BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON CULTURE AND CULTURAL IDENTITY by Dr. Everard Johnston[Seventh Annual Conference], January 10-14, 2000

Introductory Remarks:

The task which I have set myself for this session is to attempt an expose of biblical perspectives on culture and cultural identity, and this in the context of the general theme of this year’s conference, viz. “Caribbean Personhood”.  Let me begin by outlining the general approach that I shall be taking.

The major part of the study will focus on the value, from a biblical theological perspective, of any particular culture. It is difficult to find any one term in the bible that would correspond to what we mean by “culture”.  Inspired, however, by some aspects of twentieth century philosophy of language, I fix my attention on the Babel story in the book of Genesis (Gen.11:1-9) where, as we shall see, a people’s language is an important distinguishing mark that is, in some sense, the equivalent of what we understand by “culture”.  My aim is to read the Babel story in the context of the whole biblical canon and to suggest that, read in that context, the “confusion of languages” at Babel must be viewed as a blessing, in that the plurality of cultures to which it gives rise is integral to the divinely intended destiny of human beings.

Against this background, and in order to establish a link with the theme of this year’s conference (“Caribbean Personhood”) I shall, in the concluding section of this study, explore some dimensions of “personhood” derived from a reading of the Pauline epistles, and attempt a reflection on the relation between this understanding of “personhood” and what, in my experience, is a fundamental characteristic of Caribbean persons’ traditional way of being in the world, our traditional culture.

Diversity of Languages (Cultures): Blessing or Punishment?

In what is often described as the “pre-history” recounted in Gen.1-11 we find, in the last two chapters, chapter 10 and chapter 11, traces of what appear originally to have been two different myths concerning the origins of the many different peoples and cultures in the world.  These correspond to the two myths about the origins of the world and of human beings that source critics have detected in the first three chapters of Genesis: the first, in chapter one, originally from the “Priestly” (or P) source and the second, in Chapters two and three, belonging to the “Yahwist” (or J) source.

In chapter 10, the narrative derived mainly from the P source, we read of the dispersal of the descendants of Noah, after the flood, to different parts of the earth.  Each of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth gives rise to distinct clans that spread out over the earth and people it. And just as the P narrative of the origin of the world presents an orderly seven-day creation of the world, so the post-diluvian peopling of the earth proceeds, according to Gen.10, in an orderly fashion, by clans and languages and nations. The sons of Japheth are the first listed (Gen.10:2-4) and this list is followed by the summary statement: “These were Japheth’s sons, in their respective countries, each with its own language, by clan and nation” – Gen.10:5.1 In like manner, the sons of Ham and of Shem are listed later, with similar summary statements after each group (Gen.10:6-20; 21-31).  Finally there is the concluding summary statement in Gen.10:32 – “Such were the clans of Noah’s descendants, listed by descent and nation.  From them other nations branched out on earth after the flood.” The picture that is presented in chapter 10 of Genesis, then, is of a general dispersal of peoples throughout the earth, that settle in different geographical regions, in various political groupings (clans, nations) and speaking many different languages – a picture, that is to say, of a world “filled” with a vast variety of cultures.

The above-described peopling of the earth is, in the context of Genesis, the outcome of God’s blessing upon Noah and his sons after the waters of the flood had receded.  Thus we read in Gen.9:1 – “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: ‘Breed, multiply and fill the earth…’”  And what is significant for our study is that this “filling of the earth” is carried out, we are told in the text, by descendants of Noah and his sons who branch out into the world and give rise to peoples of different clans and nations and languages.

When we come to Gen.11, however, there seems to be some sort of reversion to a state in which, as the first verse of that chapter states: “The whole world spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary” – Gen.11:1. Here source critics usually discern the J story or myth of the origin of different peoples and languages (cultures) found among human beings. And in this story, the “tower of Babel” story, the diversity of languages (cultures) seems at first sight to be the outcome not of a blessing but rather of an act of punishment from God.

Before discussing this difference, however,  it is important to notice that as the Yahwist creation story (Gen.2-3) follows immediately on the heels of the P narrative of Gen.1, so also here, in Gen11:1-9, we have the tower of Babel story (J) immediately following  Gen.10 (P).  And just as there is order and harmony in the garden of Eden as described in Gen.2, before the wily serpent makes its appearance in Gen.3, so also the first verse of Gen. 11 depicts a scene of order and harmony in the world before the appearance of different languages. Hence the pattern of juxtaposed narratives in Gen.10 and 11 has its parallel in the earlier chapters of the book.

