You may recognize the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Everyone on earth spoke the same language and used the same words. They said to one another, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky.” The LORD said, “If, as one people with one language, this is how they act, then nothing they propose to do will be out of their reach. Let’s go down and confuse their speech!” Thus, the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (from Genesis 11:1-9, JPS).
This wise and paradoxical fable about the early history of humanity tells us that the people, united, will never be defeated. Together, we can reach for heavenly goals, achieve prosperity and even world peace. But it also reminds us that the only place we find a simple unified society is in our imagination, when we dream about a mythical past. The real world that God created is home to a diversity of cultures, languages, and religion. In our world, human unity will take some work.
Here on the coast of British Columbia, we do this work every day. We live in a chain of port cities. People from all over the world land here; we bring with us our languages, our foods, our clothing, our music. We bring the religious traditions that emerged from our previous ways of life. As my friend Amar Singh – a musician, a practicing Sikh and a great optimist – says, “Wherever you come from, you can find your ethnic community here to help you get started.”
Tension between ethnic communities does arise. After all, the only way to never have conflict with someone is not to interact with them. But we try to understand the specific causes and deal with them. Maybe the tensions are economic, and we need fairer business and tax laws. Maybe the tensions concern workplace accommodation of religious practice, and we need better education or clear professional guidelines for negotiating compromise.
Of course, few of us live only within our own ethnic communities. We work together, shop together, go to school together. We learn from Indigenous communities and from earlier settlers. Slowly, and with legal support, we are creating a society that has room for multiple religious communities without favoring any single tradition. Ideally, everyone will be able to celebrate their holidays, wear their clothing, recite their prayers – and somehow, out of the chaos, we will make it all work.
We do not know yet how it will work. But we do know that religious communities have to take the lead. We need to get to know one another. We need to identify our shared values, recognize our differences, and learn from one another how to balance our commitments to truth and peace in the interest of peaceful, civil society. We need to educate our youth and our leaders in tolerance, welcome and compromise.
Together we need to safeguard the incredible work that religious communities do in society. We offer people a philosophy to live by. A sense of identity that connects us with generations past and future. Companionship through life’s trials, transitions, and celebrations. Ethical education and tools for psychological growth. Food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless. Support for the sick and money for hospitals. A window into hope and respect for powers higher than human arrogance.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, our prophet Isaiah taught that this is the proper role of religion in society. What does God desire, he asked?
That we unlock the fetters of wickedness, free the oppressed share our bread with the hungry, take the poor into our homes, clothe the naked, and be available to help our own relatives, too. If we do this, our light will burst through, like the dawn, and healing will spring up, and the presence of God will gather us together (from Isaiah 58:6-8).
No one does this work as consistently as religious communities do. We have many examples of our communities here in BC working together to protect the vulnerable through prison ministry, refugee resettlement, food banks, and homeless shelters.
The paradoxes of the Tower of Babel story can inspire us. The people say they want to build a tower that reaches to heaven. What do they mean? And why does God try to stop them?
Are they talking about a corporate skyscraper, a monument to greed? If so, it is easy to understand God’s intervention. In our own time, we see religious symbols used to justify violence and theft of territory – in, unfortunately, every religious tradition. We, the lovers of peace, pray that God will confuse the plans of the violent, undermine their efforts, change their hearts, bring peace and restore justice.
But maybe the builders of the Tower are talking about a project that uplifts society and gathers everyone into a holy presence. If that’s the case, why would God scatter them? We can answer this from our own experience, too. Relationships are deeper when we invest more time in building them, when we put more effort into communicating with one another, when we change inside in order to understand one another. When we act in unison even though we speak different languages, then, as God says in the story, nothing we propose to do will be out of our reach.
Originally delivered as a talk at Baitur Rahman Mosque, Delta BC, at a conference on “Room for Faith/Religion in Society.” Image: Multifaith Action Society calendar launch, 2016.