This is a story about the damage that faith can do in the world, when it cannot bend, when it shakes off tolerance and takes on judgment cast in the false cloak of righteousness. It happened in a country of unrest far from here. In that country, the Atham-Lebbe brothers, after working as labourers in Saudi Arabia, had scrimped and saved for a restaurant. A man came in to this restaurant and took a seat – a man whose faith and language was different from theirs. Shortly after have starting his meal, he began yelling. The brother in the kitchen came out to try to figure out what was wrong, but he could not understand, and a misunderstanding arose. The friends of the customer badly beat one of the brothers, and not long after that, his restaurant burned down.
This happened in February, in Sri Lanka. The brothers who owned the restaurant were Tamil-speaking Muslims, the customer a Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist, and somehow he’d come to believe, in the mistranslation, that a sterilization pill had been put into his meal. The confrontation was filmed and put on Facebook. In Sri Lanka, there was a rumour – also on Facebook – that the minority Muslims were slowly trying to wipe out the majority Buddhists, and that the police had recently seized 23,000 pills from Muslim pharmacists in the same part of the country. The brothers did not know this.
Many, many miles away, another event occurred. A Buddhist man had died in a beating. The police said it was a traffic accident that became violent. But again, on Facebook, rumours said the beating was part of a plot, an uprising by the Muslim citizens of Sri Lanka. A distance away, two separate, unconnected incidents, and false rumours that two confrontational faiths were susceptible to. And it led to more violence, more unrest, and the burning of Muslim shops around the country. We were the match, one peace activist told The New York Times, but Facebook was the spark.
Now more than 5,000 kilometres away, as the crow flies, is another country, another place where the tolerance has been cast off for judgement. History has made this hard to change, violence has cemented this into culture, and now, in the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, more violence has broken out, more lives have been lost. On the day of the celebrated opening, Israeli soldiers fired upon Palestinian protestors. Two fundamentalist ministers who stood on the dais representing Christians, had been previously found making disparaging and divisive comments about other faiths: one in particular had referred to Islam as an evil religion, Mormonism as coming from the pit of Hell, and that no one could be “saved,” as he put it, by being Jewish. Yet, he stood there, in this high profile, tension-filled moment, this divisive, judging man, purported to be the chosen representative of our faith. Here in North America, the divide also appears to grow.
How far are we from the Pentecost? From a united vision of a loving God? Very far indeed, it would seem.
None of this is simple, or easily solved.
So, what can we do, as progressive people of faith, horrified by violence, seeking peace, trying to compromise? We could abandon our faith – reject religion entirely as the source of unrest in the world, a tool of discrimination in a species already prone to discrimination. We could hide our faith, ashamed to be tainted by association.
But this, as history has shown, would be tragic. For in a space with no middle ground, the extremes take over. If in Sri Lanka, the voices of moderation are no longer heard, chaos will ensue. If in Israel, those Jewish and Muslim citizens who seek peace stay silent or flee, violence will grow. It is our responsibility, even here in Canada, to continue to voice the principles of the gospel, of which Jesus has left us on charge.
The Pentecost is a dream, an ideal goal – a time when people of faith will be able to speak the same language. In the time in which our first lesson happened, the idea was that everyone would become a follower of Jesus – and indeed, the story of Jesus did spread, so that Christians began to appear in many places in the world. But as time went on, those Christians lost the ability to speak peacefully even with one another, let alone with other faiths. The fault of the Pentecost story is that it suggests that if we just stand around, God will take care of it for us. But in fact, the gospel is not about God’s taking care of things for us – it is about God giving us the tools to take care of ourselves and the world around us.
And so: what are we to do? What example has been set by Jesus, in our own faith? We are to listen, and to be wise, and to not be quick to fall prey to rumour and spin. To resist our own tendencies to wear judgment like a cloak of righteousness, for, I guarantee, we will quickly find that it is itchy, and heavy, and suffocating. We are to try to hear, underneath the anger, a desire to be understood, to be treated as an equal. There is only side worth taking – the side that seeks out a loving compromise, that keeps presenting love where hate appears to be winning.
We can do that as Lutheran Christians. Christ has taught us how. Indeed we have all been freed by Christ and empowered by Christ, in small ways – in the conversations, for instance, that we have with one another. Listen to your own words – are we assuming we are right too often? Or are we putting ourselves in the place of the other person and really trying to understand that perspective? Are we educating ourselves to understand the complexities of the problem? To truly practice this fine art of listening, of perspective-taking, of knowledge-seeking, is the only way to solve the problems that divide us.
Go out into the world and speak the language of the gospel, as Jesus would have us hear it. Above all else, love one another as you would be loved.
For in the end, every human speaks the same language – that desire to be loved, to be welcomed, to be free. That is our common vocabulary. That is the true sought-after goal of Pentecost – that in speaking the language of the gospel, we may all be heard.