The Tower of Babel today
A Scottish Nationalist MSP caused a minor stir lately for writing about the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in a piece about the Scottish Independence debate. Sure, at surface level, its a bizarre connection to make, but perhaps there is a thread of truth somewhere in this connection.
Its a Sunday School story that we probably doesn’t get much attention in weekly church services and bible studies. God punishes people for building a tall tower, by creating what appears to be confusion and disunity. But there’s a lot more to the passage than this – even if only as an allegorical myth. That said, there is evidence of obsession with tall buildings during the time period and in the region being described, so whilst it may not be historically accurate in every dimension, some historical reality is being reflected upon.
I wonder if the reason we don’t talk much about this passage is because of its awkward contradiction with the last two centuries of world history – history in which the Church is indisputably complicit. God’s plan is for global cultural diversity. We have been part of a process of forced cultural indoctrination. We have benefited from a politics that says ‘we don’t know you, but we know best’*, ‘become like us or perish’.
I would certainly hesitate to draw the parallel between the Tower Babel story and the Scottish independence fight, and I’m glad the MSP in question does so too. But this story has a resonance for those who’s suffering is deeply entrenched in cultural, political and economic Imperialism.
But when looking at the world around us, the Babel story often comes to mind. How else could Christians spiritually analyse the motivations behind London’s ‘Shard’, or any of a number of other buildings? Or do we just walk past them without thinking about the motivations behind their presence?
We surely cannot think that the Tower of the story would have been built by the same class of people who ordained that it should be built, right? It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Israelites slaving in Egypt, the Irish slaving to build our railways or any modern day construction project that somehow embodies the success of our Finance Industry, as most of the ‘towers’ being constructed in London claim to. The vanity buildings of history, dedicated to human achievement (and there are a fair few religious, even church buildings amongst these) are never built without trampling a few people’s lives and dignity underneath.
I could spend hours drawing parallels between the Babel civilisation and our own – none of them terribly flattering. As I said at the outset, this story is definitely one which, though we probably heard it a long time ago, sits very uncomfortably with us today. We can easily be dismissive of it, but how much does that say about us?
* This is a quote from ‘Light gives heat’ by Jars of Clay (available on Spotify). Its a great track to use in meditating on Western Christianity’s superiority complex.