Yesterday, our pastor preached on racism. It was necessary. As the US reels from yet another broad–daylight murder of a Black American by a white American paid to be an officer of justice, it was important for our white pastor to stand up and call our majority-white church to corporate repentance, lament, prayer, and action.
Our pastor preached from the foundational text on which so much of our biblical view of humanity is built - the first word from God on humanity - the earth-shattering claim that God made human beings “in his image.” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just as, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) echoes through the scriptures and down the ages, so “God created man in His own image” rings in our ears as we read the rest of the story. It shapes our view of every human being that we meet. This man or woman, this infant or child is made in the image of God, formed by his hands to bear his likeness: “in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). To squeeze the breath out of a man into whom God breathed life is to desecrate God’s image. Genesis 1 cries that racism is sin.
But as the wider church celebrated Pentecost yesterday, the passage in Acts 2 (which tells the story of Pentecost) also skewers white supremacy.
From every nation under heaven
Genesis 1 to 2 tells the story of God making humans in His image and breathing His life into them. Acts 2 tells of God pouring His Spirit out and bringing new life. And the specifics of the story tell us this new life is for people “from every nation under heaven.” The Spirit falls on the Jewish apostles, and they speak miraculously in many languages, much to the shock of the crowd:
“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians — we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:5-11)
The names of most of these countries have changed. But at first blush we’ll recognize Egypt and Libya as being in Africa. Other places mentioned include modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. And these are not only ethnic Jews who have been dispersed to foreign lands. The text specifies “both Jews and proselytes.” And we learn later in the chapter that, from this crowd, about three-thousand became Christians and were baptized that very day (Acts 2:41). Undoubtedly, some of these first believers were Black. At the moment when the promise of the brown–skinned Messiah that He would send His Spirit was fulfilled, so the command of the brown–skinned Messiah that his disciples should go and make disciples of all nations began to be fulfilled.
For Christians, Pentecost skewers racism.
What's more, later in Acts, we hear a specific story of an African Christian. Philip is prompted by the Spirit to go and accost an Ethiopian man as he was riding in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. The Ethiopian man immediately embraces Christ and asks to be baptized (Acts 8:26-40). There is no story in the scriptures of an Englishman or an American coming to Christ. My country of origin and my country of residence hadn’t been invented yet! But my Ethiopian friends can look back to the first Ethiopian saint and look forward to meeting him in the new creation.
Pentecost reminds us that, even as we grieve the complicity of white Christians through the centuries in the oppression of Black and brown Americans, we must not make the mistake of associating Christianity with whiteness. Racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity is a birthright of the church.
And it's a reality today.
The most typical Christian today
As Yale law professor and leading black public intellectual Stephen Carter has observed, there is “a difficulty endemic to today’s secular left: an all-too-frequent weird refusal to acknowledge the demographics of Christianity.” Carter points out that in the US, black women are by far the most Christian demographic, while “around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color.” He warns, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.” Indeed, by 2050, 40% of the world’s Christians are expected to be living in sub–Saharan Africa.
As many cities in America burn, both literally and metaphorically, it would be easy to look at centuries of white supremacy and racism - often perpetuated by those who own the name of Christ - and dismiss Christianity as a religion of oppressors. But Pentecost preaches against that view. It speaks of flames falling on the heads of a handful of brown–skinned Jews living under oppressive, colonial rule, and three thousand people from every nation under heaven coming to Christ in a day. It speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out on “all flesh” (Acts 2:17), as people from every tribe and tongue and nation are called to the swear allegiance to the one true King. And it points to the day when we will see, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9)
Pentecost skewers racism. By the Spirit, may we all be part of driving the point home.