Listen to the sermon here:
In his reflection, Steve spoke of experiences in which he witnessed the immense gulf between different populations in our world, a gulf that is only growing as our ability to innovate technology increases and the very valid attention being paid to STEM education — to science, technology, engineering, and math — is redirected at the expense of the humanities, philosophy, and religious studies?
One area is not inherently better than the other — they inform and shape each other. Steve’s identity as a Unitarian Universalist, his commitment to living into our principles, gave him the insight to both appreciate the technology in his hand as a positive tool for fostering connections and joy of community, while at the same time recognizing how it was preventing him from helping someone experiencing great distress.
The hymn that was chosen to follow Steve’s reflection this morning was chosen deliberately because of its particular message that is far from the truth for millions of people in our national communities, and billions of people around the world. It takes the time to mention creatures of “high and lowly birth”, but fails to acknowledge that such categories are more often than not human constructions of systems that keep the power with the already-privileged and disenfranchise those who are born into such a hierarchy. It totally ignores that life, and the struggles within for so many, are not a precious gift, but are in fact an endless stream of disappointments and suffering. And telling people living those lives that they should be grateful just to be alive is making the choice to diminish their narrative, to erase their story.
If we, as UUs, are going to sing about Life Being the Greatest Gift, then we need to commit ourselves to working to make that true for everyone. The moral arc of the universe only bends towards justice when we make it so.
So what does the story of the Tower of Babel teach us about how we can accomplish this? The conventional western Christian take on this story is that it’s about a community driven by “arrogance”. They realize they can build a very tall tower, a tower that can reach so high it can touch God, and they want to do so in order to make a name for themselves. And remember, historically, temples for gods were built to acknowledge their space in the sky, not the area on the ground. They were symbolic of something that could not be reached by those born of earth.
So this attempt to build a tower offends God, because, God claims, if they can do this, then there’s nothing they can’t achieve. So God decides to scramble everyone;s languages, so they can no longer communicate. They become separate communities, and the gulf between them grows.
That’s a pretty crappy thing for God to do, eh?
Yeah, that’s not my God.
Here’s my take on this story for your consideration — the people in the community lost touch with each other, and became so distant from each other in communication and experience, because they were using their innovation and gifts as a community for the wrong thing.
This community set about to build a tower as high as they could, just because they could. Imagine the resources that must have been put into it. Yeah, there were job for a while, but once it’s built… what does it do? What does it symbolize? An accomplishment that will stand there and mean nothing as the government is bankrupt from paying for it and the citizens experience massive unemployment. It is not God who breaks this community aparts and creates the dissonance between its citizens — it is the people themselves.
Imagine, instead, if the community has thought about what they would build before they did it. Instead of building it just to make a name for themselves, what if, knowing that they were capable of great things that would lead them to innovate and explore, they chose instead to build a thing that would keep them connected when they spread out into the world? What if they invested all those resources and all that time in a structure that would allow them to continue to communicate with each other, and hear each other’s stories of both joys and sorrows, across time and space?
Imagine how strong they would be. Imagine what they could accomplish, and what they could overcome. Imagine the larger world they could create. Sounds a lot like the shared values we strive for when we covenant to affirm and promote our seven principles.
It also sounds really threatening to those who hold and hoard power, like that really crappy God that wants to keep them from knowing what they can achieve.
What God does in this story is the Biblical version of a distributed denial of service attack. Now, for those of you in the room who use the internet, you may have experienced one of these attacks and not known it. What happens is that someone decides they want to stop you from accessing Amazon,com, or another website, for whatever reason. So they create a program that sends so many requests to that site, that it can’t handle all the requests and overloads. When people who want to use the site try to access, they can’t. It’s like someone intentionally keeping all phone lines busy so people can’t use them, or a group of people intentionally crowding into the doorway of a store so others can’t get in.
It’s frustrating, and oftentimes the average person doesn’t know what’s actually happening, so they take it their negative feelings on the victim of the attack. The website has not only lost its presence, but without awareness, its reputation and ability to recover are also affected.
What that God does in the story of the Tower of Babel is a distributed denial of service. He shuts down the people’s access to each other, and makes them think it’s their own fault. And he does it because they were going to know their own power to shape the future of the world.
We are currently living in an era such as this, where the people in power are using our own innovations to attack our ability to live into our seven principles and make them a reality. Technology is a tool, and all tools are only and good or an evil as the choices people make when using them. Twitter, Facebook, the internet, have allowed people to lead revolutions across the world. They’ve also allowed white supremacists to organize and consolidate their power without us noticing. And, this use of technology and innovation is nothing new in human history.
While we were planning this service together, Steve showed me the Never Again Tech pledge statement. This is an excerpt:
We, the undersigned, are employees of tech organizations and companies based in the United States. We are engineers, designers, business executives, and others whose jobs include managing or processing data about people. We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.
We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out. We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We recognize that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. We acknowledge that genocides are not merely a relic of the distant past—among others, Tutsi Rwandans and Bosnian Muslims have been victims in our lifetimes.
Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again.
The story of the Tower of Babel is a warning to us about where and when we are, right here, right now. As we celebrate the life-affirming, community-building aspects of the technology we build, we are also witnessing an increasing chasm between communities, a separation based on class and resources. This separation is perpetuated and enhanced by people with an agenda to attack the nature of objective reality. Spin masters and fake news combined with the soundbite attention span have created a world in which public leaders can blatantly lie, and there are no consequences. This is only made worse by the idea that these technological platforms are somehow inherently neutral or apolitical.
The Tower of Babel failed, and divided the people who built it, because they were focusing on the wrong thing. They were building something just for the sake of building it. Instead of looking up to an empty sky, I would offer today that we should look at the whole setting — earth, sea, and sky. That we intentionally takes these amazing creations of humanity and take that innovation one step further — to combine our science with our morality and use both to build a world in which we empower communication and community. We already have the capability to do so much — we must keep building to manifest our sixth principle: our goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
May it be so.