Undivision: Pottery, Pork and Pentecost

Over the past five years I’ve spent some time in Malaysia and India.
Both countries have long traditions of different peoples in harmony.

Older Malaysians tell me, “When I was a kid, whatever our race or religion,
At Christmas everyone gave presents at our Christian friend’s home.
At Chinese New Year we lit fireworks with our Chinese classmates.
In Ramadan we feasted with Muslim neighbours at sundown.
At Diwali we celebrated with Indian comrades.”
(The blog picture is of a poster from Malaysia’s Independence celebrations in August 2015, showing Chinese, Indian and Malay kids in harmony.)
Nowadays, they say, that seldom happens.

India welcomed Parsees when they fled from Persia.
And they say it is the only country where Jews have lived without persecution.
Now I open the Times of India:
Violence against Dalits and Muslims and Christians.
It seems this is no longer a country,
Where weak or minority groups can feel safe.

Living in Asia, I’ve become aware of these social divisions.
And living among other religions has helped me see where my faith is distinctive.
It’s brought scriptures alive that we ignore in the West.
It’s made me more glad to be Christian.
It’s left me more convinced that Christianity has, at its core,
Resources for reconciliation.
Principles of peace and justice.
That a divided world desperately needs.

I’ll share three themes today, three reconciling theologies.
And then two thoughts on the Indian church.

1.  Pottery

Recently I watched a potter.
He took a dense dead lump of clay
And plonked it down on the wheel.

When his hands touched the clay, it stirred.
It moved as if on its own.
It grew up like a plant in a fast-motion video.
It spread and flowered into a bulb.
It was magic.
Where the potter’s hands touched the clay, it lived.

What a picture of Genesis 2.
We are all clay, the dust of the earth.
Each one is knitted together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13),
Crafted by the Potter’s hands.
And like the different pots the potter made, no two of them are the same.

I always thought it’s obvious that we’re all in the same family tree
as descendants of Adam the son of God.
So we’re all equal, we share the same blood.
And all are loved and unique, as the potter showed. [1]

The Founding Fathers of America also took this for granted.
As the US Declaration of Independence says,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…  [2]

But then I came to India, outside the Judaeo-Christian cultural world, and I found:
It is not so obvious, not so self-evident, that everyone has equal value.

In the ancient Hindu Laws of Manu, the primal man is divided into four:
Head, chest, thighs, feet, giving the four main castes.
Not all equal, not all loved.

This makes me appreciate the biblical take on Creation.
One family, each moulded by our Potter-Father from a common clay. [3]
This challenges every division of people by birth,
Be it by race or caste (or blue-blood class).
Our doctrine of creation is needed by world.

2.  Pork

Living in Asia I’ve also become aware
that of the major world religions,
only my faith has no dietary laws.
It’s great!
Beef biryani with Muslim friends, spicy pork with Chinese friends.
If you like non-veg, this is the faith for you.
As a Christian I can eat anything!
Less hedonistically, more significantly, I can eat with anyone.

Why do Malaysians of different cultures celebrate less together now?
It’s a complex question, but here’s one reason I’ve heard:
In the past most Malay Muslims were fairly relaxed.
They didn’t care too much about Middle Eastern rules.
But now things are getting stricter.
Halal food laws matter more.
And table fellowship suffers.

As I see it,
Purity laws are bad news because they tend to divide. [4]
If I say there are unclean foods,
There is a risk I will come to think
People who eat unclean foods are themselves unclean.
If there are wrong ways to dress or times you must pray or other religious ritual rules,
People who fail to keep those laws are easily separated, excluded, outside. [5]

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus rejecting these divisions.
He stubbornly ate with unclean sinners who didn’t keep the purity rules.

The Pharisees resented it.
His disciples didn’t get it.
Peter needed that vision on the roof.
All sorts of unclean foods coming down from the sky in a sheet,
Three times told to eat,
Before he finally clicked. (Acts 10)
Then he entered the house of the Roman Cornelius and said,

It is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.  (Acts 10:28)

No food is unclean and no person is unclean.
As a Christian, I have no barriers to fellowship, to giving and receiving hospitality.
No law stands between me and my brother.

In Ephesians Paul describes the hostility between Jews and Gentiles.
He then goes on to say:

Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15)

In the Jerusalem Temple there was a stone wall, 1.5 meters high.
It separated the outer court of the unclean Gentiles from the inner zone for Jews.[6]

Jesus’ death on the cross ripped open the curtain in the Holy of Holies,
Which symbolised our separation from God, so reconciling us to our Creator.
Christ’s death, says Paul, also destroyed the walls of religious rules
That divide us from each other. [7]

When I’ve seen the walls of hostility in Malaysia and India.
Between Malay and Chinese, or Hindu and Muslim.
I’ve often thought of Ephesians 2. [8]
How much we need the wall-breaking peace of Christ!

3.  Pentecost

In Asia I’ve dabbled in Hindi and Malay.
This has sparked an interest in linguistics.
Back in NZ, I’ve read a few books, gone to a few lectures,
and found something remarkable.

