Babel No More

Crossposted from A Bible and a Bat’leth

Sermon preached on May 5, 2013 at Mississauga Mennonite Fellowship. In my introduction, I acknowledge the land and the many nations who have used, shared and lived on it since time immemorial, especially the Mississauga people. I introduce Christian Peacemaker Teams Aboriginal Justice Team and thank the congregation for inviting us to speak.

The following scripture texts have already been read: Genesis 11:1-9 and John 8:31-43

In her 2009 TED talk, entitled The Danger of the Single Story, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, starts by identifying the stories she read as a child. Growing up in Nigeria, she began to read early on, and she read the books she could get; British and American children’s books. At the age of seven she began write her own stories.
“All my characters were white, blue eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And they talked a lot about the weather. How lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, had never been outside of Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangos, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.”

The stories she read as a child only featured foreigners, so she wrote about foreigners, without even thinking that literature could be about Nigerian children until she encountered Nigerian writers.

Later, attending University in the USA, her roommate is surprised that she speaks English so well, that she knows how to use a stove. When she asks to listen to some of her tribal music, the roommate is disappointed to be given a cassette tape of Mariah Carey.

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk

Chimamanda Adichie identifies the root of this misunderstanding as the ‘single story’ of Africa, a story of catastrophe, the only story that her roommate had ever heard. Many of our beliefs about the world are contained in stories. Stories tell us who we are. Cherokee storyteller Thomas King says ‘the truth about stories is: stories are all we are’

Sometimes these powerful stories shift and move when we have real-life contact that challenges the claim to ubiquitous truth of the single story. Very often, though, the single story remains in control, and the new information is ignored, or twisted to fit the existing prejudice.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is trying to communicate his message of freedom from sin to his fellow Jews. He knows well the pride they have in their ancestry, descendants of Abraham, and the way that this blinds them to their own captivity. He offers freedom, but they cannot see that they need it, because ‘we have never been slaves to anyone’.

Hebrew history is a continuous narrative of slavery and domination, interspersed with episodes of liberation. In Jesus’ day the people were under the boot of Rome. Yet they dismiss Jesus’ call to freedom because their own proud story is too strong. He asks “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.

The story that they have of their own independence blinds them to the fact that their leaders are enthralled to the stark logic of Empire. Their stories are serving the purposes of Empire. “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.” They desire to kill Jesus because that’s what the Empire demands — and they can’t even see that it is not of their own accord.

The title of this sermon is ‘Babel No More’. The traditional understanding of the Tower of Babel Story is that the descendants of Noah’s family, comprising the entire human family, gathered in rebellion to God and tried to construct a tower that reached to heaven. Threatened by their unity, God confuses their languages, creating division and difference. Unable to communicate, they abandon the work and scatter across the earth, thus creating the many tribes and nations and language groups.

I would like us to read the Babel story a little differently this time. The Babel story is often told as etiology, as a myth to answer to the question ‘why are there so many languages and different peoples across the earth’. But it’s actually much more interesting than that. When I read it in the Bible, not in my children’s picture Bible, I have an uncanny sense that it is a sort of Trojan Horse — a complicated and mysterious story that has been packaged as a simple myth.

‘Now the whole earth had one language and a common speech’. Hebrew writing uses a great deal of reductive or repetitive phrasing. It’s most obvious in the poetry.

Psalm 91 excerpts examples: They who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty
You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot

Statements are repeated with slightly different emphasis or language, to give us a fuller picture. It’s like 3D glasses with one red and one green eyepiece. When you engage with both, you see a much more dynamic image. Instead of demanding that language contains truth, the text gives us examples of language that point towards truth.

This capacity for deeper meaning to emerge from two similar but not identical phrases can be found on a larger scale in the Bible. Genesis contains and contextualises older songs as part of the prose narrative. The histories contain parallel accounts of the same events from different perspectives. The poetry of the wisdom literature contains the sort of repeated lines that help us grasp the transcendent reality behind or beyond the text.

And of course the New Testament – the four gospels which elaborate or emphasise different details of Jesus’ life and teaching and even differ on factual things like who discovered the empty tomb.

As someone who grew up with the teaching that the Bible was factual and inerrant, I was fascinated to learn that early Christian communities had access to texts which unified and standardised the various gospels, smoothing out difficulties and differences. Yet when the canon was compiled, they chose four different gospels instead of one.

Why is this important? Because it says that it is important that there are different voices, speaking, giving witness, talking to us at each moment. The Bible is not a single story, and we should not try to read it as if it is. I might want to eliminate some bits. Canaanite genocide. Anti-semitism in John. But I also want to ignore the bits of my society that I don’t like. As someone called to the truth, I don’t get to do that.

But for now, let’s go back to Babel. When it says “the whole earth had one language and a common speech”, I wonder what meaning is being teased out in the repetition. What is the difference between language and speech?

Much like Chimamanda Adiche, I was an early and avid reader. At breakfast in a busy household, I read the back of the cereal packet. Sometimes the same information would be present in both English and French. I assumed that the French text was a word-for-word translation of the English. So, I would count words from the beginning of a sentence, and learn what the eighth word in the French sentence meant by looking at the eighth word in the English sentence. Now, I didn’t know that different languages were structured differently. I didn’t know grammar – even though I knew my English Grammar, used it each time I spoke, or read, or even thought. But I assumed that all languages were identical, except in the specific words they used for specific things.

