Recently I watched a six-part documentary, “Living Undocumented,” on Netflix. Life stories of eight families who are affected by the threat of deportation under the current immigration climate were woven into a touching, yet agonizing presentation. The complicated social realities also involved those of Mexico, Central America, Israel, Africa and Laos. One would expect an unflattering view about U.S. immigration policy coming from this film. But the makers of this documentary also made sure that viewers were immersed in these people’s life scenes, including the mundane and the definitive moments. The injustice these families went through became apparent, without mere language of advocacy.
This mosaic of human suffering across geographical and cultural boundaries reminds me of an earlier film, Babel (2006). The fate of four families in three continents was linked together by overlapping events of tragedy. Similar themes of inequality and injustice emerged, as viewers were led through a larger-than-reality perspective on the causal chain.
Stories like these help us see our common humanity and hopefully can lead to a deepening compassion—the ability to endure suffering with one another. But when you are in the middle of watching the story as it unfolds, there is a sense of great irony and tragedy as how we human beings got to this point.
These reflections made me return to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. It is, after all, the key narrative to which we can trace the origins of our current predicament of globalization. Our conventional interpretation about this passage has been centered around human pride and God’s judgment. But as I ponder the details of the passage, it presents many puzzling questions.
First, was it pride that motivated the Babel builders? Or was it fear? Although a few generations ago, God had promised not to use another flood, I suspect they feared what the future might hold for them. They feared being scattered and powerless. Thus they desired to create something more durable, something bigger than themselves—a city in a tower.
Fear is one of the strongest human emotions. With the fall, fear rooted itself in the human soul, which had been darkened by sin. It has since become our first instinct. Next came blaming, anger, and evasion of responsibility. We fear the unknown. We fear a powerful God. We fear because we cannot take control of our own lives. It alienates us from God and from each other. Fear drove us to build walls in order to keep others out, even sometimes in the church. When we do not know God’s sacrificial love in Jesus Christ, we fear.
Here is another question I have about the Babel narrative: why did the builders want to “make a name” for themselves? What is in such a name that appealed so much to them? I think by now the initial fear of these Babel builders have evolved into a mixture of anxiety and ambition. As they started on the project, the hope to avoid being scattered has been emboldened. They now imagined building a cosmic centerpiece skyscraper in the post-flood world. They began to feel important. Ironically, the name they eventually got was by God’s act of confusion.
The sense of self-importance is a need in every soul. As parents, we would not hold back encouraging words to our young children, affirming their special-ness and importance. Children need that to grow into emotionally healthy individuals. In fact, children who grew up without enough affirmation often wrestle with low self-esteem throughout their adulthood. But here is an intricate balance.
In the Babel narrative, human builders wanted a collective fame and identity so prominent that it can secure something reliable for their future. They did not consult God about it. Being known, famous, and important in the world became the anchor of their future. This thought further motivated them to form a self-made unity, a human greatness based on a “fortress mentality.”
The first Tower of Babel was dismissed by God, but many invisible ones kept emerging. In the world or in the church, whenever we elevate someone as important and definitive for our existence, we reduce others to insignificance and anonymity. We seek “Christian influence” in the public sphere and name it as “witness.” But our self-aggrandizing actions that lack integrity soon subverts the authenticity of that witness.
There is a Babel in every human soul. We need to let God’s spirit continuously tear down the walls, and restore our hearing for others’ stories that merge with our own into a seamless story of God.
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