Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Babel, or God Is a Saboteur

brussels, castle, rug, beautiful, europe
by Amanda Taylor

A few weeks ago in Brussels I watched a man get bludgeoned nearly to death in the middle of a busy market street. He came bursting out of a side alley just ahead of me, and barreling after him came four or five large guys who, once they caught him, just started hammering him into the ground. He tried to break free, but blows came to the knees, on the back, in the head. It took all of them to wrestle him to the ground, his face flattened into the cold, hard concrete. He screamed at the top of his lungs the entire time he was being beaten, a time that felt like hours, until the police sirens could be heard in the distance and the crowds were told to clear.

Based on the few indications available, this man was a criminal and the men who captured him were undercover policemen, though they only displayed armbands suggesting as much toward the end of this excruciating display in the open street. 

I watched the whole thing. First in surprise, then horror, then sick fascination. I took a picture on my phone of the man lying in the street.

I took a picture. Looking back I hate myself for it, though I knew I would when I pulled out my phone. I just needed to verify that something so horrific had actually occurred right in front of me; that I had turned the corner at the exact moment he came barreling out, and that he was there in broad daylight, bleeding from the head. 

The worst part was that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. No one on the street seemed to know English and I couldn’t identify the languages passing in hushed whispers. I wanted to do something, to say something, to scream: “Do you see this?  Are you seeing what I’m seeing? What do we do?!” 

But we didn’t do anything. We just stood there and watched, like idiots. One girl even took a picture.

There was a disconnect between what happened on the street and the crowd who witnessed it, a disunion between that reality and ours. It felt so odd, but when the two realms don’t have any reason to depend on one another, to overlap further, they simply part ways. I’ve been thinking less of the violence and the crime than this idea of intersection, of community and communication among disparate parties.

How is it that we can be standing right next to someone, yet worlds apart? Communication is supposed to bring us back to one another, but what about the times when it doesn’t? Or can’t? Or perhaps when it shouldn’t?

Of course there are more ways to communicate than the combination of words and the use of syntax; language is only one of the infinite mechanisms we use to interact. Nothing makes this clearer than visiting another country or culture where you are an alien, a foreigner, without the ability to navigate direction, time, work, or people, and your only resources are your hands and eyes and intuition.

But why are things complicated in this way, why are we disconnected? In Genesis 11 we’re

told that things are this way because God was displeased with what we chose to do together as humans when we could communicate as a single unit. We didn’t appear to handle such capacity well, and God “confounded the language of all the earth.” He isolated us into pockets of humanity, confined by limited comprehension. He is and was a saboteur. 

Genesis 11 has bothered me for months now. Who is this God that “came down” and shattered the culture into irrelevant, splintered pieces? Who is the God that makes it virtually impossible to communicate with you, to know you, to empathize with you, to hear your words and know your children? Who is this God that made us strangers on the street?

N.T. Wright writes that, “The story of the Tower of Babel is an account of a world given to injustice, spurious types of spirituality (trying to stretch up to heaven by our own efforts), failed relationships, and the creation of buildings whose urban ugliness speaks of human pride rather than the nurturing of beauty.” That is a useful and concise description, yet I can’t help but think it sucks the life out of how complex and complicated the turn of events really was. We became foreign to one another, creating new realms and new communities that didn’t interlock. We lost something, and the story is a turning point in our participation in the development and construction of the future of this earth.

Part of what continues to bother me is that while we were decimated and scattered at that time we’ve entered a new era in the human history in which we’re slowly clawing our way back to one another. The world is “flattening” and shrinking and becoming ever more interdependent, and language barriers are diminishing. Google glasses, which can translate anything in the world into any language instantaneously, are about to hit the market, launching an onslaught of technological advancement that will very likely turn this world of nearly 7,000 languages into a world of one.

I think often about the implications of unconfounding the confounded, and what we think we’re building by uniting the world through communication. We were one, we were then made many, and here we find ourselves ever so close to one again. Is that what’s right?

brussels, European Union, Europe, flags, belgiumThe European Union is currently an amalgamation of 27 countries that speak 23 different languages, having been created for Europe to dispel any environmental forces that would allow for another Adolf Hitler and World War II. These nations have come together to avoid reckless, horrible violence and promote stability and longevity in their continent and the world. When EU Parliament meets, all 23 languages are translated instantly so that all countries will know one another and each distinctive culture can work in unison with its partners to build a brighter future for all. They are unconfounding the confounded, but it is with the best of intentions that they do so.

It sounds to me as though we are slowly building a larger world community that somehow looks alarmingly like a tower. Are we? To be clear, I have a healthy fear of technology, a healthy fear of unconfounding, and a general apprehension of believing too heavily in the capacities of man’s constructions independent from God’s hand in the work. 

Yet I want to know the stranger on the street, to be able to ask more than directions, to exchange culture and lives, to understand more of the infinite manifestations of this human experience. I want to build that knowledge together. 

Is it the right thing to do to bring together disparate worlds? To allow ourselves the privilege of exploring the extent of our capacities to do so? That, I have no current answer for, but I do know that in watching a man be brought to his knees in cold, brutal force, the geography of the incident had no overriding authority. Nothing about that experience was more or less human because I couldn’t have asked the man next to me what time it was. It was humanity at work and we all played a particular role in its warped expression, and my response to it has set about a curious reflection.

This conversation about the fallout of different worlds colliding and communication as a mechanism help us make sense of that and act together. Is it really about language or is it about something else entirely? 

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.  3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Amanda works in “community development” and no, she doesn’t know what that means either. Forever the critic. And enthusiast. Never one for dichotomies. Follow her on Twitter @tayloram03 if you’re not into receiving tweets.

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