Babel and Trump
Rev. Eugene Brueggemann
Ancient history in the Book of Genesis records the attempt of the people in the Near East to build a city and a tower “with its top in the heavens,” by which they would “make a name for ourselves.” They didn’t get a building permit from God, the text says, because they wanted to be gods themselves. God brought the project to an end by confusing their language. The Tower of Babel has been linked with chaos and confusion ever since.
Enter, Stage Right of contemporary history, Donald Trump, an American equivalent to the ancient builders of the Tower of Babel, who also wants very much to make a name for himself (today we call this “branding”). To that end he has built towers here and there, with one in Moscow yet to come, always with his outsized name emblazed where all can see and adore it. Not content with that, he embarked on a political career to become president of the United States, with the goal to enshrine his name in history as “one of our country’s greatest men” (his words).
Hubris resulting in chaos and confusion is the mark of the twin towers, Babel’s and Trump’s.
Trump’s towering presence as president of our country has brought chaos and confusion on a scale which is unprecedented and destabilizing. Instead of the “bricks and bitumen” used by the ancients to build the Tower of Babel, Trump used the Big Lie to shape and advance his effort to gain complete control of the government. Let’s not dwell simply on the amount of his lies (an average of fifty a day), but on the Big Lie that his word is truth, facticity be damned, as he speaks demagogically at his rallies and pontificates from the White House—through his Twitter account, no less. The lies are incessant and range from the merely trivial to the extremely dangerous, most recently and most dangerously the Big Lie that Democrats conspired to steal the election through various frauds.
Donald Trump’s efforts to deny Joe Biden the electoral victory are without precedent in this country, and have produced chaos and confusion about the legitimacy of the election. Evidence of electoral fault and vote-rigging is simply not there, and honest people know it. The power of the Big Lie has never been revealed in this country as it has in the fact that not just Trump’s voting bloc, but national and state leaders of his party have fallen in line, giving support to something approaching a coup. That one of our great political parties has sold its soul to support and spread the Big Lie is both pathetic and frightening. We need it to recover its soul and play its essential role in our history.
By the grace of God this, too, will pass, and President-elect Biden will be sworn in on January 20th. But the mind-robbing, conscience-destroying after-effects of the reign of the Big Lie in public life will continue into the foreseeable future. The culture of the Big Lie took root in the Garden of Eden and has flourished through the centuries in every civilization. It gained respectability here in recent decades in the politics of character assassination and demonization which made compromise–a democratic imperative–almost impossible to achieve. Stalemate takes the place of compromise, and friendly rivals become hated enemies.
America’s Christians find themselves in the midst of events signaling cultural rot and democratic collapse. The church’s task, it seems to me, is to join men and women of good faith in rebuilding the structures of democracy by naming the culture of the Big Lie as the malicious and seditious danger it is. Our founders spoke of the self-evident truths which justified government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as defined by Abraham Lincoln in the war against the Big Lie that owning Black slaves is a God-given right and that extending slavery to western states was the way forward. The other Big Lie, then and now, is that government is legitimate only when it acts in our favor. When it doesn’t, talk turns to secession.
Millions of church-going, Bible-believing Christians have voted for Donald Trump. They had a variety of legitimate reasons for so doing. That’s not the point. The point is what happened after the election with the poisonous, consistent use of the Big Lie by the president of the United States. Changing the culture of the Big Lie should not be a partisan issue. It is a truism that politicians lie; so do we all. But tolerating, or even embracing Big Lies at the heart of government are the issue here and now, where something like 70% of the president’s supporters believe that the election was stolen, and that the new president is illegitimate. We saw the power of the Big Lie in Germany and Russia in the last century. We don’t want to see it succeed here.
Big Lies are even more dangerous to our well-being than the coronavirus. We all depend on words to define reality and relationships. They give order and meaning to life. When words are detached from reality, so are we. It is a widespread problem, and our public discourse is going to be affected by it for years to come.
The vaccine to protect us from the Big Lies is the truth. Christians are called to be witnesses to the truth. It is important that the churches labor to expose and purge the lies abounding in our land. Our identity should always be defined by the gospel-word by which we live and serve a fallen world. That a church body’s primary identity is wrapped up in political ideology, as politically conservative or politically liberal—that is an offense, since the gospel of conservatism or the gospel of liberalism has been substituted for the one entrusted to us by our Lord. The words conservative and liberal describe attitudes and mind-sets. Applied to the churches, the conservative mind-set clings to the faith once delivered to the saints, while the liberal mind-set works to make change in accordance with the law of love. They should both be part of every church’s character.
That’s the ideal. The more common thing is for churches to be open to one mind-set and not the other, and what’s even worse, to identify openly with one political party or another. Conservative/liberal should be a both/and norm, not an either/or one. Much damage has been done to the witness of the church in these latter days by congregations and church bodies who have compromised their Christian identity by forming at the least de facto coalitions with political parties, looking for hegemony in the kingdoms of this world.
Babel is not the only biblical narrative about a multitude of tongues; there is also the Feast of Pentecost in Acts, where many spoke in tongues as witness to the ultimate truth, Jesus and his gospel. It was the beginning of a movement to bring unity out of the chaos and confusion caused by human hubris. Jesus’ disciples know that truth on every level is important in secular society, that Big Lies support policies and programs which undermine the common good and cause injustice, violence, and war.
“If you continue in my words, then are you my disciples indeed. And you will know the truth; and the truth will make you free.” Jesus’ words have a depth and breadth and power which enable us to be advocates of truth in public life at a time when Big Lies are believed by many millions, a reality that now threatens the admittedly flawed but nevertheless blessed democracy we call our earthly home. It is Advent, and we want to be numbered among those whose “eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” and who believe that “His truth is marching on.”