Babel and Power

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton).

Humans dedicate quite a lot of their resources to the acquisition, accumulation, or maintenance of power, far more than they might imagine. Nations wage war against one another to gain renown, resources, and to humiliate or gut their opponents. Leaders within countries use various means to attempt to perpetuate their power through elections, coercion, or manipulation of the people. Corporations participate in economic contests with one another, and even with persons, governments, and other institutions, in order to gain market share and a favorable environment for their products. Even in interpersonal relationships people jockey for social standing: how many terrible things are done by children to children in middle and high school in order to “look cool” or to find acceptance in a given social group? Power dynamics remain at play among the Lord’s people: within congregations in terms of who maintains formal and informal power, and what happens when such people are crossed; in the “brotherhood” in general, who is heard and persuasive and who will prove willing to align with whom. No matter where we turn we tend to find some kind of power dynamic and power games at play.

People are less likely to notice the strength of their power when they maintain it than they are to notice when they are not in power, are losing their power, or are suffering oppression on account of others exercising power over them. If we are used to getting our way, or receiving a level of deference or respect from other people, we are tempted to think that such is normal and how everyone else experiences the world. We easily get miffed when we feel we are disrespected. We can think that the reason other people go through difficulties we do not experience must be on account of some fault of their own: they proved too lazy, or did not work hard enough, and thus they do not have. We can be blissfully unaware of how power works for us but not for others, but only until the tables get turned and power works against us. Then we can see more clearly the unfortunate side of power dynamics in our fallen world.

Power is not inherently wrong or evil; God has all authority, and gives to all some measure of authority and power in life (Romans 13:1). The challenge of power is what we make of it: how do we view the power we have, and to what end do we exercise it?

God made man and gave him dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). God intended for mankind to view power, like life itself and all things in the creation, as a gift from God, a stewardship held in trust. Man was to keep and tend the Garden God had made (Genesis 2:15): man does best when man maintains what God has made and sustained in Himself. God Himself came to earth with power and authority and in humility served others and was not served Himself (John 1:1, 18; Matthew 20:25-28). All those who maintain authority are to serve and seek the best interest of those under their charge (e.g. Ephesians 5:21-6:9, 1 Peter 5:1-5). God will call all into account for the power they have exercised (Romans 14:10-12). Power, when used rightly, can facilitate thriving and flourishing in life.

We have all seen, unfortunately, what happens when power is not used rightly. In many respects the Tower of Babel represents human power at its worst (Genesis 11:1-9). All humanity had gathered on the plain of Shinar, and there they recognized the great power they held since they all spoke the same language and could collaborate on anything they might imagine: in this condition nothing could hinder them, as God Himself said (Genesis 11:1-3, 6). What did they do with all of their power? They intended to build a tower into the heavens to make a name for themselves lest they be scattered over all the earth (Genesis 11:4). They did not use their power to serve, to love, or to lead to human flourishing; they used it to make a monument for themselves, a grandiose and otherwise useless display of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. God was not glorified.

Babel, in Hebrew, is the same word that Greek would translate as “Babylon.” From Babylon would come the army that would destroy Jerusalem and its Temple and exile its people in 586 BCE (cf. 2 Kings 25:1-30). “Babylon” would become code, or a cipher, to represent Rome (1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 13:1-18:24). “Babylon” thus became a metaphor for the human power which arrogates itself against God: boastful, haughty, arrogant, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, making an idol of itself, throwing its weight around, inducing others to participate in its immorality, and persecuting the people of God. Babel/Babylon thus represents what happens when power goes bad.

In our fallen world power is all too often used for corrupt ends; it always looks something like what happened at Babel/Babylon. People exercise their power to benefit themselves to the harm of others. Domination is the name of the game: crush your enemies, exploit the environment, engender fear and wonder in your people. There is very little room for justice or righteousness in such manifestations of power, and those who uphold justice and righteousness are often persecuted or oppressed for doing so.

The corrupt abuse of power may be the way the world works, but it must not be so among the people of God. As Christians we must recognize that authority and power are given as responsibilities and a stewardship, not as a license to dominate and oppress. As Christians we must seek to glorify God through our exercise of power, not build monuments for ourselves. We must never allow ourselves to think that we have gained our position by our own strength or standing, lest we become as arrogant as those in the world and abuse what God has given us as they do. Instead we must always remain humble, recognizing that the greatest among us are the servants, and to use whatever authority we have to love and serve others, cultivate justice and righteousness, so we can harvest love, prosperity, and flourishing for everyone. We will either be part of the Bride of Christ or the whore Babylon; may the people of God come out of Babylon, and glorify God in all they do!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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