America’s Tower of Babel

City of Pittsburgh Social Justice Sunday

September 30, 2018

I consider it a wonderful blessing to be here in Pittsburg today. Particularly, to worship again at the historic Ebenezer Church, to be with Pastor Vincent Campbell. To see his wife, Jamie and their children is special for my wife, Jackie and me. I applaud you for hosting this Social Justice Sunday for the city. Thanks to the architects and organizers of this event. It is an opportunity for you to join ranks in Steeler Nation for justice not only for the city of Pittsburgh but for justice everywhere in this country. All of you represent the kind of social imagination and movement potential to bring justice to bear on the current moral crisis in America. It is a tremendous honor to share this event with you.

Truth is on trial in America. Really on trial is America. On trial is not only a senate and a supreme court nominee but America’s egregious social sins – most prominent “politics without principle,” commerce without morality”, “religion without sacrifice” on behalf of justice.  The government and the governed see the grave peril and crumbling of American democratic institutions. Hard press to find the moral integrity that makes for good government. There is a willingness to misrepresent the best for people. Suppression of truth in favor of elevating half-truths and whole lies is the order of political speech. The health of democracy for the next generation is well on its way to advancing cancerous malignancy of America’s original sin, racism and the driving hubris of white male patriarchy and privilege. But this ecumenical diversity on display here today is a counter-voice to the political tribalism and toxic partisanship in Washington. This is an important demonstration and commitment of pastors, politicians, civic leaders, and the power of diverse religious groups to translate advocacy into action toward making Pittsburgh a city of justice. Every segment of the city ought to applaud this effort. If a city of justice is in the future, it cannot be built by wishy/washy folk. It needs all hands, feet, gifts of mind, imagination and faithfulness to justice involving every quadrant, village, and hamlet of the city.  “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” We cannot rest until swords become plough shaft to break the hard soil of injustice for fruits of justice until no child is left behind or goes to bed hungry. Until urban centers are safe for children to play and parents do not worry about the shooting of black males in the back, not understanding the accumulation of fears and criminalization of black life that is the cause of their running.

I want to ground this day’s special emphasis, in the ancient story of a people undivided in their ambition to build a tower, a project which began as a grand plan but ended as an arrogant failure of hubris.  Genesis 11: 1-8 reads,

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So, the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Biblical scholars label this story, the Tower of Babel because of the failure of hubris to achieve solidarity for the high purpose of God. Solidarity for justice is the tower you want to build in the city of Pittsburgh. The Tower of Babel is a metaphor of America. What kind of construction builds a city of justice? What does a citadel for justice look like for our common public life? What must we do to save democracy from supremacist ideology of privilege? Only the wedding of compassion to the humility of love to justice can save us. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God” is the moral solidarity to construct a just nation.

Centuries of opportunities, abundant resources at its disposal, yet America with this abundance there is a trail of tears, the blood soak path of the slaughtered, sweat from back-breaking slave labor glistening in the sun, the voices of martyrs still today crying out from the ground for the vineyard of America to yield fruits of justice.  What do we have to show for it? A mixture of progress and failure – integration, laws to protect justice, diversity in the workplace. But also, grand commerce skims of greed not generosity, Wall Street wealth widening the gap between the rich and the poor, billions poured into building a military empire, mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, limited access and resources in poor neighborhoods for the best education can offer is the face of the nation.

Of certain, curiosity must have asked in the setting of that ancient construction, why are we building a tower to reach the heavens? Why was God not pleased with the project? The construction plans suggest the high standards of greatness. The prominent motivation was to make a name for ourselves. We often hear the referencing of greatness to America. The grand sweep of history has silenced the claims of the greatness of imperial empires – the ancient Egyptian, Persian, and Roman Empires all sophisticated, urban and classical in culture but arrogance against justice and truth decimating the powerless, they now are the dustbins of history. The ancients said, “Let’s build ourselves a city with a tower to reach the heavens”. Let’s build a name for ourselves,” a recognizable dominion of sovereignty commanding respects the world over.

The Tower of Babel is a metaphor for America. The founding architects of the American republic imagine building a city that sits on a hill. This was the sentiment in the sermon of John Winthrop entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” preached aboard the ship Arabella in 1630. It was a hopeful optimism. A democracy with God anointed liberties of justice and community to illumine the world with benevolent symbols of freedom and acts of justice. This sentiment was of such communal richness, it became the epic inscription shaping the creedal character of the U.S. Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But to render these words honest, now gone from us, the noble preacher/prophet Gardener Taylor, preaching the inaugural prayer breakfast sermon for President William Jefferson Clinton, said there was a grand exception in those words that has been toxic for America since those words were first uttered– “except first nation people, except blacks, except European Jews.” We are here today because that “exception” finds its way into public policies, the border wall, Supreme Court nominations.  Except for fourteen-year-old Trayvon Martin and except the Emmanuel African Methodist nine black people murdered in Charleston, South Carolina while at Bible Study by a young white supremacist.

This “exception” in the practice of the nation’s creeds is akin to what the Greek word pharmakon describes as having the potential to be a poison or cure. It can act as a remedy or poison depending upon the moral character, rational consciousness and habits of the dispensers. The dispensers of democracy offer poison or cure. Inherent in the principles of democracy is public wholeness, health for the flourishing of humanity. But the poison is in the character of the dispensers.

