Clashes in the Book of Acts (Part 2)

imgresExamining the clashes between social groups in the Book of Acts certainly resonates with the frequent episodes of racial tensions we hear about in today’s news. In both settings we can track the way clashes have an element of intense emotion. They also include an ideation or cognitive element, but for now we can note that strong emotions seem to play a consistent role in every human conflict. No matter what the situation may be, negative feelings and mistrust toward others or toward a group are always part of the anatomy of conflict.

Cornelius' home base, Caesarea

Cornelius’ home base at Caesarea

We can feel the sharpness of emotion in Acts 11:2 when Peter returns to Jerusalem after the conversion of Cornelius and his Roman family. Luke points out that “the circumcised believers criticized (Peter)” because he went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. Peter’s criticizers do not seem to be aware of the spiritual narrative; they are simply focused on the social idea that people who should be segregated had mingled together. The Greek word for ‘criticize’ is diakrino, which can also be translated ‘contend.’ This word involves an intensification of judging others, as krino means ‘to judge’ (literally, ‘to separate’), and dia means ‘thoroughly back and forth’. The implication here is that some of the Jewish Christians were over-judging Peter for his association with non-Jews. Here we see how emotions, in collusion with old ideas, can trump a more clear-headed assessment of new ideas.


As the early church grew outward from Jerusalem it was inevitable that non-Jewish people groups would be included in the evangelistic spread of the gospel. Our word ‘Gentiles’ is the Latin version of the Greek word ethnesin which appears in Acts and is tied to the word ‘ethnic’. Like the Hebrew word goyim, they all mean “the nations”, specifically, the non-Jewish nations. Jesus already began to break down the purity lines between Jews and non-Jews in his ministry, but the early church leaders still needed a process to come to terms with their own “Jewish privilege.” I’m finding for myself these days that “white privilege” is something I thought I was beyond years ago, and yet the more I learn about the what black people and other people of color experience day-to-day in our society, especially those with whom I have contact, I realize I have a long ways to go to become more attuned these issues.

acts10-11Peter’s experience with the trance-vision of unclean animals is a fascinating study in how any person of privilege needs to go through a process of deep learning. In fact, this is really a process of unlearning. Ideas that are socially obstructive need to first be unlearned before we can learn of our common humanity with others. And this can take time. With Peter, though, it was a condensed experience. At the outset Peter is already in a posture of semi-openness. He chooses to pray on top of a flat roof, and he is also hungry. All of these elements symbolize Peter’s cognitive and heart-based openness to new experience, new learning. But God has to first create more dissonance in his thinking to really reach the heart of the matter. The divine command to eat unclean is amazingly juxtaposed with Jewish kosher laws. When Peter objects, the voice states: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). This scenario repeats three times, again, symbolizing a cognitive process that takes time for new ideas to sink in and replace old ideas.

God has to first create more dissonance in his thinking


peter_visionEventually the dissonance is dispelled enough for Peter to act on the basis of new ideas, namely, that “God shows no favoritism” but accepts people from every nation and people group. Cornelius too has his own journey of openness and learning. The result is that his close associates and entire household experience the equivalent of the Spirit’s indwelling that the disciples experienced on Pentecost. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (10:45). Try to imagine being astonished today in the context of experiencing a common bond between white and black folk. Maybe that’s a bit of what Clarence ‘Cotton Patch’ Jordan was working for in his interracial efforts at Koinonia Farm in Georgia.

paulpisidianantiochNow the circumcised Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did not have any first-hand experience of what happened. For obvious reasons they responded with negative doubt and critical reaction. Our text, however, reveals a profoundly simple resolution to this moment of high tension. Through storytelling, fears and doubts are dispelled. Peter does not engage in theory or doctrine or even values. He simply narrates what happened. In detail he retraces his own process of overcoming the dissonance and he reviews the conversion experience of the Cornelius contingent. What is essentially happening here is that Peter, in the context of open and constructive dialogue, is allowing everyone to experientially put themselves in his own shoes of mental transformation, and then to appreciate the commonality of the Gentile Christian salvation experience with what is already familiar to them. Bridges are built to replace walls. The outcome seems as simple as the resolution process. “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11:18).

Luke then jumps to the how church expansion extends to Antioch in present day Syria. Perhaps he does this because Antioch provides the setting for the next major clash which is basically an echo of the same clash we have just explored. This sets the stage for the Jerusalem Council. Again, new people who have not been ‘brought up to speed’ have to experientially journey through the pathway of unlearning and new learning. In fact, even Peter has to go through a second round of facing the dissonance and hard learning. Perhaps we too, a half century since Martin Luther King shared his vision of human commonality, still have to go through some new learning on a deep, experiential, heart-felt level.

Contacting Ted Lewis

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