The Tower of Ego

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts
September 29, 2002

Genesis 11:1-9 The Tower of Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that mortals had built. And the Lord said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Revelation 14:6-8 Babylon has fallen!

Then I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth--to every nation and tribe and language and people. He said in a loud voice, "Fear God, and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."

Then a second angel followed, saying, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."

Arcana Coelestia #1304 The Tower of Ego

It is the nature of religion that when kindness to the neighbor departs and selfishness takes its place, the teachings of faith are considered unimportant unless they can be turned into worship of self. People who are like this do not think worship is holy at all unless it exists for the sake of self--meaning it is self-worship.

This applies to all selfish love. In fact, people who love themselves more than others hate everyone who is not subservient to them, and show no favor to them until they do become subservient. Further, as much as they are not restrained, they plunge onward into exalting themselves above God. I have been shown by vivid experience that self-love is like this when it is given free rein.

This is the meaning of "a city and a tower." Selfish love, and every desire springing from it, is the filthiest and most unholy of all things, and is hell itself.

Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4)

We recently passed the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last year, and our church has not memorialized them except for some conversation on the anniversary itself in Bible Study. However, I felt called by today's Bible story, and this will be my version of a remembrance, and a memorial, and a call related to the attacks of September 11.

I should say before I begin that I suspect some of you will disagree very much with what I have to say. For you, I would mention that we have a couple of open Sundays here in the next month when I will be away, first at the youth retreat a couple weeks from now, and then at Convention's General Council meeting in two more weeks. So if you have a different perspective on how we might view--from a spiritual perspective--the current world events, and our country's involvement in them, I invite you to lead the service one of those Sundays and say your piece!

For today, I will offer my perspective. It is not intended to be primarily a political perspective, but a perspective based on my view of God's way for this world, and God's working in history. So today I am going to say some things that may be a bit controversial, and may or may not sit well with you. However, this also is the spirit of our country: that we speak our piece, and have an open discussion. And it is the spirit of our religion that we consider prayerfully, in the light of our teachings--the teachings of our God--what we believe we should do, and what direction our country should go.

That is my preface. Now on to the sermon.

As our military mops up from our most recent war, we are already beating the drums for the next war. Having changed the government in Afghanistan, we now seem to think it will be a good idea to go ahead and do the same thing in Iraq. In fact, the war in Iraq never really stopped. The U.S. has mounted some kind of attack against one Iraqi installation or another almost every month ever since we expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. So it wouldn't be accurate to say we are going back to war with Iraq, because the war against Iraq has never ended.

But let's put this in perspective. There are numerous wars, large and small, going on all around the world right now. India and Pakistan are fighting over Kashmir. Ethiopia and Eritrea are involved in a border dispute. Russia is prosecuting a war in Chechnya. Israel is in conflict with many of its neighbors. Within the last decade there have been wars in Colombia, Congo, Sudan, Angola, Somalia, Algeria, Sri-Lanka, Lebanon, Turkey, Northern Iraq, Iran, and Ethiopia, among others. Many of these are still going on. Over a thousand people die in wars every year. Some years it is tens or even hundreds of thousands. And the wars keep going on.

As we look over this conflict-ridden world of ours, we ask, Why? Why are so many people attacking and killing one another? Why can't we all just get along?

Then we look around our own communities, and even our own families, and we see the same thing. People in conflict with one another. People attacking each other--if not physically, then verbally. People hurting and even killing one another--again, if not physically, then emotionally. There are people in our communities who hate one another. And there are people in our own extended families that we don't get along with. We may be in active conflict with them, or we may have an interpersonal cold war going on.

And again, we ask, Why? Why can't we all just get along?

This is what the story of the Tower of Babel is all about.

Of course, there had already been jealousy, anger, and murder in the Bible. Cain, the first person ever born in the Bible story, had killed his brother Abel. Lamech, the first man who took two wives in the Bible story, had killed both a man and a child in revenge. And humankind had become so wicked that they were destroyed by the great flood en masse, with only Noah and his family surviving.

