Learning to tolerate others in a global society
Observations of a News Editor
By Dustin White
Being a student of religion, I often find myself looking at stories that I grew up with in a different light. Doing so challenges what I thought I knew, which is always refreshing for me. I found once such instance quite recently.
The title, “Tower of Babel,” can be quite misleading. Looking at the narrative as described in Genesis 11:1-9, the tower is only mentioned twice, and by the end, seemingly disappears from the narrative. An interpretation of the narrative then should reflect such a reality. However, in the past, we see the opposite. Instead, there has generally been focus placed upon the tower, and in that regard, the story looses its meaning. Bernhard W. Anderson, in his book, From Creation to New Creation, takes a different look at the narrative.
Growing up, and having gone through the ordination process at an fundamentalist church, I had been taught that the Tower of Babel story was about humans rebelling against God, and humans essentially trying to become like God. According to this interpretation, this human want to become like God happened on a number of occasions, each ending with a punishment. The first such occasion occurred in the Garden of Eden, where humans ate from the tree of knowledge. In doing so, humans became like God. As punishment, humans were removed from the Garden of Eden, and perfect life.
The next such story is that of divine-human reproduction, found in Genesis 6:1-4. In this case, it was through the sons of God taking human wives, and bringing fourth children. Once again, we see divine like beings, which God found to be evil. In order to punish humans, he sent the global flood, which wiped out all human life except for that of Noah’s family. This story then directly leads into our story concerning the Tower of Babel.
From a more critical look at the previous stories though, we can see that this interpretation of humans constantly trying to become like God may fall short. It does take some creative reading, and is based on only a few stories. It also requires one to focus on the tower when it comes to the story of the Tower of Babel, which we will later see is a mistake.
Anderson suggests that this story is in regards to unity and diversity. He sets up the story as a clash between human will, and divine will. Humans desire to remain united. It is for this reason that they build a city. As Theodore Heibert argues, building the city and tower are just means to their goal of remaining one people with one language.
This desire to remain united though is in direct conflict with the divine will of God, which is for diversity. Diversity, according to Anderson, is not a condemnation, but instead is a divine blessing. We can see this diversity from God throughout the primeval history, or Urgeschichte as Anderson refers to it as. In the creation stories, we first see this desire for diversity. Both creation stories agree that the Earth started in somewhat of a uniform manner. From there, God either separated or created items in order to make the world more diverse. At the end of the creation stories, we are present with a world that bears all types of plants, is full of animals (which dwell in sea, on land, and in air), and contains humans.
We see this desire for diversity occurring again after the flood (and in fact during the flood). In order to keep the diversity that is present in the world, God commands Noah to take a number of animals, of every kind, on to the ark. In doing so, God insures that diversity remains. More so though, after the flood, as we see in Genesis 10, humans spread across the Earth, and become diverse, bearing their own languages, and lands. Anderson goes further with this and speaks about eschatological portrays of God’s divine plan. This includes not a unified humanity, but one that is diverse.
Anderson gives two examples of this portrayal. The first being Isaiah 2:1-4, which describes when people make a vast pilgrimage to Zion. We see a diversity of people in this regard, and they are all included in this vision of the last days. Anderson goes on to also include a story from the New Testament in his argument. In Acts 2, we again see diversity being celebrated, and at the same time, not being a barrier to unity. In this particular story, the Spirit of God descends upon the crowd gathered during Pentecost, and all are able to hear the gospel in their own language. So again, we see diversity not necessarily being something that separates people or as a punishment. As it can be transcended in the end.
This division of unity and diversity is best seen when we look at this narrative as occurring in two movements, which balance each other out. This story is introduced with the observation that everyone speaks the same language. This point is stressed by the first thing God says as well, which is an observation that everyone speaks the same language. At the same time, humans want to build a city, and keep their unity. While on the other hand, God confuses their language (effectively destroying the chance to build the city), and then scattering the people (destroying their unity). What we then see are humans being the actors in the first part, and then God being the actor in the second.
In the end though, the message we can gain from this story is that diversity should be cherished as a blessing from God. It is something that we should embrace. Yet, at the same time, people fear the unknown, and that has a tendency to try to find security with those who seem most alike oneself. This may be due to people pushing “others” away, or people simply withdrawing into their own groups. Both can cause a number of problems though.
Many gangs are formed because of people pushing away minorities. In order to find security (which was often necessary because of the discrimination and persecution many minorities faced), they created their own communities, and gangs formed. These gangs began as a way to find security, but as we see now, have also adopted a criminal component. However, they found safety in numbers, and in unity.
On the other hand, when groups withdraw into their own groups, it can cause many people to look at them in negative ways, or raise suspicion. It can cause people to see them as “others,” as inferior human beings.
As we continue becoming a global society, that is something we have to continually be aware of. It is often too easy to cast a negative light on another group when we don’t fully understand them.