The Berlin Wall
This year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; reflected on the walls of division we build in our lives; and thanked God for divine diversity…
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-4, 14-18
The origin myths in the book of Genesis were never intended to be scientific accounts of how the cosmos began and civilizations evolved – they were more akin to poetic pondering’s on God’s creativity, the Earth’s bounty, the need for good stewardship of resources, welcome of the stranger, and care for one another. Amidst these rich, technicoloured stories, there are the few events that stand out to me as a little…shall we say…odd…like Noah’s drunk and naked rant in chapter 9; the Abraham & Sarah husband/wife, brother/sister dynamic in chapter 12 onwards and, here between them, God’s tower tantrum at Babel.
Pieter Bruegel‘s Tower of Babel
I wonder what you thought as it was read. For me, at least at first reading, God’s actions sound, well, a little thin-skinned and petty. The people – who have previously been known for their wickedness and violence towards each other – are now working together. They’ve learnt to communicate, to found a city, to develop technology and build an impressive tower to commemorate their achievements…which immediately makes me picture those beautiful little towns across Italy where churches showed how much they loved God by how big their church bell tower was as part of the perennial game of ‘mine’s bigger than yours’.
But male insecurities aside, the people of Babel seem to be getting on with things until God gets a bit nervy about the size of the tower so pops over, confuses their language and scatters the people over the whole Earth. Not exactly the most encouraging intervention there by God…and not just for those like me who still come out in a cold sweat when thinking about their French GCSE oral…for just think about how this plays out on the world stage. Most situations of tension and conflict between people or even nations are often at the very least exacerbated by misunderstanding and miscommunication. Given all of this, why look to the Tower of Babel and the scattering of people as a story of hope on this Remembrance Day? For that, we have to look once again at that wall in Berlin…
Constructed in the shadow of the Second World War and midst the frosty relations of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was built out of conflict, the fight for military supremacy and suspicion of the other. Both Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party relied on paranoia, misinformation and the oppression of alternative voices to maintain their power and dominance. Diversity of belief, identity or action was to be crushed and uniformity of thought was to be expected, forcibly when needed.
In the early 1980s, the call for the iron curtain to be lifted and the wall to fall were increasing throughout Europe…perhaps nowhere more so that at St Nicholas Church in Leipzig where every Monday night worshipers risked detainment by gathering to pray for peace and an end to the Empire of oppression. By autumn 1989, Erich Honecker, the Communist leader of East Germany, declared that this subversive church should be closed and the peaceful protests stopped by any means necessary. On the evening of October 9th the police were sent in to stop the church service armed with guns and riot gear; those at the church were wielding prayers and candles. And yet the police stepped aside; Erich Honecker resigned and exactly a month after the events in Leipzig, the Berlin wall came down. In an age of where wall-building has come back into fashion, we can learn a lot from the committed congregation of St Nicholas.
And when we scratch a little beneath the surface, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a hopeful story that has its roots in that of Babel’s Tower. You see, to understand more about the Tower, we have to…as always with difficult or bizarre passages in scripture…look to the wider context. After God’s blessing of Noah and his family in the story preceding Babel, God calls on them to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole Earth’ – a command passed down from Noah to his son Ham and from Ham to his descendants, including Nimrod who is described as being the first person on Earth to become a mighty warrior. We’re then told that Nimrod built a vast Empire that included the city of Babel where one language was to be spoken; where they soon forgot God’s blessing and command to fill the Earth, deciding instead to ‘make a name for ourselves’. In other words, this city, part of a militaristic Empire, chose uniformity over diversity; human glory over God’s blessing…and this was made real in bricks and mortar. Not so very different, then, from another epic man-made construction in Berlin a few thousand years later.
And the Berlin Wall was no one off, of course. From Nicosia to New Mexico, Hungary to Hebron, down through the years and across the world, we’ve loved erecting barriers to keep out other tribes, nations, religions, clearly marking the ins and outs, the right way of living and that of ‘the others’. And when walls don’t work, we protect ourselves with false narratives and fake news that distinguish us from them; or we comfort ourselves by retreating to our own echo chambers where we’re reassured that there is a right way to feel, think, believe and act and…by luck…we’re the ones living it! That’s how, in the past, minorities have been neglected, ignored and oppressed; that’s how, even today, nations, religions and political parties try to silence debate, cling on to power and demean anyone who questions the dominant story. Our Babel towers today might, then, be seen more clearly not in bricks and mortar but in newspaper headlines and Wall Street figures; might be heard in the rallying cries to Make America…or Britain or any one place and people…Great Again; might be experienced in the barriers we put in our personal lives to protect our own fragile egos.
And yet, whilst we might, at times, despair at the towers that we built all around us, we can also rejoice at the signposts to a different story…at the fact that 30 years ago this weekend, the Berlin Wall did come down. Enforced uniformity of thought began to crumble as the barbed wires were cut and families were reunited…and all this was foreshadowed in Babel where the tower was never built, the military Empire was scattered and one thudding language evolved into a symphony of many more. Babel, where God declared diversity divine.
At the start of this year’s Inter Faith week, where we once again seek to celebrate the rich diversity of beliefs from which we can catch different facets of Divine love, perhaps it’s here fitting to cite the Quran in which God is quoted as saying “We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may recognize each other” [49:13]. Isn’t that a glorious notion…that our diversity is not something to stifle or block out with towers and walls but is the very means through which we might come to recognize, to know, to encounter one another.
For the family that calls itself Christian, we see the wonder of such divine diversity in the Godhead – the Trinity – the Community of Love; we meet it in Jesus – the one who ‘tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance’ [Ephesians 2:15 – The Message]; and we live it in through the Spirit – the friend who came afresh through a heavenly harmony of different languages and voices.
This Remembrance Day then, as we remember the horrors of war and the hope of walls coming down, let us acknowledge the towers and barriers in our lives and allow God’s grace to topple them; let’s strive to build bridges of reconciliation and not walls of division; let’s celebrate diversity and give praise to the God who blessed creation with it. Amen.