In my sermon last Sunday I said that partisan politics is not the business of the Church. Instead, I posited, the Church is a politics all of its own. I want to use a few of these Rector’s Notes to act as footnotes to back that statement up, and to elaborate on it especially from Scripture. Mostly, I want to meditate on some passages of Scripture that are undeniably political and yet point to what I would call God’s politics, or, in the language of Scripture: the Kingdom of God. God’s reign is in direct contrast to many of the political machinations that we humans have come up with over the millennia. In these explorations, I am taking the long view. Yes, I think Scripture speaks to our pressing current situations, but it does so “sidelong.” It is with an understanding that God’s timing is not humanity’s and that political brokenness is not something that is new (even if it is urgent). So, without naming names, or drawing conclusions that each of you can draw on your own, I want to begin in the first book of the Bible, Genesis.
The Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:1-12 relates the well-known, but not well understood, story of the Tower of Babel. It’s worth reading again since it may have been awhile (the last time it came up in the Sunday lectionary was Pentecost, June 9, 2019).
The story is set in the distant past when humans were first gathering together and building cities. It relates how a group of humans migrated to the plains of Shinar (also known as Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Iran). They developed the technology to make bricks by baking mud and adding bitumen, and they created mortar to hold them together. This technology allowed them, apparently for the first time ever, to start building a city. As the crowning achievement of this city, they began building a great tower. They wanted to the tower to reach to the heavens, “in order to make a name for themselves.” They all spoke the same language. God sees what they are doing and says something fascinating. We are meant to imagine God enthroned in God’s council, surrounded by the heavenly hosts. That is why God is speaking as if to a group. God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” That’s exactly what happens and, as a consequence, the overly ambitious building project is abandoned. The people are scattered around the area, each one looking for the others who speak their language. Each one is struggling to be understood and to be heard.
The theological and ethical point of this story is that God judges the pride and hubris of humanity. One of the most remarkably consistent messages in Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation and almost every book in-between—is that prideful people will always come under God’s judgement in the end, but that God will always be merciful to those who have humility. The tower of Babel story supports the notion that chaos and division are the consequences of pride as it is carried out in the public square. From the perspective from which the story is told, God’s judgement means that God scrambled the languages. From a human point of view, and from the perspective of history, it is easy to see that prideful leadership always results in division and chaos. We recognize both God’s judgement and the natural consequences of pride are the same. As St. Paul puts in Galatians, “you reap what you sow.”
Anthropologically and archeologically, the story of Babel is interesting because it seems to be set in a period of human history, around 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, when humans first began building cities and establishing civilizations on a large scale. Two new human inventions supported the rise of the first cities in Mesopotamia, subsistence agriculture and slavery. Archeology suggests that the first cities in Mesopotamia built around this time included large pyramid type buildings that towered over all the other buildings. Scholars suspect that such a building is what the writer of Genesis had in mind in the story of the tower of Babel. Called, ziggurats, these ancient buildings were temples for the worship of a several ancient deities. In a fascinating concurrence, these structures from the Near East look and probably functioned remarkably similar to pyramids that were constructed in Central and South America by early Meso-American civilizations, though the latter were built thousands of years later.
But, what does this story have to do with politics, particularly the politics of today’s Church? A clue is found in the lectionary. As I alluded to earlier, the story of the tower of Babel is read on the Feast of Pentecost in lectionary year C. There is a reason for this. The lectionary invites us intentionally to contrast Babel with the story of the Day of the Pentecost and the founding of the Church found in Acts 2. You’ll remember that on that day, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples who had gathered in the upper room. When the Holy Spirit arrived, they began speaking in other languages (among other things). This is called glossolalia, and it was mentioned in last Sunday’s readings as well in relationship to Baptism (Acts 19:1-17). On Pentecost day, the disciples spoke in other languages. In Jerusalem for the Passover and its attendant festivals, there were members of the Jewish diaspora who were from many parts of the ancient world and spoke a variety of languages. When these folks heard the disciples and understood what they were saying in a variety of different languages, they were amazed and many of them believed their message about Jesus.
At Pentecost, God was constituting a new community—the Church—a new society, a new city even. This new political body was a reversal of the chaos and discordance of Babel. The Tower of Babel represents God’s judgement against human pride and hubris, but God’s judgement is never the final word. God’s mercy always is. In contrast to a society that is founded on pride and human hubris, God founds a different kind of community, the Church. The Church can only be founded on the self-giving love of Jesus, and on a new and mysterious kind of power: the power of the Holy Spirit. This spiritual power does not coerce or use violence to achieve its ends. Rather the power of the Holy Spirit is the power to meet others where they are, use the language they use, and invite them to experience Jesus’ love for themselves. It is the power to constitute a society based on the principles of the Gospel. When the Church relies on this power (even though this power seems like weakness to this world) the Church cannot fail. When the Church, through pride or fear, resorts to other forms of power such as nationalism or violence, it stops being the Church that God intends. Its witness to the saving grace of Jesus is strongly diminished and it needs to turn around.