Is God’s plan that we should learn to tolerate difference? That those who disagree should allow the other to flourish? That we should celebrate human diversity, possibly in expectation that it will be ironed out neatly at the end of time?
Or is diversity the trajectory of history as portrayed in Scripture? Is God’s purpose for diversity rather than sameness?
Initially these questions were raised during a seminar with Kate Coleman, an amazing black woman church leader. She encapsulated the diversity question in one anecdote. When she was Chair of the Evangelical Alliance, she had commented on the fact that she is both female and black. A white male colleague said “Don’t worry. I’m colour blind.” Kate responded “If you don’t see colour, you don’t see me.”
That made me think. If we don’t see where others differ from us, if we see them only as like us then we make them in our own image. Failing to recognise that the other is of a different sex, race, colour, creed, ability – failure to recognise difference – in fact suppresses and denies diversity.
From the beginning God seems to cultivate diversity. The chaos that initially exists is divided into day and night, light and dark, land and sea, varieties of plant and animal. Finally the ‘earthling’ is put to sleep and divided into two entirely new creatures: man and woman. God’s unceasing creativity tends toward variety.
Then we get to the well known story of the Tower of Babel. On a flat place, where people cannot reach the gods, because reaching the gods requires high places, human beings build a high tower (probably a ziggurat). God sees what they are doing and confuses the languages in order that humans cannot communicate. The underlying narrative usually employed to interpret this tale is that difference is a curse imposed by God on transgressing humanity because they used their uniformity of language for ill.
Set this, however, in a liberation context, the context of a country in which the edifice of imperialism has once been raised, and the story is open to a different interpretation.
One of the first controlling acts of an imperial power is to impose a common language, an official language. From then that language is the essential key to power, influence, economic well-being and more. Indigenous languages are quelled. In other words, a norm is imposed, and diversity is quashed.
In that context, at Babel God does not punish all of humanity for building their tower. He restores diversity to conquered peoples by restoring their own languages.
Of course, at the birth of the church – better known as the Day of Pentecost – people from all the then known continents are present, people of different languages and nationalities, possibly of both genders too. Peter preaches from Joel: God had promised, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.’ And yet Peter addresses “men of Israel” and “brothers”. Perhaps in this one story there is encapsulated generations of the church saying one thing and doing another, embracing diversity as long as it looks a lot like us.
Whether Peter really spoke about sons and daughters playing equal parts whilst addressing only men we don’t know. Perhaps he did, perhaps the story was simply recorded that way in a later age when writers couldn’t really conceive of Peter speaking to these now apparently equal ‘daughters’. What we do know is that Peter didn’t fully understand his own sermon, for later in Acts God has to assemble an array of animals in a sheet in order to make the diversity point again. Whatever happened, diversity seems to have been a vital part of the birth of the church.
Finally, in the Revelation of John we read: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
I was fascinated in a recent discussion to find how differently this short verse can be interpreted. There are two basic ideas within it – one about where the people come from, and the other about what they look like. For me, the first sentence contains the ‘controlling’ idea – the people before the Lamb come from every tribe and nation and people and language, and remain identifiably diverse. For somebody else, the ‘controlling’ idea is the second sentence – they all looked the same. God has ironed out difference. The problem is that I rather suspect it was other people’s difference God was interested in ironing out!
Back to my first question:
Is God’s plan that we should learn to tolerate difference?
I don't think so. I think God's purpose is for diversity, that we are supposed to be diverse, not to tolerate difference.