Christianity is not fashionable in Western universities.
Many academics think Christians destroy local cultures.
But linguistics told a different story.

The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia has a volume on language.[9]
There is a chapter on Borneo, the most language diverse area.
It’s a bit like Northeast India: forested, hilly, remote, lots of separate tribes.
Malaysia is a Muslim majority country.
But on page after page, it’s Christians making dictionaries and grammars,
Writing down folktales of small language groups.
Peoples who would probably lose their language.
Lose their stories, lose their culture,
If Christian linguists were not there.

Remember the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11?
When human tongues were confused.
We were separated by language barriers.
Communication collapsed.  [10]

The Christian answer to Babel is Pentecost.
I used to think Pentecost simply undid Babel: ctl-Z.
But it’s more.

Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel by destroying different languages,
Assimilating them all into one.
It redeemed Babel by turning the confusion of tongues into multilingual praise.
Each group heard the believers declaring “the wonders of God in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11)
Luke lists all the nations there to stress this.

Christianity is unusual among major faiths.
Islam sucks everything towards Arabic.[11]
Judaism has Hebrew, Hinduism has Sanskrit.
But we have no holy language.
We don’t have to pray in Hebrew or Greek.
Our faith is the one that translates[12]

If you’re into language, this is the faith for you!
The Holy Spirit is the Muse of linguistics. [13]

And it’s not just about inter-personal communication.
Each language has its own nuances, its own unique expressions.
So maybe each language can worship God in ways that no other can.
Maybe that’s why God wants each language there in the throne room of heaven:

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.  (Revelation 5:7)  [14]

Our different tongues can be a curse.
Language politics can divide.
I’ve seen it in Malaysia and India.
The world needs the Spirit of Pentecost
To turn our words of cursing and confusion
Into coherent praise.

Indian church issues

So there you have it.

3 themes that have emerged as I’ve travelled in Asia.
3 reasons to rejoice that I’m Christian.
3 reconciling concepts we can give to the world.

Pottery: the doctrine of creation.
We share a common earthy humanity,
Each one uniquely crafted from clay by our Potter Father God.
This cuts the roots of racism and caste.

Pork: no purity laws.
When we are joined as one in Christ,
Ritual laws that divide us are gone.

Pentecost: the many-tongued Holy Spirit.
The Muse of linguistics.
Bridging language barriers, redeeming Babel in praise.

So what does all this mean for our context here in India?
As a naive outsider, let me share two tentative thoughts about the Indian church.
I bounced these off some friends and they said yes, that’s true, go ahead.
So beat them up.  Not me.

1. Too Hindu.

One Easter Sunday when I went to church in India,
I learned it was also the birthday of Dr Ambedkar,
the leader and hero of the outcaste untouchables who died in 1956.
The preacher explained how Ambedkar wanted to escape Hindu caste.
He considered Christianity.
But he saw there was casteism in church,
So he turned to Buddhism instead.
It’s the saddest thing I’ve heard in church. [15]

That was 60 years ago.
Maybe things have changed.

But I’ve heard people say that caste is still sometimes present in church.
I’ve heard of Brahmin background believers who will not drink from the communion cup,
If it’s been touched by a Dalit.

What happened to the doctrine of creation?
Crafted from common clay, one family, equally loved?
What happened to the grace of Christ destroying purity laws that divide? [16]

Remember the body in the Laws of Manu:
The head receives honour and the feet are despised.
Untouchables below the main castes are dirt.

Compare that to Paul’s image of the body of Christ,
With different gifts in unity.

Those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect… so that there should be no division in the body.  (1 Corinthians 12:22-25)

What a contrast!
May I make a bold suggestion?
India needs to replace the body of Manu with the body of Christ.

And may I make a practical suggestion?
I see many of you hanging out with others of your language or state.
I think you call it groupism.
Why don’t you form an intentional, close friendship with someone different?
Rural to urban, Manipur to Kerala, someone from a different background.
Live out the gospel, and be enriched, by consciously crossing a divide.

2. Too Western

At times the Indian church is too Hindu.

Here is my second gentle observation.
At times the Indian church is too Western.
Most Sundays in India I could almost be in England or America or Australia.
Sitting in pews singing Anglican hymns,
Or clapping to Hillsong choruses.

That makes me feel at home,
But I’ve met those who say it can hinder the gospel.
If Christ comes bundled with Western culture,
Christianity is seen as a foreign faith, or even anti-Indian imperialism.
That can bring unnecessary opposition.

Language goes hand-in-hand with culture,
So I think the Spirit of linguistic diversity is likewise the Spirit of cultural diversity.
In fact Christianity has very few rules on how to worship.
Compared to many faiths
We have huge freedom in the ways we can praise our God.
The Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of the West. [17]

So where is the Spirit of Pentecost here?
Who delights in different cultures,
And sparks praise in each heart tongue,
Not just a single holy language.

Last weekend I went to a Naga tribal buffet with friends.
The pork was tasty – I thank God I don’t have dietary laws!
One student said he loves the folksongs of his tribe, but they are dying out.
After graduating in theology he hopes to study music,
and then write Naga Christian songs.
So his people can worship in their own way instead of copying the West.