“The whole world,” we read in Gen. 11:1, “spoke the same language with the same vocabulary.”  But then, in the following verses, things change when the people decide to “make bricks and bake them in the fire” in order to “build ourselves a city and a tower .with its top reaching heaven”.  And the motive for building this city and tower of “bricks baked in the fire”, (that is to say, cultural or man-made products), rather than of stone, (a natural product), is to “make a name for ourselves” so that “we do not get scattered all over the earth.” (Gen.11:2-4).  We note here at once that this desire not to be scattered all over the earth stands in opposition to God’s blessing to the post-diluvian community in Gen.9:1, to “fill the earth”.  So that human creativity and culture, symbolized by making bricks, firing them and constructing a city with them, presents a threat to God’s command that humans “fill the earth”.

As in the Yahwist story of Gen.3, where the human aspiration to “be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen.3:5) is thwarted, so here in the Babel story the human desire to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen.11:4) and not be scattered all over the earth, is thwarted when God, Yahweh, confuses the people’s language and scatters them all over the earth (Gen.11:7-8).  And as Gen.3 has traditionally been interpreted as the “fall” of humanity followed by a divine punishment and expulsion from the garden of Eden, so also has the confusion of languages in the Babel story traditionally been understood as God’s punishment of humans for attempting to “make a name for ourselves”.  So that the question that immediately arises is whether we have, in the Babel story, a totally different assessment, from the narrative of Gen. 10, of the meaning and value, theologically speaking, of the plurality of languages (cultures) that characterizes humanity.  Is this plurality to be considered a blessing as the narrative of Gen.10 seems to indicate, or is the ideal human situation the one described at the beginning of the Babel story: that the whole world should “speak the same language with the same vocabulary”, (in our terms, that the whole world should be mono-cultural)?

We are of course all aware of the havoc wreaked by ethnic conflicts all over the world, so that the absence of linguistic (cultural) differences among humans would seem at first sight to make for greater harmony among us. Does the plurality of cultures and languages, one may ask, not imply a “fall” from a situation of original grace, where all humans shared a single culture, a single language? While some have interpreted the Babel story in this way, my contention is that, interpreted in the context of the entire biblical canon, Yahweh’s  “confusion of (human) languages”, implying as it does the creation of a multiplicity of human cultures, must be considered, as Gen.9:1 would have it, a blessing.  I shall return to this contention in a later section of this study.  I turn first of all, however, to an examination of the basis for this contention. And I begin with a consideration of the manner in which the relation between Israel and the (other) nations, the non-Israelite or gentile nations, is portrayed in the Old Testament.

Israel and the Nations: Israel’s “Sacred Ethnocentrism”2

A negative judgment on the non-Israelite cultures seems to be implied in the text of the chapter of Genesis immediately following the Babel story.  For, after tracing the ancestry of Abraham from Noah’s first son, Shem, the text of Genesis 12 begins with God’s (Yahweh’s) summons to Abram to “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for the country that I shall show you; and I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name famous: you are to be a blessing” (Gen.12:1-2).  The blessing that the community at Babel seems to have forfeited is now apparently to be conferred on Abram, and on his descendants (the “great nation” to which he is to give rise).  And for this to take place, Abram is to separate himself from his own people, his own culture and, one supposes, to start a new culture under God.

Read in relation to the Babel story which immediately precedes it, then, what is usually described as the “call of Abraham” is often interpreted as implying a negative judgment, theologically speaking, on human culture. Culture, such an interpretation argues, is riddled through and through with hubris, symbolized in the Babel story by the human desire to “make a name for ourselves”; the confusion of languages and scattering of peoples was God’s punishment and the history of God’s salvation begins with summoning Abram out of the particular culture within which he was mired and promising to make of Abram and the nation/culture that would descend from him a vehicle of blessing for all the clans of the earth (Gen.12:2-3).

Much of the narrative section of the Old Testament is in fact concerned with God’s efforts, through various chosen leaders, to fashion the descendants of Abraham (through the line of Isaac) into a holy people, of all peoples God’s special, “personal” possession.  This process begins in earnest when, under the leadership of Moses through whom the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, the people are called, at Sinai/Horeb to make a covenant with Yahweh (Ex.19:3-8).  The covenant is made and sealed at Sinai and in the book of Deuteronomy Moses, on the eve of his death and before the entrance of the Israelites into the land that God had pledged to give to Abram and his progeny (Gen 12:7), provides the Israelites with a blueprint of how they should live in that land in order to fulfill their destiny as God’s people (Dt.12:1-26:17).  This blueprint includes, in chapters 17 and 18 of Deuteronomy, outlines of the functions of various kinds of leaders, judges, kings, priests, prophets, all of whom are assigned particular duties in the establishment and maintenance of a unique, God-centred culture. In Leviticus, a list of the many blessings that the Israelites’ obedience to the demands of the covenant would incur is concluded thus: “…I shall fix my home among you and never reject you.  I shall live among you; I shall be your God and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11-12; cf. Dt.7:6; 26:17).  This statement is echoed by Ezekiel when, in announcing the return of Judah from exile in Babylon, the prophet says in Yahweh’s name: “…I shall set my sanctuary among them forever. I shall make my home above them: I shall be their God and they will be my people” (Ez.37:26-27).  We note here the repetition of the “covenant formula” indicating the exclusive relationship between God (Yahweh) and the people of Israel: I shall be your (their) God and you (they) shall be my people.

