Pentecost, Othering, and the Kingdom of God

A Pentecost repost from last year:

The other day I was sitting in a meeting where we were talking about how the hot new word in academic circles is "Othering." First, we had other. Then we had Other, capital O. Now we have Othering.

I expressed my dislike of the term. Mainly on aesthetic grounds. I don't like the sound of it. However, I do get what the term is doing and find value in its attempt to name, succinctly, a sinful dynamic: The process of turning a fellow human being into something foreign, alien, strange, and "not one of us." In a single word, Othering names what I consider to be the root cause of sin.

It's Othering that makes it so hard to be a part of a group. Any group. Even if the group is completely arbitrary. Consider the psychological research where participants come into the laboratory and are assigned to one of two groups by the flip of a coin. Later in the experiment the participants are asked to allocate rewards and punishments in a game/task to their fellow participants. Time after time, participants show favoritism toward their own group. This knowing full well that their group was formed by the flip of a coin! Think on that. Othering needs nothing more than a flip of a coin to begin doing its work. Now imagine how Othering scales up if we start thinking about skin color, language differences, and the love of God and Country.

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the events in Acts 2, when God poured out his Spirit upon humanity as a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom. But what does this mean? What is the sign of signs that marks this "Kingdom of God"?

I'd suggest this: The Kingdom is marked by its assault on Othering. Where Othering has vanished the Kingdom has come.

Consider how Pentecost echos back to the primordial story of the Tower of Babel, where human hubris (in a tale similar to many Greek myths of humans-seeking-to-be-gods) is thwarted by God in the creation of the language barriers between the nations:

Genesis 11.1-8
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
But God doesn't leave humanity in this condition where Othering flourishes. God's plan is to pull humans back into solidarity but, this time, in a redeemed state, under the Lordship of the Lamb. Thus, in Pentecost, as you all well know, the confusion and curse of Babel--and the sins of Othering--are reversed in the Kingdom:
Acts 2.1-24, 36
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.'

"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
And the event of Pentecost--reexperienced every day as the Spirit continues to prompt Christian communities to overcome Othering in their midst: personally, locally, nationally, and internationally--is a foretaste of a greater eschatological culmination:
Revelation 7.9-12
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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb."

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Have a blessed Pentecost.

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17 thoughts on “Pentecost, Othering, and the Kingdom of God”

  1. Thank-you, Richard.  I think you have a real gift for sifting the valuable from the extraneous and for expressing complex ideas simply.

    (BTW, I was reading the other day about the doctrine of God's impassability.  I would really value your thoughts one day on God's experience (or not) of emotion - just a thought to put on the back-burner.)

    Thanks for keeping us all well fed this Pentecost.  Blessings.

  2. p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    "Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the events in Acts 2 . . ."

    Try as I may to be generous the only term that seems to apply is 'robbery.' (Although I am convinced that this is completely unintentional.) Pentecost was one of the feasts that God specified for the nation of Israel to observe. And, it is supernaturally typological. God never gave Pentecost to our (primarily) Gentile church.

    In Acts 2 is recorded what happened on that day with regard to God's outpouring of the Holy Spirit on humanity, the beginning of the church, if you will. If you read carefully, you won't see a Gentile in the entire scene. This was the beginning of the church as a congregation comprised entirely of Israelites (i.e., no gentiles need apply). Othering at its best (or worst, depending on one's pov) with God doing the othering as He had already been doing for thousands of years. The 'Kingdom' was and is totally about Israel being at its pinacle eternally with their king (Jesus) sitting right there in Jerusalem, on earth. Hasn't happened yet.

    You'll have to wait at least another 8 years from that particular Pentecost for Paul to reveal the mystery of Jew and Gentile in one body, the church. From then on, we possibly could say othering has been removed (in the church). Nothing wrong with the church today celebrating what happened on Pentecost; only, it would be good if it understood rightly what went on there. And, it was othering.

  3. Hi, I have a request, and perhaps you've already done this and I'm missing it, but could you put your Angel of the i-Phone posts in a group on the side? Thanks and Happy Pentecost!

  4. Hi David,

    I'm a bit perplexed at your reasoning: You note that "[Christian Pentecost] was the beginning of the [C]hurch as a congregation composed entirely of Israelites..." And you use that observation to ground your view that Pentecost was a de facto instance of "othering." But since the Church began in Israel, it's hardly necessary to conclude that Pentecost is an instance of othering. Surely the disciples were a heterogeneous mis of religious leaders by the standards of the time and place.  What we would need to see to make a determination either way is what happened after the Church's founding with respect to the Gentiles. And surely one of the great game-changing facts of history is the remarkable spread of the Christian faith throughout the known Gentile world in the first generations after its founding.  

    As to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, there is no doubt about that debt, to state the obvious. But again, what I find most notable is how far from those roots the Christian faith moved is so short a time. To say that the Church had no right to make such startling moves in so short a time is tantamount to saying that the gospel message is invalid. You might have an argument to make about that small matter, but it cannot simply appear as a background assumption in your statements. 