I thought, that’s great!
May there be more like him.
India needs more Pentecostal translation
To multiply the tones in which God is praised.

Trinitarian conclusion

If I haven’t put you to sleep by now, you may have noticed a Trinitarian structure.
Not just for a tidy 3 point sermon!

Our Potter Father creates us with unique value, so racism and caste are out.
Christ destroys purity laws so I can fellowship with those who eat pork.
The Spirit turns a Babel of competing tongues into pluriform Pentecostal praise.

India and Malaysia are multiracial, multicultural, multilingual countries.
When I open the newspapers, it seems that both are currently threatened
By many divisions – often over race or caste or language or religious laws.
Other editorial columns complain about forced conformity that suppresses differences.

We need a model of diversity without division.
And unity without uniformity.
That sounds like the Trinity.

This is a fantastic country and a fragmented country.
India needs to replace the body of Manu with the body of Christ.
India could use more Spirit-led worship in local cultures and tongues.
And I think India is longing to meet our Triune God.

[1] Luke’s Gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3), Son of, son of, son of… Son of Adam, the son of God. One father, one family, so we share the same blood.  As Paul said in Athens, “from one blood or ancestor God has made every nation.”  (Acts 17:26)
[2] In the late 19th century, Adolf von Harnack summed up Christianity as “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”  (Adolf von Harnack)
[3] We share this with Judaism and to a lesser degree Islam, which rejects the talk of humanity as images of God and the fatherhood of God, but keeps the strong sense of a single creator God and human quality.  On the pilgrimage to Mecca, whether Ethiopian or Indian, a pan-wallah on the street or Shah Rukh Khan, everyone dresses in the same white robes as a symbol of equality before God.  My next 2 points are, I think, more unique to Christianity.
[4] “When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.”  (Nehemiah 13:3)  The Jewish book of Jubilees said, “Separate yourself from the Gentiles and do not eat with them… because their deeds are defiled, and all of their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable” (Jubilees 22:16).  William Barclay recounts that a Jewish family would hold the funeral of a member who married a Gentile.
[5] Although following such laws can be a personal form of worship and not necessarily legalism – see Psalm 119.  I think the big problem comes when such rules are imposed on others.
[6] On this wall was a sign threatening death if Gentiles crossed it.  Low caste Hindus still face similar exclusions from many upper caste temples.
[7] Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ now at last revealed: Gentiles becoming fellow heirs of the same body as Jews (Ephesians 3:6).
[8] “It is by grace you have been saved… the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)
[9] Read down the authors list: SIL, SIL… SIL.  Summer Institute of Linguistics = Wycliffe Bible translators again.
[10] Some have tried to heal this divide with an artificial universal language like Esperanto (read a New Yorker article here).  As far as I know, they’ve all flopped. Some governments try to force everyone to speak the language of the centre.  As Indians and Malaysians know, such linguistic imperialism doesn’t always make everyone sing in harmony.
[11] I’ve heard Malay Muslims complain that Islam claims to be a universal faith, but Arab Muslims think they’re better than us.
[12] It’s the pattern of incarnation: God in Christ comes to us and speaks our language. Through His Spirit the gospel goes out to all languages of the world.
[13] Open a linguistic textbook and you will find the most authoritative reference to languages is the Ethnologue by Wycliffe Bible translators.  See David I. Smith’s editorial Pentecost, Perplexity and Language Learning in the Journal of Christianity and Foreign Languages here.  He quotes a historian of linguistics who said the day of Pentecost sparked “the first great expansion of the linguistic horizon” of Western culture.  I haven’t yet read it, but The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality and Foreign Language Learning by Smith, David I., and Barbara Carvill (2000) sounds like an intriguing read on “the implications of Christian faith for foreign language education”.
[14] At the Hajj in Mecca there might be Muslims from every nation and tribe and race, perhaps.  But all are praying in Arabic.  So why study other languages and save them from extinction?
[15] I was surprised at the burst of anger I felt.  Then I recalled that in Galatians Paul got pretty furious at Jewish Christians refusing to eat with Gentile believers.
[16] I had a lecturer in Virtue Ethics who argued convincingly that racism is wrong.  Then she told us about one philosophy conference.  One speaker was African, not white, and she admitted she felt uneasy. She had grown up in a conservative English family.  She said, I know racism is wrong, I know all are equal, but if you’ve been raised from birth with prejudice maybe you can never root out these gut reactions.  You just have to try and control them.  I wonder if that’s the situation for some Indian Christians.  The roots of caste go back thousands of years – not easily broken.  My secular lecturer was a noble woman, trying hard to be good, finding she can’t change her heart, like Paul in Romans 7.  But if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, surely he can bring deeper healing?
[17] The first church council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) in effect debated whether the Spirit was the spirit of Judaism.  They concluded that it wasn’t, and “liberated the gospel from its Jewish swaddling clothes into being God’s message for all humankind” (John Stott).  50 years ago at the Council of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church replaced Latin for worship with indigenous languages.  With their focus on feel-good Western pop, Evangelical Protestants seem to be lagging behind!