After the flood, we find the genealogies of Noah's three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. This genealogy is really a "table of nations," since each son mentioned is the name of one of the nations of the ancient world. This was the Hebrew view of how the world became populated by various peoples and cultures, all descending from Shem, Ham, and Japheth. By the time of the Tower of Babel, then, humanity had become differentiated into nations, tribes, and families, each living and believing in its own way.

And yet, despite the great variety in culture, outlook, and lifestyle, we read in the beginning of Genesis chapter 11 that "the whole earth had one language and the same words." We know what it means metaphorically when someone is "speaking the same language" as we are. It means that they understand us, and we understand them. Despite any differences in outlook, there are common goals or values that we share with that person. We have a basis for working together.

The people who built the Tower of Babel had such a common purpose. And they expressed it quite clearly: "Come," they said, "let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Did you notice their purpose? It was "to make a name for themselves." In other words, to demonstrate how great they were. Their "common purpose" was not to do anything for anyone else, but to stoke their own egos. Their city and tower were to be a dazzling monument to themselves.

The stories up to the Tower of Babel showed humankind descending from its early golden-age closeness to God and kindness toward the neighbor, down into jealousy, anger, and conflict. However, it is left to the story of the Tower of Babel to reveal the underlying cause of that discord and strife, and to show its inevitable results. The story of the Tower of Babel shows why and how we came to be the conflict-ridden, war-torn world that we are. It tells, in metaphorical language, how we came to be a world of many nations and cultures in perpetual conflict with one another, with wars ripping through every decade of our existence somewhere in the world. At the same time, it names the source of all the conflicts in our communities, in our families, and even within ourselves.

That source is what today, in the terms of popular psychology, is called "ego." Yes, there is a healthy self-love that all of us need so that we will take good care of ourselves as a basis for serving others. We are not talking about this kind of healthy self-love. The ego represented by the Tower of Babel goes far beyond that. It is the oversized ego that causes us to think we are greater and more important than others, and that they should serve us, rather than the other way around--which is what the Lord taught. It is the ego that, in the words of those ancient city-builders, is all about "making a name for ourselves." It's all about showing how great we are, and forcing others to acknowledge that greatness and to serve our every wish and whim.

This sort of ego is at the core of all our conflicts today. And this desire for power and dominance over others is the essence of our ego, even if outwardly it doesn't appear that way. For example, we all know of those who are "passive aggressive"--who don't press themselves forward, and yet use their own subtle way of controlling others through various means. Ego doesn't necessarily come out in the way we usually think of it. Yet it's all about putting ourselves first. Swedenborg uses the Latin word proprium to describe the ego. It is our sense that we own ourselves, we live from ourselves, and we are pretty darn important.

This is the common thread that runs through all the wars of humanity, and all the conflicts we are engaged in. The core goal of every war, on one or both sides, is dominance over others. And along with that goal of dominance is the desire to possess the wealth of others. These are the two fundamental loves that, when they turn the wrong direction, are the source of all our evils: the desire for dominance from self-love, and the desire to possess the property of others (or their beauty, talent, material pleasures, and so on). In simple terms: power-lust and greed drive all our wars and all our conflict. And in all wars, there is a sense that we are the greatest--and we're going to prove it to everyone, even if we have to kill them to do it.

Right now our country is definitely feeling its oats. We suffered a bruising defeat in Vietnam thirty years ago--and that cooled our war ardor for a time. But it did not change our underlying character. We continued to engage in lesser wars here and there around the world, projecting our power wherever we felt that it was in our national interest. And over time, the lessons of Vietnam seemed to fade from our national consciousness. We moved back toward open, full-scale war against our international neighbors.

Yes, we have given many reasons why we must fight this or that war, and they all sound very noble. And maybe a few of them were. But we shouldn't fool ourselves. We take pride in being "the world's only superpower." And we think the world would be a lot better place if we were running the show--or if people were at least running things the way we think they should be run. We have now taken it as our task and our right to decide what kind of government various nations around the world should have, and to replace governments we don't like, either by secret coup or by open force of arms. We are building our tower up to heaven, where we intend to look down from our height and rule over all that we see below us in the world.

