Saturday Night Theologian
23 May 2010

Genesis 11:1-9

As Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan prepares herself for confirmation hearings this summer, some of her critics accuse her of being insufficiently patriotic. Why? For two reasons. First, when she was dean of Harvard Law School, she tried to prevent U.S. military recruiters from setting up offices on the Harvard campus, not because she was anti-military but because she opposed the military's discriminatory treatment of gays and lesbians (she was supported by many other law school deans and university presidents). Second, in an article she wrote several years ago she said that the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution needed to change with the changing times, as the views and morés of Americans changed. Her critics have seized upon this second point and accused her of saying that the Constitution was in need of change from the very beginning. Of course, she's right. The original Constitution supported the perverse institution of slavery, and abolitionists were right to oppose it from the beginning, and civil rights giants like Thurgood Marshall were right to oppose its interpretation in the light of racist Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, which authorized the "separate but equal" doctrines that afflicted African-Americans in the South for a century. Kagan's critics are upset because many of them hold to a doctrine called "American exceptionalism," a belief that the U.S. is a uniquely blessed nation whose righteousness and incomparable legal and economic system positions it as the world's unchallenged leader in the realms of politics, commerce, and foreign policy. Today's reading from Genesis tells of a group of people thousands of years ago who similarly believed themselves to be exceptional, far surpassing their neighbors in wisdom and greatness. They said to one another, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." The citizens of Babel were impressed with their own works, and in that way they were quite similar to many Americans, who consider our country to be head and shoulders ahead of every other country, even our allies. Like Babel, America is a land dominated by a single language, one that many of our citizens would like to enshrine as the official language of the nation, de jure, not just de facto. The buildings in which many Americans put so much pride are not physical structures but are rather economic and political structures. Those who proclaim American exceptionalism seek economic hegemony over the rest of the world, a form of neocolonialism. They also strive to enforce political hegemony, a kind of Pax Americana. Ironically, though, or rather hypocritically, the kinds of governments that we insist on in other countries are not necessarily those based on so-called American principles like democracy and equal rights (the latter of which is not a real, historic American principle), because when countries like Iran, Palestine, Chile, Venezuela, or Haiti elect a government that the American government doesn't like, we have no qualms about replacing them. There are indeed many parallels between the city of Babel and the "exceptional" America that many see today, and I am afraid that the same fate may await us as overtook Babel millennia ago. As people of faith, we must learn the lessons of the past and remind our fellow citizens that just as God had to "come down" to visit the tower that purportedly reached to the heavens, so God is less than impressed with American military and economic might in the world today. The consistent testimony of the Bible is that God expects people of faith to build hospitals and orphanages rather than towers, to spend money on food and health care rather than weapons systems, to spread love and concern for others rather than economic control. In short, if America is exceptional today, it is exceptional in ways that are largely contrary to the teachings of scripture. Our only hope is to repent before God decides to scatter us to the winds of history, as the people of Babel were scattered.

Psalm 104:24-35, 35b (first published 30 May 2004)

Intense rains in Haiti and the Dominican Republic this week killed more than one thousand people, many in mudslides. Officials blame the mudslides on severe deforestation that has occurred throughout the island of Hispaniola. Locals cut down the trees in order to plant crops and for fuel, destroying the habitat in the process of meeting their basic needs. Both the large number of human deaths and the destruction of animal and plant species that results from clearcutting the forests are the result of structural injustice. "But isn't a natural disaster like flooding just that?" you might ask. "It's nobody's fault," you might argue. You might think that, but you'd be wrong. Ask yourself, when torrential rains hit more developed countries, like the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan, or Australia, do hundreds or thousands of people die? Some often die, to be sure, but the number is much smaller. Compare, for example, the Mississippi River flood of 1993, described by a Web site at the University of Akron as "the most devastating flood disaster in U.S. history." The river was above flood stage for 144 days, and "nearly fifty people died." Fifty people is too many, but it is hardly a thousand. Why do so many people die in flooding in Hispaniola or Honduras or Bangladesh? The psalmist gives us a hint in today's psalm: "O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." The psalmist goes on to describe God's care for creation and God's provision for their needs. Humans, whom Genesis describes as caretakers of the earth, often act contrary to the purposes of God, with disastrous effects on both nature and other humans. For example, deforestation destroys animal and plant habitat, driving species to extinction. With the natural trees gone, the soil is not able to absorb the rain like it would otherwise, and great sheets of mud move during heavy rains, covering whole villages. The poor are forced to live on the sides of mountains, and thus they die in higher proportion than those who are wealthier when the rains come (the swath cut by a killer mudslide in Honduras in 1998 is still evident, because no houses are built on the site, but there are plenty of shacks built on adjacent mountains). We need to learn to appreciate what the psalmist means when he says, "In wisdom you have made them all." We need to interact with nature wisely in order to minimize the destruction caused by natural disasters. We also need to provide for the poor so that they won't be forced to violate nature in order to live.

Acts 2:1-21 (first published 30 May 2004)

The story of the Tower of Babel describes the dispersal of humans over the face of the earth as a result of the confusion of their speech. The story of Pentecost describes humans coming together and hearing the good news of God's love as a result of the gospel being preached in a variety of languages. Thus, in a real sense, Pentecost is the antithesis of the Tower of Babel. In the aftermath of the Tower of Babel, people were scattered, and community was broken, but a broken world community is not inevitable, nor is it God's will. It is important to remember that the ultimate reason for broken community in Babel was not God's desire to harm the people but the people's lust for power. Like Babel, Pentecost has God descending on the multitude, but this time God's purpose is to gather, not to scatter. Like Babel, Pentecost is about power, but it is divine power given to humans for the purpose of reuniting them to God, not human power that challenges God. The church on the Day of Pentecost added about 3,000 people to its number. Religious people sometimes treat success as a mandate to act capriciously, as though no matter what they did, God would be on their side. However, we must remember that Babel is the flip side of Pentecost. When Christians are tempted to force our religious beliefs on others, we need to remember that the God who blesses can also curse. When we want to use superior weaponry to advance a "Christian" worldview, we need to recall that the God who gathers can also scatter. When we envision a homogeneous world in which everyone speaks the same language, or embraces the same political goals, or glories in the idea of the free market, we need to understand that diversity can be a good thing. Pentecost is a day to celebrate God's gift of the Spirit, but it is also a time to remember the dangers of the lust for power that so easily grips powerful nations.

John 14:8-17. 25-27 (first published 30 May 2004)

"Wanted: Growing organization looking for workers to replace those who wouldn't. Great rewards for great results. Successful applicants are expected not only to meet but to exceed the high standards set by the company's founder." Sound like a difficult job? It's the job description of a Christian, according to today's reading from John. "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these." Greater works than Jesus? How is that possible? In part, it's possible because of God's power working in the lives of many different people through the Holy Spirit. Whereas there was only one Jesus, there are many Christians capable of calling on the resources of the Holy Spirit to accomplish great things. Jesus went about teaching, healing, and telling others God's good news. As followers of Jesus, God calls us to carrying on these ministries. Don't worry if you can't lay your hands on people and heal them. Maybe you can encourage them during their illness or donate money to an organization that is working to find a cure for deadly illnesses. Maybe you don't consider yourself the most knowledgeable person in the world, but you can pass on to others your understanding of Jesus' teachings. Maybe you don't fancy yourself an evangelist, but by your good works you can cause others to glorify God. Today's reading from John is presents a challenging job description. Do you have the courage to apply?