I now know that I was wrong. Different languages are much more than equivalent systems for naming. A language contains, stores, explores and transmits the unique cultural worldview, system of understanding, of the culture it comes from. So when the Bible says ‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech’, it doesn’t just mean that everyone used the same words for God, brick, and king. It meant that they all shared a basic conception of reality. The language they shared defined their reality — which things were possible.

I suggest that the story of the Tower of Babel is concerned intimately with language; not just language as a means of exchanging ideas, but language as a means of creating, revealing and hiding ideas, of controlling ideas. It is about language as power, and the power of language.

The power of language is explored in the novel 1984, as the totalitarian state gradually and intentionally reduces vocabulary. To eliminate concepts of freedom and democracy, they remove the words from the dictionary so that the ideas cannot be spoken, written, or eventually even thought. This came to mind when I read the RSV translation, which offers ‘now the whole earth had one language and few words’.

Babel is based on ontological slavery. The society of Babel had only a single story. They were enslaved to one vision, one way of doing things, one way of understanding what the world is, who God is, and how to relate to one another. ‘Now the whole earth was under a single dominant discourse and one understanding’

Consider the placement of the story in Genesis. These are the generations after the flood. The covenant that God made with Noah was for his family to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth’. Travelling East, they gather on the plain and decide to build a city and ‘make a name for ourselves’.

They seize the naming power of God for themselves. They declare that the work of their own hands will determine who they are — not the command of God. They will forge an identity.

So far, so typical. Instead of filling the earth, they decide to stay in one place. They develop construction technology and infrastructure. We have accounts of cities before in the Bible, but this is the first city following the flood. And they build it with bricks, baked thoroughly, and tar for mortar. Tar, such as you might use to waterproof a boat. Are they constructing a waterproof city because they suspect that God might try to drown them once again?

It’s not enough for them to flee God. They seek to challenge God, to replace God. They start to construct a giant tower. That’s what unifying domination discourse-driven societies do. They construct monumental megaprojects. The Pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Temple of Herod, the Aztec Temple Cities, the Great Wall of China. The Cathedrals of Europe. The Alberta Tarsands. These projects might have a stated purpose, usually around the defence or enrichment of the realm, but their true purpose and effect is to amplify the power and authority of the discourse-holders and keep all other discourses enslaved to the single story. They become a cause in their own right — a self justifying purpose.

The story of Babel said — unify, be one, be strong, be planted, be established — and do this by the work of your own hands. Be the same. Bury difference. Stifle disagreement. And whatever you do, be ruled by the Story of Who We Are. Do not be subject to the wild whims of an uncontrollable, uncreated God.

So God intervenes. God liberates every dialect, discourse and desire from the shackles of the single story of the Babel Hegemony. The people are released to follow their own inclinations. Naturally, they stop construction of the megaproject. Of course they don’t want to build a tower. Slave labour is hard to maintain without a driving will. With no controlling, enslaving single story they disperse all over the earth, each with their own language, customs, understanding.

What are the stories in our society today? The stories that tell us who to be afraid of, or who cannot be trusted. The stories that tell us who should not be given rights. These are stories of fear. Or what about tragic stories? The stories that exhaust us with their demands on our time and money and energy. Those stories that subtly put us in the place of God — to give or deny life, to be the saviours of our fellow human beings.

In my time with the Aboriginal Justice Team I have heard a lot of stories. People of different nationalities tell me about their ancestors, and explain how they come to be where they are. It’s good that people know these stories. It is better when we can hear each other’s stories and hold them to be as valuable as our own.

In Canada, the imposition of colonial empires onto existing indigenous territories demanded that the languages and stories already here be destroyed. Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools were banned from using their own languages and stopped from learning the stories and culture they were born into. Everyone was enslaved into a single narrative — the idea of progress, advancement, civilisation, capitalism.

Even though the schools are closed, that single story is still extremely potent. It demands the erasure of indigenous identity and presence on the land, to feed the economy, to power the cities, to safeguard the identity of the Canadian state as the sole owner of this territory.

In the face of the current onslaught on their constitutionally-protected rights and freedoms, our indigenous sisters and brothers are inviting us to be ‘Idle No More’. As a starting place, I am inviting us to say ‘Babel No More’. To listen to the other stories. Stories of justice, and right relationship. Stories of liberation. Stories that counter prejudices. Stories that do not dominate, and that resist domination. Those stories are there. They are here. But to hear them, we need to stop listening to the single story. Just like Jesus’ Jewish followers had to stop repeating the story of their glorious ancestry in order to be able to hear his offer of freedom.

Let’s consider this as we approach Pentecost, the birthday of the church. The story of Pentecost is in some ways a mirror or completion of the story of Babel, bringing everything full circle as a crowd of diverse believers from “every nation under heaven” manage to understand one another’s speech through the Holy Spirit.

Babel No More. What does this new age look like? Which stories are we telling? Which stories are waiting to be released and heard for us all to share the good life that our good Creator intended for us?

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. AMEN