Once upon a time, so the story goes, the people gathered together to build a monument to their awesomeness. At the start, it did not seem like a difficult thing to do. The people shared a common language and it was easy to communicate with one another.
Yet something happened as they built their tower to the heavens. The workers started speaking in different ways. Neighbors could no longer understand one another. The one language became many. Everything was no longer the same.
Rather than trying to figure out how to bridge their newfound differences, confusion raged. The tower was left unfinished. The people scattered.
I don’t normally think about the Tower of Babel story. It is a short tale that seeks to basically explain all the different languages. And the text gives off the idea that YHWH is oddly semi-threatened by humanity’s architectural ambition. Yet I found myself thinking about it in class earlier this week and again today on Maundy Thursday.
On Tuesday, we were discussing a book which is based on the premise that the church was the center of American life and now it is not. Though this transition took place over many years, the shift feels seismic enough that I feel like I have read 20 books in seminary with the exact same central theme.
Of course, the shift away from the church-centered way of life is an issue that vexes a lot of folks. Many a sermon, a conversation, a tweet, and a handwringing have been based on this idea that we have drifted away from this Golden Age in which the church was the established authority in the land. The way people talk about it, you would think that mid-20th Century America was the apex of Christianity.
I’m starting to think it was our Babel. At least, an illusionary one.
It is not so much that everyone was following God with their entire heart back in the day, all of those people were simply speaking the same cultural language. This made the period seem like the church was this great monument of awesomeness, but people’s bond with God have to go deeper than it being the only game in town. Otherwise, there will be massive amounts of confusion when that one language becomes many.
That shift happened. The United States is more diverse than it has ever been. Over half a century removed from its perceived heyday, the church is still confounded. One can see it everyday as the various Christian leaders respond to the different languages in culture and, probably even more so, in discovering the variety that existed within the church all along. Some are confused. Some are despondent. Some are angry. Some have gone to live among the masses while others are fortifying themselves inside of Babel’s Tower.
All of that is what I thought about on Tuesday. It left me at a loss.
Today is Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the Latin mandatum, which is found at the beginning of John 13:34:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
For those that follow Jesus, love is supposed to be our first language. And I think that gets lost in the Babel of it all. One of love’s wonderful characteristics is its ability to transcend barriers. Grace, kindness, humility—all things born out of love—rarely need a translator. True love can change the timbre of seemingly harsh words.
We live in a society where Twitter, Facebook, and blogs has given us the ability to speak with unprecedented power. The power of our language can reach thousands of people and around the world in very short time. And Christians are speaking a great deal. But if there is not love to bridge the cultural language barriers then all of that speaking, as the Apostle Paul writes, is utter nonsense.
That sacrificial, all-giving love that Jesus embodied is the only way that any sense is going to be made out of all the noise. May we not say farewell to each other in the church when we speak different languages. May we not bark in anger at a world that we do not totally understand and that does not totally understand us.
As we remember all that Jesus did during Holy Week, let us remember the love that was the catalyst for it all. And let us take it to heart.