Day 21 – Stranger Love

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Ched Myers in his book, “Our God Is Undocumented”, makes the case that cultural and linguistic diversity is God’s plan for humanity.  Interpreting the story of the tower of Babel, Myers suggest that cultural and linguistic homogeneity is the plan of  the powers of the city-state (“let us…”) to unite and mobilize human capital to build a monument around which all life will gravitate and from which all life will be ordered.  Babel is more than simply a beautiful skyscraper.  Babel represents the imperial center of the world that controls global life socially, economically and spiritually.

God’s response to what Myers calls “the problem of imperial monoculture” is to “confuse their languages”.  God “decentralizes” Babel by dispersing and diversifying the people once again.  Rather than the scattering being an act of punishment, Myers sees it as an act of liberation.  Diversity (as seen in all of creation) is God’s will.  Yet humanity continues to centralize and homogenize, to assimilate and dominate to fulfill imperialist agendas.

Interesting Fact:  According to Ethnologue, there are currently 7,099 languages spoken in the world.  However, 43% of them are considered endangered.  In fact, 1 language becomes extinct every 4 months. (Languages have disappeared at this rate for the past 40 years.).  In the words of the Linguistic Society, “when a language dies, a world dies with it.”  For more information about world language diversity, go to Ethnologue.

Questions for Reflection

Do you see “the problem of imperial monoculture” in our day?  How?  Do you think it really is a problem?  Why or why not?

How does the pull toward centralization and homogeneity inform our policies regarding immigrants and refugees and what we expect of them when they come to the U.S.?

Though we talk of the value of “diversity”, do you think we truly encourage it?  Explain.

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2 comments

  1. This is something I struggle with a bit during our cultural orientation classes for refugees. We have to teach them about our culture and what life here is like, and they are super willing to learn English so they can work, but sometimes I wonder if it seems like we’re teaching them how to be American rather than how to be Congolese or Cuban or Haitian in America. There’s a difference. We emphasize that they don’t have to do these things to be welcomed here. It is a fine line.

    The statistic about dying languages makes me sad. I’m always amazed at how many languages my refugee friends speak, while I make poor attempts at French and only speak English fluently. I’ve never looked at the Babel story this way. Thank you for showing me something new.

  2. We have this mindset that if people are coming to the United States, they must take on all the customs and culture of the US. Fundamentally that means “speaking English.” In the past, immigrants wanted to only speak English (usually to avoid discrimination and prejudice). Even today with all of our talk about diversity, we don’t encourage it. I deal with a lot of second and third generation citizens who have lost their home language–they may understand it to some degree, but they no longer speak it. In the process, they have often lost their connection to their history and culture. They are poorer for it–and so are the rest of us. We should really encourage multilingual education from early childhood on. I think the U.S. would be a far more welcoming place if we did.

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