In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." (Isaiah 2:2–3)
I love solitude and the outdoors. There’s no place I’d rather be than hiking a lesser-known trail up a mountain in a National Park, with no more than two companions with me. I try to avoid easier and more accessible trails that tend to be swarming with people who don’t respect silence and solitude – people unlike me and those I accept as my companions. I mentally give them two choices: learn to respect my way of hiking, or get off the trail.
Don’t we all have preferences for the people we would like to share fellowship with? Don’t we find people with certain backgrounds/origins/beliefs easier to be in communion with? Don’t we wish they were less ___ and more ___?
I have found that my own perspective is woefully inadequate for detecting my own prejudices, even as it is incredibly sensitive to the prejudices of others. I am pleased with my ability to accept and love others; I silently proclaim, “See how welcoming and inclusive I am, unlike [insert enemy here] who judge and exclude others”. I see how my beliefs and practices display justice, while the ignorance of my enemies displays injustice. Especially in today’s polarized political climate, we are all prone to excluding our enemies.
God promises to teach his people how to transcend this bent to exclusion: by calling us to go up to God’s mountain together. Pentecost gives us a picture of what this looks like: a multitude of people of different tribes and tongues being brought into the same family.
In the buzz of Pentecost, God does several things by forcing us to walk alongside the other. First, he reveals to us our tendency to either exclude the other or try to shape them into our image (the two choices I give people on hiking with me). Second, he gives us the means of overcoming that tendency by forcing us into communion with the other.
Whether in our local church or the universal church, we worship alongside Christians with diverse experiences and backgrounds, resulting in diverse expressions of the same faith. Because my sister has gone through trials I know nothing of and was brought up in a culture that is foreign to me, her cares and fears will be different from mine.
This is a gift, and is the reason we have filled this blog with stories by Christians with diverse ethnic, cultural and historical experiences. These stories enable us to transcend our own perspective. I have my own way of viewing myself, others, and the world. On my own, my perspective is not large enough to encompass all that God has revealed to me.
We are called to practice what theologian Miroslav Volf calls double vision: seeing from the perspective of others, so that we might understand how they see us, themselves, and the world. He writes, “We use our imagination to see why their perspective about themselves, about us, and about our common history, can be so plausible to them whereas it is implausible, profoundly strange, or even offensive to us”.
Here are questions I ask myself. How are my words being understood by the other? Am I assuming things about them and their beliefs? How does someone manage to say such a thing if they care about justice? (This last question invites us to imagine other conceptions of justice and good that we may not immediately see). I don’t always have the answers, and when I don’t, I have to seek out the ‘other’ to understand her.
This is challenging and risky. If our perspectives are in conflict, must one be rejected? Can a compromise be found? Compromise may not be possible. But unless we are willing to see from the perspectives of others and let their perspectives stand next to ours – letting their voices, fears, and concerns resonate within us – we will not be able to properly reflect on whether one or the other is right, or more likely, where each is partly wrong and partly right.
But we may be surprised. In some cases, seeing from others’ perspectives might reveal the blindness in our own perspective and open us up to new worlds of wisdom, truth, and hope. In other cases, it may allow us to see a shared concern for justice where before we only saw enemies perpetrating injustice. In yet other cases, a willingness to listen and understand (rather than argue against) an enemy’s perspective may help disarm conflict and bring peace.
I have too often allowed myself to judge and form beliefs about others in isolation. Judgments need to be made (though probably way less often than we think), but they must be made against the backdrop of Pentecost: in communion with fellow believers who have different perspectives. It requires us to hear them speaking in “different tongues”, and still understand them. If they are fellow believers, I love them, and if I love them, I will want to hear their voice.
Perhaps this sounds too dramatic. Maybe you don’t consider anyone an enemy the way I do. But might there be others to whom you have become an enemy? Seeing from the perspectives of others will open our eyes to this.
Perhaps this sounds too unrealistic; maybe you feel that seeing from the perspectives of others merely opens us up to being controlled or manipulated by them, and tacitly gives legitimacy to wrong and unjust perspectives. Consider the example of Jesus, who suffered though he was innocent (1 Peter 2:21-25). Even though we were his enemies, he took on our perspective and sin in his body, that we might be reconciled to God and each other (2 Cor 5:18-21).
At Pentecost, this same Jesus gave his spirit, that the diverse believers would each speak and be understood in their own tongues – across cultural and linguistic barriers. Jesus gives us his same spirit today, enabling us to be heard and understood across barriers.
Against the backdrop of Pentecost, the cultural / national / ethnic / political ‘other’ is God’s means of saving us from our own prejudices. Without including their voices and perspectives in our own, the church will not reflect the fullness of God’s power at Pentecost. With them alongside us, we just might make it up to God’s mountain.
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Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.