By the Waters of Babylon: Judeo-Christian values and “The Attack on America”

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Author’s note: This essay was first published a few days after 9/11/2001.

In the Book of Genesis, there is a story about a rich and heedless people who attempt to build a tower that will reach heaven itself as a monument to themselves. 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.

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 judgement on the sin of pride, they are once more put in touch with their human 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.

No doubt the depth of our shock and horror at the traumatic loss of 3,000 innocent American lives has clouded our thinking, but so far a nation steeped in the Judeo-Christian heritage has managed to overlook the parallels between the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center. Perhaps this is why so much of what we’ve heard from authorities in government and the media has the surreal quality of public discourse divorced from reality. In other words – babble.

In the story of the Tower of Babel the people are punished for their hubris. In their pride they 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 story of the twin towers, hubris inhered in the very expectation those buildings represented that globablization can and should lead to the single “total market” enthusiastically endorsed by some financial “idealists”— call them free market idolators – a world in which the values of the market govern 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.

Or perhaps we can identify hubris in the heedless way we in the West have enjoyed the gift of unparalleled wealth in the midst of, and in large part on the back of, the off-stage suffering and oppression of most of the earth’s population. Or in our belief that this wealth is not a gift, but something to which we are entitled – a birthright that no one, not even God, can take away – a sense of entitlement that enabled us recently to hear George Bush proclaim that our “high consumption lifestyle” is “blessed” and 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, and without for a moment gainsaying the innocence of those killed or the criminality and utter evil of the terrorists, we need to be reminded that when a people have gone astray, God punishes the good along with the wicked.

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, men who recognized that even the brutality of the Assyrians and the Bablyonians could ultimately be an instrument of God’s will.

We need prophets demanding that we look upon the events in Washington and New York 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 total 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, Lincoln warned that even though the Civil War appeared to be drawing to a close, the Lord might decide it should continue until every drop of sweat wrung from the brow of 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 statement, 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 guilty.

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. As Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and everything in between, 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, instead of stoking our thirst for revenge, let us instead sit ourselves down by the waters of Babylon and, yea, weep for Zion.

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