    Or have I missed something? 

  5. Oh man. A church of Christ post on Pentecost that doesn't mention Acts 2:38?! Pretty heretical right there.

    I enjoyed your reflection. I'd never thought about the connection between Babel/Pentecost and Lordship under Christ. Thanks!

  6. Completely agree that Othering is the root of all sin. That's why I think it makes perfect sense for a Christian to be a feminist/social justice activist (that's basically what my entire blog is about). I really like how you've drawn it all together with scripture. Your blog is always excellent - keep up the good work! :)

  7. Hi Tracy,

    I try to be clear; but, ....  All I can say is I'm sorry for causing any confusion.  I've tried to address some of your specific points; but, I may have missed the forest.  Bottom line, Pentecost was 'othering' (if I understand the term correctly) in that it was limited to only one group and the majority group (Gentiles) were not part of it.

    "Surely the disciples were a heterogeneous mix of religious leaders by the standards of the time and place."

    The apostles, including Peter on Pentecost, were to the best of my understanding all Israelites.  The people in Jerusalem on Pentecost were all devout Jews who had traveled there for the Jewish feast of weeks or Pentecost.

    "What we would need to see to make a determination either way is what happened after the Church's founding with respect to the Gentiles."

    Until Paul's conversion and his reception of the mystery of the church, nothing in the church had to do with Gentiles.  He was the first apostle to the Gentiles and he did not start that for at least 8-10 years after Pentecost.  Peter, James, and John etc. were apostles to the circumcision, the Jew.

    "To say that the Church had no right to make such startling moves in so short a time is tantamount to saying that the gospel message is invalid."

    Sorry, I don't follow this; but, I hope I would be among the last to say that the gospel message is invalid.  I, for one, was saved by believing it.  What I am saying is that the gospel message of the twelve apostles to the church for its first decade or so was not the one that Paul provides in 1 Cor 15:1-4.  The apostles' gospel (the one that Jesus had taught them for 3 years) was the 'gospel of the kingdom.'

  8. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks, as always, for the encouragement.

    Regarding God's impassability. I'm still learning a lot about this debate. Generally, I lean toward God having emotions. I've flirted with process theology a great deal. Mainly to get my head around the problem of evil and the Old Testament. But lately I'm learning a lot about the problems associated with those positions. But while I get, intellectually, the theology behind God's impassability, it doesn't help me make sense of the things I'm trying to make sense of.

    Basically, I see the pro's and con's of both sides of the issue. But I lean toward God's passability because that view helps me with the theological issues I care most about (mainly those associated with the problem of evil).

  9. Hi David,

    Thanks for the reply, but I don't think that you're tracking on "othering" as Richard defined it: "The process of turning a fellow human being into something foreign, alien, strange, and not 'one of us.'"

    A homogeneous group is not "othering" by that definition, unless it is homogeneous because it is othering, as defined. Given that the Church started in Israel, it's not surprising that it was made up of Israelites. For instance, a church up here in Minnesota might be exceptionally welcoming to all people, and yet be made up of Minnesotans entirely. 

    Granted, Acts 6-11 is the story of the apostles learning that "...God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11.18) So the apostles did need to learn not to see the Gentiles as outsiders. 

    But then the apostles were wrong, out of step with the direction God was going--as evidenced by the Holy Spirit being "poured out" on the Gentiles in Acts 10--and it seems odd to hold up the wrong view as portrayed in the story of the early Church as representative of that Church. Isn't it more in the spirit of Acts to represent the Church as discovering that seeing Gentiles as outsiders is incompatible with the gospel? 

    Here's my main point: You can't understand the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 properly without the rest of the book in mind, which tells the story of going to the world with the gospel (after learning that othering the Gentiles is wrong). How, then, is "othering" a fair representation of the early Church as depicted in Acts, when it is a story of overcoming that very thing?  

  10. Hi Tracy,

    First, your comments are like a breath of fresh air. Thanks.

    "Othering: The process of turning a fellow human being into something foreign, alien, strange, and not 'one of us."

    Isn t that exactly what the early church did with regard to the Gentile on Pentecost and extending into the following decade? The apostles stayed in Jerusalem preaching to Jews. The Jews that were scattered after Stephen only went to scattered Jews. They were still under the law and it prohibited them from treating the Gentiles as one of us. Further, they created this homogeneous group; just like God planned.  And geography was not the determining factor as in your Minnesota example.

    "How, then, is "othering" a fair representation of the early Church as depicted in Acts, when it is a story of overcoming that very thing?"

    The apostles were doing exactly what they had been taught to do for three years (not to mention the centuries before that!). This was God's plan to give them (Israel) one last chance for their kingdom. (Given what they chose, they will have to wait at least 2000 more years for it.) God's plan then moved into the next phase, our predominantly Gentile church while we wait for Daniel s 70th week. The apostles didn t overcome othering; God sovereignly transitioned this start up church into what exists today.  And how amazing is it that He used this religious monster Saul to accomplish this?

