Another retired minister and I were asked by our winter church in Alabama to lead a Bible study for some other “snowbirds.”
We settled on what biblical scholars call the Primeval Stories of Genesis, preceding the familial stories of “God’s People,” as Jews and, later, Christians, call themselves, not with a sense of privilege, but of obligation, leading me to draw upon a few of those old, old stories and what they might be saying to us throughout this pandemic-turned-racially-violent season.
I begin at the end of that section, with a story we’ve come to call, The Tower of Babel. [Genesis 11:1-10] It’s an etiological tale, which on one level attempts to explain why we have so many different languages, while on another is an ancient explanation of why humanity is so confused and why people have so much trouble understanding one another.
It speaks of a people seeking power and importance – “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves… .”
And it speaks of a God who was none too pleased with the direction in which they were going, a God who might even be described as somewhat threatened, maybe even a little jealous of the divinity they were trying to usurp – “Look, they are all one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do… Come, let us go down, and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
Though this may not sit too well as an explanation of why after two years of college French I couldn’t understand the people of Paris when we visited there (though they seemed to understand us, all right!), it does metaphorically point out the confusion and divisiveness that follow when a self-imposed, even godlike, sense of superiority over others dominates.
Is that what’s going on when many among us feel they are above the effects of the coronavirus, refusing to understand or care about how they could infect others more vulnerable; or when we once more publicly lament the murder of a black man by an empowered white man, while failing to understand what it’s like to be black in our American culture?
Will this, at least, move us a little closer to grasping the depth of our divisions? Or will uncaring ignorance and confusion continue to reign?
Last Sunday, many Christians celebrated the Day of Pentecost, the biblical story, which, at root, is a reversal of Babel. [Acts 2].
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place… .and each one heard them speaking in their own native language.”
Could these confusing, sickening, and violent days be a moment for us when all the political babbling is ignored, and we begin to hear and understand the plight of others?
Can we let the events of these days move us – let God move us – to let go of the feelings of superiority we cling to and come together, to listen and care, to really get it this time and begin to do something about it?
Jim Graham is a retired Presbyterian minister.
Weekly columns are provided to the News Journal by members of the Wilmington Area Ministerial Association.