Author’s note: I first posted this a few days after September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, it seems just as relevant today.
In the Book of Genesis, there is a deeply instructive story about a rich, arrogant, and heedless people who attempt to build a tower that will reach heaven itself as a monument to their own godlike power. This is a people who have long ago forgotten their humble beginnings, who have forsaken the strictures of their Creator, who have come to mistake might and money for righteousness, and who have fallen into the fateful trap of believing they are in control of fate and can escape the consequences of their actions.
Well, we know how that story ends. Just as construction nears completion, the building collapses and the people, who have heretofore spoken a single language, find themselves jabbering in mutually unintelligible tongues. Instantly divided into tiny bands, they scatter to the four winds. Impoverished, fearful, stripped of their pretensions by God’s judgment on the sin of pride, they are once more put in touch with their inescapable vulnerability. In other words, chastened for their wickedness. From this story about the Tower of Babel we derive, of course, the word babble, a kind of speech in which sound is divorced from meaning.
Babble is mostly what we have been hearing from people in authority and from media pundits since the attacks in New York and Washington. Perhaps because we have been assaulted by a steady stream of rhetoric divorced from reality, a country that takes great pride in its Judeo-Christian heritage has overlooked the obvious parallels between the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center.
In the story of the Tower of Babel hubris is epitomized by the way the people have come to abuse the gift of a single, unifying tongue, perceiving it as something to which they are entitled – and which cannot be taken away from them. It is, they believe, their birthright. In the contemporary story of the twin towers, our own hubris is epitomized by the greedy expectation that globablization cannot fail to knit us together in a single “total market,” as some financial “idealists” call it – into a world in which the values of the market have penetrated every inch of the globe, including the inner space of the human soul. A world, in short, in which there is only one God and the Global Market is His Name.
That hubris, in turn, includes the heedlessness of a people who enjoy the gift of unparalleled wealth in the midst of, and in large part on the back of, the off-stage suffering and oppression of two-thirds of the earth’s population, of a people who have come to believe that this wealth is not a gift, but something to which they are entitled – a birthright that no one, not even God, can take away. Of a people who listen to their leader proclaim that their “high consumption lifestyle” is “blessed” and do not wince with shame or quake in holy terror.
This is indeed a time for mourning and prayer. But in the midst of our grief and lamentation, what we need now is not politicians falling all over themselves to proclaim our innocence – politicians who themselves embody the very worst of our collective arrogance, shallowness, venality, and puffed-up sense of entitlement. What we need now are not pundits declaring that no possible reason can be found for this attack upon us.
What we need now is a prophetic voice — maybe two or three. We need an Isaiah or a Jeremiah, harsh men who directed their anger not at external enemies but at the waywardness of their own people. We need prophets demanding that we look upon these events and ask ourselves what it is we have done – or not done – to call this savage retribution down upon our heads. We need voices rising up not to placate us with empty talk about how the People of Israel surely could not deserve such punishment, or to divert our attention with bombast about wreaking vengeance on others, but to remind us that the very belief that human beings are in control of their own destiny is a kind of blasphemy, that overweening wealth in and of itself is a sin, that selfishness is a transgression which a Just and Merciful God will punish in order to put His children back on the path of righteousness.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln warned his countrymen that even though the Civil War appeared to be drawing to a close, Almighty God might decide it should continue until every drop of sweat wrung from the brow of the slaves was repaid with a drop of blood on the battlefield – and that there would be nothing that anyone could do to prevent this should God deem it necessary.
In the 135 years since this prophetic restatement of true Judeo-Christian values, we seem to have forgotten about the moral order that prevails in the universe – a moral order that, if tipped off balance, will redress collective guilt by punishing the innocent along with the wicked.
In the days and weeks ahead, let’s hope we find the strength not just to lash out, but to look inward, at what this prophetic destruction of our own Tower of Babel is trying tell us. Let’s hope we pause to ask ourselves what Isaiah or Jeremiah – or for that matter, Jesus – would be saying to us right now about our waywardness. Instead of gnashing our teeth in self-pity, let us instead sit ourselves down by the waters of Babylon and, yea, weep for Zion.
–Tower of Babel, painting by Bruegel