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May 23, 2010 | 4:00 p.m.

E Pluribus Unum

John W. Vest
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Genesis 11:1–9
Acts 2:1–21


Today we hold together, perhaps in creative tension, two iconic biblical stories: the story of the city of Babel and the story of what happened on the Day of Pentecost after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

Clearly the connection between these two stories is the issue of language. The story of Babel provides a mythic etiology, or explanation, for why the world has so many different languages. And in the story of Pentecost, language barriers are overcome by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit so that people from different nations are able to understand each other.

As we ponder the connection between these two stories, I wonder, how is it that language difference becomes language barrier? “Difference” is a mostly neutral term, one that can carry either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context. But “barrier” is a more straightforwardly negative term. Barriers divide. Barriers are obstacles that must be overcome or perhaps torn down.

So how do we get from Babel to Pentecost, and what is at stake in the shift from difference to barrier and beyond?

The story of Babel is one that almost everyone who attended Sunday School is familiar with. Most of the time, however, this story is referred to as the “Tower of Babel.” We are taught that the point of the story is that humans had become so full of hubris, so full of themselves, that they wanted to be equal to God, and so they built a tower that reached high into the heavens, high into the realm of the divine. God, of course, is not pleased with this, so God punishes the people by dispersing them throughout the world and transforming their one, primordial language into many different and incompatible languages. This divine punishment would ensure that the world’s civilizations could not function together. The cultural and linguistic chaos that ensued would prevent humanity from organizing themselves and ever again challenging the supremacy of God.

The moral of this Sunday School lesson is clear. Pride and hubris is bad. We should humbly recognize our status as inferior to God and should never try to be more than we are, never again try to make ourselves into deities.

The subtext of this Sunday School lesson is equally clear, though usually not stated so bluntly. The subtext of this lesson is that cultural difference must obviously be bad, because God inflicts it upon humanity as a punishment. Presumably, had it not been for the hubristic construction of the tower, things would have been just fine, even better perhaps, had everyone maintained a single language and a single culture.

A few years ago, a Bible scholar at McCormick Theological Seminary named Ted Hiebert made the bold argument that this standard, familiar, Sunday School version of the story of Babel is just plain wrong. He argued that for centuries both Jews and Christians had misread this story, presuming that it was about hubris and punishment. Ted was able to show that this story isn’t about punishment at all. This story isn’t even about a tower (Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 126.1, 2007, pp. 29–58).

As biblical readers have known for ages, Babel is in fact the ancient city of Babylon. It was a great, magnificent city. And it did indeed have a tower, a religious temple known as a ziggurat, whose top was in the heavens in the same way that the John Hancock Center across the street reaches up into the heavens. The point is simply that Babylon was a great city with a tall tower. The text itself doesn’t focus on the tower. And the text itself never says that they were trying to be equal to God or actually reach God’s home in heaven. This has all been read into it by interpreters.

Instead, the point of the story is that the people wanted to be together in a single city, surrounded by people just like themselves, who all spoke the same language, who all believed the same things. This way of living was safe. It was secure. It was comfortable.

I know what that’s like. I mostly grew up in the South, mostly surrounded by people who were just like me: white, middle to upper class, Protestants. To be sure, there were minorities, but they seemed to be so insignificant that we didn’t care that much about them, except to point out how different and necessarily inferior they were. It was an isolated, insulated life. But it was safe and comfortable. I never felt very challenged or threatened.

It was only when I went away to college and began to meet people who were different from me that I began to realize how protected and insular my life had been. I had become by that time a no-holds-barred religious fundamentalist. I knew that I was right and others were wrong. I was confident and passionate about my convictions. I had never seriously been challenged or confronted.

But that all changed. I began to encounter people who thought about religion, and the rest of life, in completely different ways than I. I encountered questions that I didn’t have easy answers for. I started to see people as people, not as opposing viewpoints. I realized that I had been blinded by homogeneity and self-righteousness.

I think that is what the story of Babel is all about. God knew that isolated, insular, homogenous culture was a bad thing. So God injected true difference and diversity into the equation. God made it so that people were different, spoke different languages, had different cultures, thought different things, perhaps even believed different things.

The moral of this story is that difference and diversity is good. We might even say that it is a gift from God.

But that is not the end of this story. The problem comes when difference is used as a pretense for division. And that is how difference becomes a barrier, a barrier that divides, a barrier that separates, a barrier that destroys the essential connections of humanity.

We all know the reality of this kind of world. Nations rage against each other. People distrust each other. There is a lack of understanding. There is a lack of civility. There is a lack of peace.

This is where the vision of Pentecost comes into play. In the Christian Century magazine and blog, soon-to-be-dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary Michael A. King reads Pentecost as a parable for discovering true understanding in a world that is not characterized so much by misunderstanding as it is by not even trying to understand (Michael A. King, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 18 May 2010, p. 20; “Blogging toward Sunday: Other People’s Languages,” 17 May 2010, theology.com).

Through books and magazines, newspapers and blogs, cable television and radio, the loudest voices of our culture seek nothing more than to divide us from each other by ever-widening gaps and chasms. These pundits and talking heads and pontificators have destroyed what’s left of the middle ground. The complexities of our world have been reduced to talking points and bullet points, bullet points that can be as deadly as their namesake suggests.

Is the vision of Spirit-filled communication a counternarrative to the reality of our world? Might it inspire us, the heirs of that seminal Day of Pentecost, to work for something better in our world? Is there something about the good news of Pentecost that defies the bitter divisions of our world and hopes for something new? Is it possible for us to reclaim the gift of difference and diversity without making them into barriers? It is possible for us to once again imagine that difference and diversity can be constructive instead of destructive?

We should never forget that we gather here in this space at a busy intersection of a great city, in the shadow of a great tower. We live in a modern day Babel. But ours is the part of the story after the interjection of diversity. Chicago has been called a patchwork quilt, and it’s true. We are blessed with such great diversity, such magnificent cultural variety, so many different voices and languages blending into one beautiful cacophony.

But we’ve let those differences become divisions. We’ve let diversity become a barrier. The boundaries between our neighborhoods are sometimes stark. Ride the Red Line from Howard to 95th Street and you will enter and exit vastly different neighborhoods, more different from each other than that idealized vision of Chicago’s patchwork quilt will suggest. And when those boundaries do erode, it is not often due to integration but to the expansion of homogenized gentrification.

Right here in this city, in this incubator of big ideas, divisions run deep. How might the vision of Pentecost inspire us to dream a bigger dream? What good news have we been given to share with our brothers and sisters? How might we be a light in this city? How might this city be a light for the rest of the nation? For the rest of the world?

Sometimes I hate that we call spaces like this sanctuaries. By definition, sanctuaries are safe. Sometimes they are too safe. Too secure. Too secluded. How easy it is for a sanctuary with a tall steeple to become a city with a tall tower.

The Spirit of the living God wants to break us loose from our sanctuary and set us loose into the world. The Spirit of the living God wants to shake us free from the limitations of our own languages and ways of being and challenge us to encounter our neighbors as brother and sisters. The Spirit of the living God is calling us to live into the vision and power of Pentecost. The Spirit of the living God is calling us to show the world something better.

Amen.