Ched Myers looks at the Lucan Pentecost story in Acts in light of the narrative about the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. As he notes, the "scattering" of peoples in the Babel story has conventionally been viewed as a kind of divine judgment on those who built the tower of Babel. But here's what he thinks the narrative is actually about:
This "scattering" is portrayed in Genesis not as the tragic result of God’s judgment, as is usually preached in our churches, but rather as an act of centrifugal liberation from urban monoculture and superconcentration. This archetypal movement from center to margins finds further articulation in two foundational stories in Torah: that of Abram (Gen 11:31-12:5) and Exodus.
The ancient Hebrews, repeatedly displaced or colonized by urban civilization, seem to have developed a paleo-psychic impulse toward such centrifugality, summarized in the Psalmist's later reiteration of Babel's lesson: "Truly, I would flee far off; I would lodge in the wilderness… Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city" (Psalm 55:7ff). Israel's survival was predicated upon resistance to successive empires through a stubborn maintenance of its own cultural, linguistic and religious distinctiveness and nonconformity. Centuries later, Jewish Christians surrounded by the dominating architecture and homogenizing social forces of the Roman Empire renewed this ancient tradition of resistance, as narrated in Luke's story of the birth of the Christian church that we celebrate at Pentecost.
And so from the Babel narrative to the Pentecost story:
In this multilingual insurgency Luke is affirming the diverse cultural contexts in which the new Christian movement would soon take flesh as the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world. But the echoes of the ancient Babel tale are unmistakable: "And at this sound the multitude came together and were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in their own language" (Acts 2:6; Gk sungcheō is the same root word used in the Septuagint text of Gen 11:7,9). This is not, as it is usually misconstrued, a reversal of the alleged "curse" of Babel. Rather, Pentecost re-iterates that tale's polemic, and the divinely-sanctioned strategy to deconstruct pathological imperial homogeneity by reclaiming cultural diversity. The gift of tongues communicates across linguistic differences without suppressing or eradicating those differences. That is what distinguishes true gospel mission from cross-and-sword conquest in the service of empire that has characterized Christendom all too often. Unity through the Spirit does not mean monoculture, but the celebration of human variety.
This narrative about the birth of the church has very powerful import, Myers argues, for how the Christian community approaches issues of cultural, lingustic, and other forms of diversity, and how it approaches those on the margins of society:
The local cultures around the world that are carried by today's immigrant poor have been eroded by centuries of colonialism, and are in danger of being extinguished by the onslaught of global capitalism's drive for commodified homogeneity. The church must reassert the Genesis wisdom of a "scattered" human family by nurturing diversity, and must reaffirm the Pentecostal vocation of native-language empowerment. For in the great narrative of the Bible, God's intervention is always subversive of the centralizing project of empire, and always on the side of the excluded and outcast, the refugee and immigrant. The Spirit has busted up business-as-usual many times since Babel and Jerusalem, and she is waiting to do the same in our own time—if our tongues would but dare to loosen.
(Myers' essay, which was published recently at the Progressive Catholic Voice site [see the link above], is an edited passage from the first chapter of his book Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice [Orbis, 2012]).
The graphic: a banner depicting the Pentecost event on display at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England, from the cathedral's website.