Monday, June 13, 2011

Babel, Pentecost, and the Beginning of the Redemption of the World

20th century philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, and others all teach an essential truth: language matters. The words and discourse used to describe reality in turn actually create and construct that very reality. Those who control the words and terms control how reality is perceived. I won’t explain the whole theory in what I hope is a short essay, but some examples commonly used are rights discourse (used to justify violence against those with no rights), nation-state discourse (used to unify the nation against the outsiders), and discourse on sexuality (used to define and exclude those who are deemed sexually deviant).

Thus, these philosophers argue, language not only fails to describe the world as it truly is, but it also inevitably inscribes the values and taboos of the ruling class. Institutions of oppression are inevitably established, masked by a linguistic system that justifies it.

Interestingly enough, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel also addresses this truth. In the story, the whole world has one common language. One group of people decides to create a city (Babel) with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that “we may make a name for ourselves, and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). We can see their fear of being conquered and divided. Their response is to group together, unified by a single language, build a fortress city, and defend against those who wish to scatter them.
The Tower of Babel: Symbol of Empire

God, however, does not seem to like this. This is the establishment of the first empire, and while it is not a threat to God, he knows that such a dominant power would wreak immeasurable havoc on earth. God says, “Let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other”. They do so, and the empire is halted in its tracks. The very thing Babel was created to defend against—its people being scattered—is in fact what happens to them.

God’s intervention at Babel creates other languages, and thus more opportunities for different states to rise up with their own language of oppression. But God is more willing to have that than a singular language that could dominate everybody.

Now, I recently noticed that in the Bible, the Hebrew word for Babylon is not just similar, it’s exactly the same as the word for Babel. Thus every time we see Babylon come up, the poetic-spiritual connection must be made to the Tower of Babel and to language. The destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem: Babel. The beginning of the Israelite captivity: Babel. Babel sees [herself] as God: “I will continue forever—the eternal queen!” Babel shrieks in Isaiah 47,“I am, and there is none besides me.”

Babel is again portrayed as the Great Queen/Prostitute in the apocalyptic visions of John’s Revelation. How can Babel come up again, having been conquered by the Persians nearly five hundred years prior? Because Babel is an archetype, a symbol for empire, domination, greed, and spiritual adultery.

In Revelation 17, Babel is a woman in a desert sitting on a scarlet beast. The beast is covered with blasphemous names: words so evil that merely writing them down was blasphemy—again highlighting the connection between wrongful language and evil. Later in Revelation, we learn that the woman Babel “is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth”, that the merchants all trade their goods with her, and that she is the murderer God’s people. Babel is the locus of all power, wealth, and violence against God.

It therefore makes sense that in John’s vision Babel’s violent destruction is met with wild celebration in heaven. At last!— the great city that is the spiritual signifier for every emperor, greedy merchant, and persecutor of innocents has been thrown down. With the final destruction of Babel, God’s holy city (New Jerusalem) can descend from heaven. In New Jerusalem are people from every nation and language; gone is the false unity that Babel attempted to impose. God brings peaceful diversity.

But is there hope in the here and now? What can God’s people do to battle the Babels around us? Hatred, greed, otherization, bifurcation—they surround us all, and many of God’s people prostitute themselves to these things. Whether it is out of fear of “being scattered”, or ignorance, or perhaps because they have bought into the myths of Empire, too many Christians see serving the nation-state above God and engaging in imperialism or domination as acceptable and even admirable practices.

But God gives us a linguistic turn to escape the language of Babel. And that is through Jesus, the Word. John 1 is perhaps the most incredible chapter in the Bible from a philological perspective. God seems to know that He cannot be completely translated into human language, so he must become human. Jesus is God’s translation: all of God’s words, logic, and law revealed in one single being. To speak God’s language, his Words, we follow Jesus’ example.

And Jesus behaves in a pretty anti-Babel manner. He wants his followers scattered, that doesn’t bother him in the least. He eschews violence. He opposes all Empire, Roman and Jewish alike. He cares little for nationalism, instead seeking out the “Others” around him: women, Samaritans/Palestinians, Romans, slaves, the poor… Jesus shows us how to break the curse of Babel. And that’s through unconditional love and forgiveness. “Stop trying to make a name for yourselves—I’ll give you a new name”.

As yesterday was Pentecost, I’d like to close with one final bit of hope related to that. Yes, Jesus is currently gone. All we have of his life are a few dozen pages written about him. Is that enough to escape the Babelonian discourse that we’re immersed in? But there is more. In Pentecost, we see another linguistic turn. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and they speak to a crowd—but each listener hears words in their own language. The curse of Babel, where language was confused, is finally reversed. It is a foretaste of Heaven, where every single nation will praise God together, unified.

The Holy Spirit is God living inside of humans, enabling us to speak and live out God’s language as Jesus did. That may mean physical miracles, or speaking in tongues, or prophecy. And it may mean living in an anti-Babel manner, by loving our enemies, aiding the oppressed, and reaching out to the Other. We escape the lure of Babel; we “come out” of the great Prostitute (Revelation 18:4). Let us stop whoring around. Let us reject Babel everywhere we find her. Yes, she rules the world, and must still for a time yet, but let us not speak her language. 

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