    My main point in all of this is that we really shouldn t be celebrating how Pentecost removed othering as I read Richard's post to champion.

  11. You echo my own dilemma between heart and mind well.  Thank-you for the signpost to process theology.  I look forward to a twelve-part series in due course.  @-;¦

  12. Hi David,

    You've got me thinking through my assumptions, and that's always a good thing.

    I think Richard, in this post, was right on track when he characterized the Church as affecting the process of eliminating othering: "And the event of Pentecost...continues to prompt Christian communities to overcome othering in their midst..."

    A few relevant points: 

    1. Do we know the actual mindset of the apostles and disciples at Pentecost? The Israelites present were from all nations, but religiously the group was homogeneous. Were the Israelites present religiously xenophobic, albeit culturally and/or racially open? Or were they just unsure of the place of the law in this new phenomenon of the Church (we know they were at least that)? Or were a significant number of them plainly bigoted in one or more ways? Perhaps you can answer these questions. I cannot, and have assumed that you cannot either. So it is difficult to see how you can change the Church at Pentecost with "othering." Mere religious homogeneity does not establish anything but the question of why it is so. You need more than that to make a charge. And we have not even asked whether the Church was more or less xenophobic than the wider culture of its time--an important consideration, if we want to be fair.

    2. More importantly, as the Church came to terms with the idea that one need not be a Jew to receive the Spirit, it seems that everything imputed to the international assembly of Israelites on Pentecost can be ascribed to the Gentiles who by the Pauline formulas we all know are grafted on... But in that case Pentecost was for the Gentiles too, it's just that the Church wasn't clear on that yet.

    And 3. Most importantly, as I think we can agree on, the trajectory of the Church was outward to all peoples and cultures and nations. As the start of that story, to characterize the nascent Church as promoting "othering" is to miss the fact that Pentecost is like the base of a vector pointing away from "othering." 

    It just seems you're making an unfair point in that light. Not outright false, just unfair. 

  13. Hi Tracy,

    "It just seems you're making an unfair point in that light"

    First to my dictionary to make sure I understand 'unfair.'  According to Webster:  Not fair; not honest; not impartial; disingenuous; using or involving trick or artifice; dishonest; unjust; unequal.  WOW, I don't want any part of that!!!  So, now I have to become defensive to protect my good (what did he say???) name. ;-)

    The answer to your number 1. is obviously => no.  All we can do 2000 years later is guess.  But, guess based on evidence, hopefully.  So you ask:  "Were the Israelites present religiously xenophobic, albeit culturally and/or racially open?"

    My guess:  These people were squarely under the law of Moses and not in any way culturally or racially open.  Othering was the bedrock of their lives because God had commanded it.  The Jew could enter the temple; the Gentile could not.  Pentecost didn't change any of this.

    Why did they keep going to the temple each day to pray?  Well, they were just continuing to worship as a Jew had for hundreds of years.  The only difference (and it was a big one!) was that these Jews were a 'called out' group or ekklesia or assembly or church who all possessed eternal life and believed in who Jesus was: Messiah, king of Israel, God's son.  They knew nothing of the gospel (1 Cor 15).  Furthermore, nowhere are they called 'the body of Christ.'  That has to wait for the revelation to Paul.  In the body of Christ there are no Jews nor Gentiles, no males ... well you understand.

    I find nothing that tells us that the group which God formed on Pentecost and which grew quite large in just a short time was in any way putting away othering.  Yet, the body of Christ (comprised of actually saved people) clearly has no appetite for othering.  BUT, the transition to that state was not due to those Israelites bootstrapping themselves into a higher state of awareness and appreciation of the equality of the Gentiles because of the seed planted on Pentecost.  God had a plan (as He always does) and it included Him revealing this mystery (Eph 3:6) to Paul a few years later.  Paul then explained to the church what it (the ekklesia that was truly the body of Christ) actually was.

    So, I must ask:  What seems unfair?

  14. Hi David,

    The sense of unfair I have in mind is "unbalanced argument." I think that you make some very good points. But you don't place them in context with the larger story being told. The gist of pt. 2 was that the Church came to understand that it needs to be open to all peoples. The gist of pt. 3 is that it moved in that direction explicitly and dramatically. The gist of the first point is that it is difficult for us to be fair in judging an upstart group against a 1st century cultural milieu when we can't know whether the Church was ahead of the curve or behind it with respect to openness to others. (But certainly Jesus was within the cultural milieu of Israel. It would be odd if his followers were not too.)

    You're focused on the starting point. I'm focused on the trajectory. The trajectory takes in the full story. I think that counts as greater balance. That's all. I have enjoyed the give and take, and thank you for it! 


  15. Philip Gulley is also addressing Othering this week:

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