"When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed like individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own language! They were all surprised and bewildered.”
Acts 2: 1-12a, Common English Bible
This biblical account celebrates the first birthday of the modern Christian church and the first mass anointing by the Holy Spirit. And how did God mark this occasion? With people of every nation, language, and race celebrating together! God welcomed and anointed people of all skin colors and people who spoke other than the dominant culture’s native language. The first gathering of “church,” as we define it, was a space of welcome and equity for all people, a celebration and acknowledgement of God’s human creation in all its textures, colors, and life experiences.
Notice that God did not require the church to blend all people into one color, one language, and one race; rather, in sending the Holy Spirit into this setting, God repeated the assertion from Genesis that we are all created in the image of God and that our creation is good. However, the nature of imperfect human beings often compels us to divide and distinguish ourselves and others in ways that are destructive and heartbreaking. Almost since the beginning of time, humankind has found reasons to defy God and categorize ourselves in ways that create false notions of superiority versus inferiority; good versus bad; conqueror over conquered; human versus less than human.
In doing this, in defiance of God’s Pentecost moment, human beings—even Christians—have created generations of injustice, death, and destruction of whole cultures. Institutional racism, which also finds expression through individual acts of racism—is what has happened over generations because the prevailing voices and economic powers in our society colluded with one another and misused the Bible, among other tools, to create a system that privileges one group over others.
Racism is a systemic example of this disobedience to God. Racism is not merely individuals being “mean” to people of other races. It is much more than that. The Rev. Joseph Barndt, a long-time Christian anti-racism educator, says:
Racism is any attitude, action, or institutional practice backed up by institutional power that subordinates people because of their racial identity and color. This includes the imposition of one racial/ethnic group’s culture in such a way as to withhold respect for, to demean, or to destroy the cultures of other races. In our U.S. context—including in Christian communities—this racism is perpetrated by and for the benefit of white people. While there are white people who face issues of powerlessness on grounds other than race (and while any person or group can have prejudice) white skin is still a benefit, a source of power and privilege, and nonwhite skin is a liability.
Christians—white people and people of color—have a responsibility and an opportunity to work together to undo this destructive system and to reclaim God’s Pentecost moment as the foundation and inspiration for a more faithful and effective church in the future.