If 2020 were a novel, that fleeting and trivial chapter of our nation’s cultural history could serve as a prologue, a metaphor foreshadowing what was to come, like the broken wine barrels in the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities painting a picture of the blood that would spill across that same pavement in the coming French revolution. The nation seems to behold most things as a blue/black dress these days; what we see is the same, but what we perceive is entirely different. Unlike the mild amusement of an internet phenomenon, polarization has taken hold like a disease, pulling families apart, and causing damaged relationships, burning cities, and a very ugly internet.
Riots or protests? Personal freedom or public safety? Dictator or American hero? Nazis or…nazis? At this point, both sides accuse each other of leading the U.S. into a second holocaust. Our nation’s temperature is like a nuclear reactor that has overheated and started melting down. However, far from being contained to the political arena, the toxic fallout has begun to contaminate and threaten our Christian circles as well.
In the last month, fellow believers I hold in great respect declare that a Christian couldn’t possibly vote for Biden because of abortion. I have also seen fellow believers I hold in equally high esteem declare that a Christian couldn’t possibly vote for Trump, citing concerns about racism, immigration, and a general lack of Christian compassion. We’re looking at the same quotes, the same events, the same two old white guys, and yet some of us think it’s a blue and black dress and some are convinced it’s white and gold. Except that when you begin to call into question the authenticity of another’s faith on the basis of politics, we’ve descended into a whole new level of chaos.
2020 is not the first time a community has been reduced to a shouty, sweary mass that are completely incapable of understanding one another, and I don’t just mean the internet of 2015. We seem to be on the brink of descending into some Tower of Babel-level incoherence. Genesis 11 sets the scene for this story by describing a time when “The whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11:1). Sounds nice, right? The people had begun to discover greater and greater technological advances that changed their society and improved their lives for the better. Sounds familiar, right? With these technological advances (brickmaking essentially) they decided: “let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). So they undertook to build this tower, and make a name for themselves using their vast knowledge. Then just when they were at their most self-assured, secure, and confident God said, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Gen. 11:7, emphasis added) Imagine the frustration of laboring alongside people speaking and understanding the same language, only to discover that suddenly when I say “Yanni” you hear “Laurel” and each of us are convinced that the other one is wrong. Conversations would crumble into cacophony, and all progress would immediately cease. Just like that, when the Lord confused their language, they abandoned their tower building and scattered.
As sobering and terrifying as this story is, particularly in light of the confusion and unrest of our time, God plants a seed of hope in this passage. Following the Tower of Babel story, the rest of the chapter lists a genealogy, describing the ten generations that followed Shem, leading all the way to Abram, who would later be Abraham. God would make a covenant with Abraham that would ultimately be fulfilled in the Prince of Peace, the Messiah and Redeemer. The genealogy of Abraham to Jesus, is a roster of human depravity, frailty, and suffering that God worked through with a redeeming hand, a hand no less capable of redemption today. He is building his everlasting kingdom, and calls us as his redeemed children to seek that kingdom first (Gen. 6:33). When our primary citizenship is of that kingdom, our differences will become secondary, and our vision becomes unclouded. The next few weeks and months will almost certainly be messy and will probably get worse before it gets better, but the more dire the circumstances, the greater the need to fix our eyes upon Jesus “the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2)” and his everlasting kingdom.
We fix our eyes on God incarnate, the Word made flesh, and the source of all redemption and salvation. We look to Jesus, who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8), and in beholding him allow empathy, gentleness, and meekness to trickle into our conversations. We look to Jesus when tempted to fear, anger, and divisiveness who “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). We look to Jesus, who calmed the wind and waves with a word. We look to Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, so that we no longer need to build a Babel.