Genesis 11:1-9 • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b • Acts 2:1-21 • John 14:8-17, (25-27)
This Sunday's readings have a common thread: tribalism. Humans and many other species evolved as groups. Bees, for instance, live for the hive and will protect it from bees from other hives who may be trying to take honey. Prairie dogs live in huge groups, but within that, each family has its own tunnel system, used only by family members. Most fish swim in schools, decreasing the risk of being eaten and increasing the chance of finding food. People evolved in small tribes consisting of a few family groups, where each member watched for danger, increasing the chances of survival for all living within the protection of the group.
The advantage of tribalism in human beings has been the unique expressions of life coming from the innumerable cultures of various tribes. The disadvantage has been the inability of tribal groups to live and let live, so to speak, with each tribe considering other tribes a threat to resources. Into this predicament come today's readings.
The Genesis reading begins with a story of human beings as one group, united by a common language and purpose. In pre-scientific terms, the story describes how the world came to be such a hodgepodge of people; by the end of the reading, people have gone their separate ways in different tribes. There are advantages to diversity, in the creativity of living beings and the constant opportunities to grow and innovate. Without these various expressions, the world would be a much poorer place.
An opposing view of diversity is found in the Acts reading. Diversity brings problems. People can misunderstand each other. They can mistrust each other. They can side with their own group. All manner of conflict and even world wars are to some extent based in tribalism: what my group needs is all that matters. Tribalism was the process leading to the crucifixion of Jesus, as each political leader saw him as a threat to his group. The irony was that Jesus himself came preaching peace, but his message could not be heard.
Somehow in the Acts story, people could hear each other. In spite of coming from many different tribes, they could connect. I remember a time when I was serving dinner to a group of people from another country. They had limited English, and I had almost no knowledge of their language. Then someone pulled out a phone and began sharing pictures of her family, her home, and her travels. The room became full of energy as everyone started showing pictures. In my kitchen it was no longer awkwardness, but laughter and a sense of joy as so much could now be understood.
Where the Genesis reading encourages diversity through tribalism – speaking different languages, having different goals – the Acts reading encourages connections with others, particularly those from other tribes. Both matter, but the balance can be challenging. Getting to know others and letting them know us, while maintaining one's own individuality and respecting other's, is no simple matter. Not letting our hearts be troubled, nor being afraid, is a beginning point.
Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
When might I be with people of different tribes today? How can I notice my own reactivity to them? What can I say or do to connect more clearly?
When did I manage to connect with others today? When was it fun? Joyful?