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Babel and anti-Babel

(Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-13)
Christophe Reymond

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

Living together? It’s not simple. There are, in any case, two ways of living together of which the Bible speaks to us: Babel and anti-Babel. Babel? The tower which tried to touch the sky. Babel? The city that men built. And the story of: “The whole earth used the same language and the same words…” Further on the project matures: to join together “under a single name”. One language, one people, one city, one tower, one name, in other words a single identity which the humanity of Babel establishes in order to live together.
Babel? It’s the old idea that the more alike people are, the more they all think and act in the same way, the happier and stronger they will be.
But… There’s a problem! Each time human beings strive to establish a perfect unity in order to feel bigger and stronger it has led to catastrophe.
One king, one faith, one law, Louis XIV used to say. And it is logical that he ended up finding himself obliged to eliminate Protestants from his kingdom.
Still more dramatically: the Nazi conception, of unhappy memory. The phantom of a total unity which led to them to eliminate those who were “different”: Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people.
And in our world today, in 2019, in the face of fears engendered by globalisation and multiculturalism, longings for pure nations arise again. Watch out!
In Genesis, God comes down to see Babel. And his conclusion is instant: stop the building and immediately disperse the people over all the face of the earth! For the greater happiness of humanity, God “condemns” us to diversity. Diversity of languages, obviously, and therefore of cultures, of ways of living and thinking…
And don’t forget the personal dimension. Who among us has never been part of a group where, in order to feel properly together, we have all pretended to think the same, we have kept quiet about differences, we have been incapable of integrating new people or new ideas?
What couple does not see its “romantic” unity undermined by the real differences between the two partners?
Which Church does not have to articulate differences in spiritual sensibility’?
Then what other model than Babel is there for living together? The Church, in the Acts of the Apostles, is created on the day of Pentecost (the word “church” translates the Greek ekklesia, which means gathering, so “together”. And if the Church is founded by the gift of the Spirit, how is that realised? Some images are summoned in support. The coming of the Spirit? Noise, wind, fire. These very words are used incidentally about the gift of the ten commandments on Sinai, which are given precisely in order to allow people to live together in mutual respect. The gift of the Spirit, then, appears indeed as the foundation of “living together”.
And there is our anti-Babel. Each disciple receives personally the Spirit, “like tongues of fire”, says the text. Each one, individually, according to what is. It is essential. The Church is not called to build itself out of standardised Christians.
So, several nations had gathered in Jerusalem. And the problem of language arose, as at Babel. But this time, everyone does not set about speaking Greek, the English of that age, but everyone understands in their own language the message about Christ. A strange miracle of simultaneous translation! But the symbolism is powerful. The universal message of the gospel is delivered by respecting the language, in other words the culture and the identity, of everyone.
Yes, Pentecost does figure as a real model for living together: the disciples are united by the same Spirit of Christ and simultaneously recognised and respected as unique personalities.
Each people, with its culture, is integrated in the great innovation of the Gospel and simultaneously recognised and respected through its language.
And when Churches and Christians incarnate this model, they become prophets at the heart of the world.

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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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