Voices > Soul Food

Babel's tower

The dream of International Community still lives

Issue: "Chaos in Colorado," May 1, 1999

Once on the plains of Shinar, a migrating people settled, and soon thereafter conceived a big idea: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth"a (Genesis 11:4).

Inspired by this communal goal, they set to work, and soon a tower of clay bricks rose from the fertile plain, a symbol of accomplishment looming over their heads. We know what happened next. God thwarted their grand plan and confused their languages, scattering them in units sorted by His will, not theirs. The fledgling nations spread out over the earth, affiliated not by common goals but by factors they had no hand in choosing: tribe, language, blood.

At the turn of the second millennium A.D., on a high theoretical plain, that buzz is going around again: Come, let us meet together around common goals and form a brotherhood of man. Let us eradicate war and factionalism, eliminate poverty and famine, map the entire human genome and improve the original model.

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Such talk has been part of intellectual discourse since the Enlightenment, if not before. But never since the time of the Babel tower, perhaps, has the idea seemed as possible as it does now. Thirty years ago, moony flower children (myself included) sang about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Is it possible that we foresaw "Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding"?

Not according to the evidence. But certain factors have combined to create an illusion of coming together, at least in some circles. Secular education, which has always tended to break down tribal loyalties, is now more widespread than ever. Mass media picks up ideas that were once confined to the university and broadcasts them to the public in simplified form. A branching infrastructure decreases our dependence on the local neighborhood, tearing down more parochial fences. Finally, a humming telecommunications web links continent to continent and computer to computer all around the world-dominated by English, the universal language.

And a relatively new phrase is turning up with greater frequency in public discourse. When I first heard it, the term struck me as an oxymoron: International Community? My idea of "community" was something like a neighborhood, though my dictionary confirmed that the word may mean nothing more than "a group of people holding something in common." Even granted that all peoples of the earth hold their humanity in common, that denomination is so broad as to be practically meaningless, barring an alien invasion.

Or so I thought. For a "meaningless" entity, the IC has been throwing a lot of weight around: expressing solidarity with AIDS victims, voicing outrage over human-rights violations, even taking responsibility (through NATO) for stopping the factional conflict in Kosovo.

More and more, the IC turns a disapproving eye on factionalism, or any other "ism" that threatens its vaunted goal of universal harmony. It tolerates family, nationality, and religion only so long as they stay in line and don't make trouble. When that happens, the IC comes on like a thug in an old-time gangster flick: "Okay!" it shouts (pointing humanitarian bombers in all directions). "Just do what we tell ya, and nobody gets hurt!"

I'm not one of those who fear a One World Government, mainly because of the ludicrous nature of the scenario above. Does anyone really believe that NATO can bring lasting peace to the Balkans? Or anywhere else? Only brute force, on a scale impossible to conceive, will eradicate tribalism and compel all peoples to live "at peace."

It won't happen voluntarily: Not only does our natural depravity rebel against true peace, but tribalism is rooted deep in what we are. God Himself put it there. He separated the nations; He established the family, the civil government, and the church; He determines the composition of each. All these divinely appointed institutions include some individuals and exclude the rest. We are not supposed to kill each other over our differences, but there is no evidence in Scripture that God is interested in building a brotherhood of man. The International Community is a myth.

Yet the ghostly plain of Shinar still rings with the futile noise of hammer, chisel, and saw. Perhaps another war will blast our current hopes, or the Millennium Bug will rip the communications web and scatter our voices again. If history proves anything, it proves that the tower will never be completed. The ultimate community builder is God, not man.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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