Yet the potential health and healing, the glorious creedal power of the words undergirding our democracy are of such social hope and optimism that they became the inspiration for Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus” written in 1883. The poem is the inscription on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

God came down to look at the Tower of Babel project. God was not impressed, it met with divine displeasure. But their assessment was we had one language and a common speech for building the tower, why the displeasure of God?  The blind pride of power cannot accept failure. It believes its language and speech is correct for everyone. But one language out of sync with the language that communicates God’s purpose for the world is headed for planetary failure. The project construction crew were Hebrews, who thought their people, religion, and unity was the singular purpose of God. God’s purpose for them was a purpose larger than them. This was their blind spot.

Again, the Tower of Babel is a metaphor for America. There is a national blind spot, a sense that God is impressed with America. The grandiosity of our modern towers, social landscapes of wealth, pleasure resorts, sports coliseums and edifice of military power, God is not impressed. When God comes down to look at the Towers we have built, God looks at everything. God looks at how we treat LGBTQ folk, how we treat the least in the land. God looks at half of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population. African Americans are 12% of the population but represent 50% of those in America’s prisons.

God’s pleasure is with communities and nations who do justice and love mercy. The construction crew that built the Tower of Babel were shocked at God’s displeasure. Let us not forget that the architects of America’s towers of wealth, world finance and elite Ivy League universities were built on the backs of slave labor. Brick and mortar of unjust labor sealed the joints of what are now modern skyscrapers of capitalism and greed from Pittsburgh to New York to Los Angeles to Tennessee. I heard Calvin Butts speak about those towers in a sermon at Oakwood College in Alabama. Greed built America, he said. The one language of acquisitions and mergers constructed America’s Towers of Babel in wave acquisitions and mergers – Time Warner, J.P. Morgan Chase, AT&T, Halliburton, and many others created a stock market boom and deregulations of capital venture firms promising short-term profit and long-term gain. Then came the 10th worst corporate scandal in U.S. history, Enron and Bernie Madoff, Oklahoma Saving and Loan scandal and on and on.

Then came the tragedy of 9/11. Planes flew into the World Trade Center Towers in New York crashing them down. It was as if God came down to see the towers of America’s one language and common speech of capitalistic greed, scandals against justice and confounded the nation’s language. No one had a vocabulary for the ruin. The tragedy many said happened because enemies to democracy hate our way of freedom. But we must not forget what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the giant triplets of evil”—racism, militarism and greed” inevitability will doom America.

Then the near bursting of the stock market bubble in 2008 came with the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Rebuilding the nation with justice was a “yes we can” motivation to build a tower of justice. It was an amazing mixture of optimism of hope and challenge.  Against the memory of America’s history of inhumanity, Barak Obama’s presidency became a sign of hope for the construction of new humanity in America. But the cancerous mutation of America’s original sin reared its ugly head again more demonic and violent than it had been before.

If building a tower of justice, America needs a new construction crew. The leadership placed over the justice tower project needs to embrace the language and common speech consistent with God’s language of love and justice. We need to look closely at the resume of the nation’s choice. Ability is important but not more important than character. Ability is what to do, character is who you are. A statement by Cicero in 42 BC speaks to the critical need of character of leaders.  “A nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. For the traitor appears not a traitor—He speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of [people]. He rots the soul of a nation— he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city—he infests the body politic so that it can no longer resist.”

To speak of the character of America’s leadership, global and domestic, in contrast to the index of human suffering is beyond the pale of justice. Next door to America in the Western Hemisphere is Haiti’s Central Plateau in which a woman with four children says everyday life feels like war. “You get up in the morning and it’s the fight for food and wood and water.” Two of every ten infants die before their first birthday. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among adults; among children, diarrheal disease, measles, and tetanus ravage the undernourished. And this reality looms large in the deceit of a nation who falsifies God’s reality in supremacy values of whiteness, patriotism, and power.

My visit to the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama will forever mark for me the reason and purpose why we must be committed to building a tower of justice. After walking through the many rustic monuments cataloging the names and dates of black people’s lynching, two stood out from the others. “David Walker, his wife, and their children were lynched in Hickman. Kentucky, in 1908 after Mr. Walker was accused of using inappropriate language with a white woman.” The other, “James Thornton was lynched in Laverne, Alabama in 1940 for addressing a white police officer without the title “mister”. Midst those horrific epitaphs of racial terror, Brian Stevenson, the founder of the Lynching Memorial, archived on the wall of the museum a new language for building a tower of justice in America. “For the hanged and beaten, for the shot, drowned, and terrorized. For those abandoned by rule of law. We will remember. With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With perseverance because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.”

Martin Luther King, a year before his murder, wondered “Where Do We Go from Here, Chaos or Community”? He wondered if America could lead the way of a beloved community in the world, not for its own aggrandizement but the furtherance and flourishing of God’s “world house”.  King spent a long period in isolation, living in a rented residence in Jamaica with no telephone, composing what was to be his last book. He wondered with hope alive in his spirit if a tower of human rights and justice for all nations would rise above the terror of racism, prejudice, and predilections.

This hope comes alive here in the city of Pittsburg. One language wedding love to justice is the unfinished construction of a new tower. The Latin root for justice translates in theological terms authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self, to cultivate respect for others with a sense of justice. At its deepest root, it means the fullness of justice to become the heart and core moral vision of people. It parallels the one language on the day of Pentecost when everybody heard God’s truth in their own tongue. It is the language of the Word made flesh communicating compassion, love, and justice as the way, the truth and the life. We can represent the one language for justice. You can build a tower of justice. The one language for universal love and justice is the one language of God for the flourishing of all human life. Our inspiration today is to unite with God’s common language to build a tower of justice.