And a new word is being to describe our nation, which was never applied to us in our earlier years. That word is "empire." Our nation was never designed to be an empire. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson urged Americans to pursue "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." And though this was not the vision of all the founders of our country, it was the reigning spirit of the foreign policy of this country for the first century of its existence. Yet now we have come to the point where the word "empire" begins to feel appropriate to who we are as a nation. We have built an enormous and highly sophisticated military, and we are using it continually to project our power around the world.

There have been many empires throughout the history of the world. In the Bible, we read of the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, and the Roman Empire. History tells us of dozens, even hundreds more that have come and gone. They have all met the same end. They had their period of flourishing greatness, and then they declined or were overthrown. Their city was built to a certain prestige, and their Tower of Babel to a certain height, and then they descended into confusion, corruption, and defeat.

This inevitable fall was powered by the same forces that caused them to raise themselves up to worldly greatness by force of arms. It was caused by the very ego and power-lust that caused the people of that nation to turn their weapons against their neighbors, conquer them, and make them subservient. As Swedenborg wrote, "people who love themselves more than others hate everyone who is not subservient to them, and show no favor to them until they do become subservient. Further, as much as they are not restrained, they plunge onward into exalting themselves above God."

This selfish love and hatred for those who do not serve our needs is the bitumen that holds our Towers of Babel together. And when, instead of the mortar of mutual love, it is the oily tar of ego and greed that binds us together, those slippery bonds last only as long as we have a common outside enemy to keep us from turning on ourselves. Once we reach the point where we are no longer being regularly victorious over those common outside enemies (and I'm speaking of all the empires that have ever existed), our egos turn inward, and that great tower of empire inevitably comes crashing down around us in internal discord, political intrigue, and civil war. Unlike mortar, the tar of ego burns quick and hot when it is ignited. And every nation or empire held together by ego and desire for power and wealth will inevitably end in the flames of discord and defeat.

When we are building our Tower of Babel to show our own greatness, we also pass over the stone of divine truth as our construction material, and instead use the human-manufactured brick of our own social, political, and religious theories. And we have only to turn on the television or radio, or pick up the nearest newspaper or news magazine, to find a torrent of arguments as to why our country is perfectly justified in extending its power around the world through our military and economic might. We are always acting only from the noblest motives. And don't mention the word "oil." That has nothing to do with it!

It is the same in every empire. It is always our God-given or natural right to rule over others, and direct the affairs of the world. And every empire that has operated on that principle has, in due course, crumbled into the dust of destruction and defeat.

Our nation has a decision to make. We must decide whether we are going to follow the course of every empire in grasping for world dominance, only to meet the inevitable defeat once we overextend ourselves and descend into internal conflict and decline. The warning shots have already been fired over our bow. Those warning shots have come in the form of an escalating series of attacks against our people and our nation. They have been fired by those who feel the weight of our economic and military dominance bearing down on them, and depriving them of their liberties and their lives. The attacks have been mounted by groups of people who have lost friends, family members, and loved ones because of our actions around the world.

The attacks on the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon that took place a year ago are only the latest warning that we have gone seriously astray from the peaceful principles of international friendship and honest commerce with all nations on which our country was originally founded. And we know that the enemies we have made are still very much alive, and they are already considering what their next attack might be.

We do not have to continue on the path toward war and destruction that we have so far chosen. We do not have to keep building our Tower of Babel with the brick of plausible arguments and self-justifications for war, and the tar of "our national interest"--or more accurately, our national self-interest holding it all together.

We could choose God's way instead. We could use our military only for its rightful job of self-defense in case of unprovoked attack. We could base our relationship with other nations purely on a desire to be of service to our world neighbors in any way we can. Instead of building an empire, with the inevitable destruction that will follow, we could build a beautiful temple constructed of the stone of divine truth, and the mortar of mutual love. Amen.


Music: Tears for All of the Children
2002 Bruce DeBoer

Used with permission