Whoever you are, the forces running the world are on your side

Parthians, Medes, Elamites… Cappadocia… the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene… If you have ever stood up in church to do the Bible reading on Pentecost, you will remember. How did you get on pronouncing all those place names? This post argues that we should now add Lesbos, Kos and Calais to the list.

600 years before Luke wrote the book of Acts, an anonymous poet (Isaiah 40-55) argued that there is only one god, the creator of the whole world.

In those days most ancient near eastern kings claimed that there was one supreme god of the whole world, namely the god of their nation. Just as he had become supreme by defeating the other gods in battle, the king’s job was to defeat human enemies and bring the whole world under this god’s benevolent authority. Gods fought for their nations; it followed that the strongest nation had the strongest god.

So there was a rhetoric of monotheism, but combined with hostility to other gods and their nations. For the losers, there were no crumbs of comfort: their own supreme god, their own creator of the world, had been defeated in battle by the enemy god so they were bereft of effective divine support.

This idea of the one supreme god of the world was really only imperialistic rhetoric. Scholars debate how much of an innovator Second Isaiah was: was he just echoing the rhetoric?

Pentecost in stained glass window
Still, an important issue was at stake. Even if Second Isaiah didn’t see it, his Jewish and Christian successors agreed with what they thought he meant.

As long as the different nations could conceive of themselves as created by different gods, they would naturally expect that foreigners were created for different purposes. This might explain why foreigners spoke different languages, ate different food and lived different lifestyles. Why should their god expect them to care in the slightest about the well-being of foreigners? Especially if the foreigners worshipped an enemy god!

Something made Jews see things differently. Maybe it was abandoning the hope of ever winning another war. Maybe it was Nehemiah’s settlement, almost a century after Second Isaiah: the Persian Government, anxious about rebellious Egyptians, sent him to keep them loyal. Part of the deal was to make them self-governing within the empire, with the justification that they were an especially God-bothering bunch of people.

The difference is: if there really is only one god, there are no enemy gods. And if all the world’s humans are created by the same god, it makes sense to believe that God cares just as much for foreigners as for us. Even if they eat snails, or their breath smells.

But there is a catch. The Jews were only allowed to retain their distinctive beliefs and practices because the Persians treated them as different from everyone else. Part of their scriptures (the Holiness Code in Leviticus) was a deliberate attempt to establish laws which made them different from foreigners. They retained self-government by persuading the Persian Government that they considered themselves a chosen race. Long after the collapse of the Persian Empire, the idea of Jews being a chosen race remained popular.

This is what that Pentecost passage blows open. Parthians, Medes, Elamites… if you find where all those places are on a map, you will see that the people described had come to Jerusalem from every direction. It isn’t an ideal story: Luke turns it into one of his unconvincing miracles, and specifies that they were all Jews – which they would have been, for the festival in Jerusalem – but let’s put those aside. The early Christian message, even before Luke wrote this text, claimed that the one god of the whole world is for everyone. You don’t have to belong to a chosen race to be loved by God.

The idea is foundational for both Christianity and Islam. Everybody is a child of God. Wheat and potatoes, apples and bananas, wood for building houses and wool for knitting jumpers, are all God’s gifts, given to meet the needs of everybody.

Any economic theory or political settlement which leaves some people without food or a home should therefore be seen as both anti-Christian and anti-Islamic. Perhaps anti-Jewish as well, but I’ll leave Jews to judge that.

We cannot explain the colossal number of refugees who today are travelling around the world, looking for somewhere to call home, as an accidental product of a war here and a drought there. These are important parts of the picture, but they both express a more far-reaching failure.

The rise of xenophobia, and the determination of many governments to keep refugees out, are signs that we are losing that sense of humanity as a unity. As the barriers go up, people stop caring about what happens the other side. The weaker our sense of unity gets, the more likely we are to get embroiled in another war.

The fundamental reason why we exist is that we are loved. All of us, equally. Planet Earth provides enough to meet everyone’s needs. Whenever somebody is without, somebody is being too greedy.

Whoever you are, the forces running the world are on your side. And on everybody else’s just as much.