholic, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. When the Lutheran Church began to officially ordain openly gay pastors, she preached at the ordination ceremony of some of her openly gay friends. In crafting her sermon, her first impulse was to shame everyone who had been opposed to the full-inclusion of LGBTQIA folks in church leadership. However, she states that after “one of [her] more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions,” her husband said to her “the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”
What lines do we actively draw to separate ourselves from others? Developmentally, constructing categories is how we begin to make sense of the world. Child development researchers have found that around eighteen months, children begin to categorize objects in new ways. This becomes problematic when 86% of children as young as three, when asked to choose whom they’d like to have as friends, chose pictures of children the same race as their own. From a young age, we create divisions because it’s easier for us to make sense of the world that way. However, just because constructing categories is a facet of our development doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of God’s kingdom. Even though we systematically separate people based on race, class, gender, socio-economic status, and whom you’re attracted to, God disrupts our human-made categories. The Spirit transcends these barriers, just as the Spirit transcended the cultural barriers among those gathered together during Pentecost. According to one commentary:
“In this story, God shows no regard for our structures, hierarchies, or status quo. Even the basic, predictable structures of the cosmos are not exempt from whatever God has in store for creation (vv. 19-21)…God’s revelation reaches even deeper than the isolations brought about by human cultures, nationalities, and languages (vv. 5-16). God speaks through our words and actions and does not pause in the face of what we see as insurmountable barriers that actually exist only by our own creation.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.” The Greek word for Spirit in this passage is the same as the word for “wind.” Wind doesn’t discriminate; the same wind blows through Tucson, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico. Wind transcends the borders we construct, just as the Spirit transcended cultural differences during Pentecost.
The Spirit is radically egalitarian, coming alongside everyone gathered together during Pentecost–an exceptionally diverse group. “They were all together in one place, divided by nationality and race,” and “suddenly they were all able to understand numerous other languages.” This haphazard group of believers, unsure about the future, afraid, confused, and paralyzed, experienced something extraordinary. They could understand each other. They were united in their diversity with the language of the Spirit. Though the barriers that separate us from our neighbors may seem insurmountable, the Spirit dwells within every person, and thus unites us.
Diversity is disruptive, as is being exposed to new ways of seeing God and the world. Even today in worship, we’re using diverse images and languages to think about how the Spirit moves. The Spirit is like fire, the Spirit is like wind, the Spirit is like a dove, the Spirit is like bubbles. The Spirit knows all languages and speaks all languages. We need these diverse images so we don’t box ourselves into homogenous ways of thinking about God. We need to see and be able to imagine the huge variety of ways the Spirit moves, even among people and communities we’ve separated ourselves from. Perhaps by using diverse images of the Spirit, we can begin to see how the Spirit moves among people incredibly different from ourselves.
How are these communities divided in the first place? We’re separated from some by virtue of our birth, and then there are communities that we actively separate ourselves from. First, there are communities that we passively inherit that we’re born with and into (read, for me, privilege). For example, without trying very hard I often find myself surrounded by well-educated, financially stable white people. I have to actively work to be in community with people different from myself. We passively inherit the lines that systemically separate us from our neighbors in different social categories. Unification requires intentionality in erasing the inherited divisions that separate us. It requires allowing the Spirit to disrupt our comfort. So, there are communities that I’m not a part of by virtue of my race, class, gender, and socioeconomic status. However, there are also communities that I’ve actively separated myself from. I’d argue that the communities that we actively denounce are where it is most difficult for us to see the Spirit moving. In my case, that’s my hometown in South Carolina.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of the riots in Baltimore, I paid close attention to my facebook newsfeed. It was mostly filled with articles from alternative media posted by friends in college and in DC. They lamented the racial and social inequities that led to an outpouring of grief. Scattered among these posts were voices from my very conservative hometown. These posts condemned the rioters and the “violence” they inflicted on material objects (as if violence on material objects actually exists, or is worse than violence inflicted on people who are black. But that’s a different sermon). On my newsfeed, I saw a few attempts at virtual dialogue, but mostly the two camps were speaking past each other. I even attempted to engage with someone, but realized quickly that we might as well have been speaking completely different languages. He was speaking the language of my hometown; I heard it growing up and it’s the language I hear whenever I go back home. I’ve actively tried to forget this language. Here in DC, I’m pretty much exclusively surrounded by people who agree with me. I don’t have to try to convince anyone here that racism is a systemic evil. I don’t have to prove why being anything other than 100% heterosexual isn’t a sin. We’re on the same page. Yet I also wonder if I’ve lost the language necessary to be a reconciling force. We see this in DC all the time. Lines are drawn, stones are cast. There are two very different languages spoken, often without any attempt to understand the other.
When I lived in South Carolina, I spoke the language. In the last 5 years since I left home, I’ve flipped from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. In this transition, I’ve also noticed something problematic within myself. No matter what side of the line I stood on, no matter my political, ideological, or religious leanings, I had contempt for whatever side I wasn’t on, or the “other” side. Though the content of what I believe has shifted, my attitude toward those who disagree with me remained constant. I draw my ideological lines, and then I dehumanize those who disagree with me.
This is where the Spirit disrupts me. The Spirit disrupts my pride, my contempt, and my self-righteousness. The Spirit thwarts my attempts to put myself on a pedestal. Ultimately, the Spirit shows me that it’s not about me; in the Pentecost story, the gifting of the Spirit is given first and foremost to the community as a whole, and then to the individuals within it. Though I often speak of the Spirit in individualistic terms, the Spirit is a gift shared with all the people of God, both within us and among us. It includes people we don’t expect, and people we may not often associate with.
Whom do you actively separate yourself from? Whom do you “other”? We are all united in disruption; when the Spirit moves alongside and within us, we all have the capacity to be disrupted. The question is, do we let it? Do we let go and allow the Spirit to work in and through us? Do we allow the Spirit to teach us empathy, to learn the language of others? To unite the disparate parts of ourselves and then be reconciled to our neighbors? The disruptive Spirit opens our eyes to the changing world around us, and lights our hearts on fire to be forces of reconciliation in the world, and thus, to bring forth God’s kingdom.