It was, then, by producing a society, a culture, based on obedience to the “laws and customs” (Dt.12:1) given by God through Moses that the Israelites were to become a vehicle of God’s blessing to the nations.  Moreover, (and here the words of Moses seem shockingly to provide a charter for what today might be described as “ethnic cleansing”), the establishment of that society or culture in the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants would involve what is often described as a “holy war” against the inhabitants of that “promised land” .  Moses tells the Israelites that Yahweh will put the seven nations that inhabit the land at the mercy of the Israelites; that they must utterly destroy the people of those nations (put them under the “curse of destruction”); that there must be no intermarriage with persons of those nations; that every vestige of the religions of those nations must be completely wiped out (Dt.7:1-5).  What this implies is that those nations whose cultures are founded on the worship of other gods must be liquidated lest the Israelites be drawn into the value systems of those cultures.3 In the books of Kings, the great failure of kings such as Solomon and Ahab is that they allow their pagan wives to lure them, and not only themselves but the whole Israelite nation, into the religious observances of the other nations.  The priests, moreover, and the prophets fail by and large to function as Moses had prescribed in Deuteronomy.  So that by the end of the second book of Kings, the culture of the Israelites is irredeemably infected by the cultures of these nations.  And the last straw as it were is when King Manasseh causes his son to pass through the fire of sacrifice (2Kgs.21:1-16, especially vs.6). Thus even the goodness and devotion of King Josiah, one of the successors of Manasseh, could not suffice to turn the tide (2Kgs.25:24-27).  God sends the Babylonians to destroy and plunder Jerusalem and the temple and lead the Israelites (now reduced, as it were, to the people of the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah) into exile.

It is, however, during the exile, through the words of the prophet Jeremiah in his letter to the exiles Babylon, that we see the relationship between the people of Israel and the gentile nations beginning to change.  In chapter 29 of Jeremiah, we find the text of a letter purportedly sent from Jerusalem by the prophet to the exiles in Babylon in which Jeremiah, convinced that the period of exile would be a protracted one, urged the exiles to “[b]uild houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and have sons and daughters; choose wives for your sons and find husbands for your daughters; you must increase there and not decrease” (Jer.29:5-6).  In addition, however, what is especially significant for our study is Jeremiah’s injunction to the exiles to “[w]ork for the good of the city to which I have exiled you; pray to Yahweh on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depends” (Jer.29:7). So that now, in a position of weakness, as exiles in an alien land, the people of Israel are being urged to recognize their dependence on a non-Israelite nation and to pray and work for the good of that nation.  Clearly the prophet does not encourage the exiles to become totally assimilated to the Babylonian culture. When they are encouraged to “increase and not decrease”, what is intended is that they should do so as an enclave or a sub-culture, as it were, in Babylon (“choose wives for your sons…etc.). However, though primarily motivated by self-interest, (“on its, i.e. Babylon’s, welfare yours depends”), the injunction to work and pray for the good of Babylon is striking, since one cannot be expected to pray for the good of a city and a culture that is inherently evil.  So that here, perhaps, we have a hint of a more positive valuation of a non-Israelite culture than we have seen since the “call of Abraham” that was mentioned above.

For the people of Israel, maintaining their identity and culture as Yahweh’s people while in exile in Babylon, and even after the return from exile, under successive colonization by Persians, Greeks and Romans, was a challenge.  This challenge was met by laying particular emphasis on customs and practices that made them distinctive: circumcision, dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath – all of which became hallmarks of (post-exilic) Judaism. What is particularly significant for our discussion here, however, is that from the time of the Babylonian exile there arose a Jewish diaspora, colonies of Jews living in the midst of non-Jewish nations and peoples, partly assimilated to these nations and yet maintaining their identity as Jews, and understanding themselves as Yahweh’s special people.  This is the situation we must bear in mind as we make a huge leap and come to a consideration of the Pentecost event as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Pentecost Event and the Valuing of Cultural Diversity

From the point of view of this study on biblical perspectives on culture and cultural identity, Luke’s description of the Pentecost event (Ac.2:1-12) is of particular interest.  For we are told that on that occasion Jews of the diaspora, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.” (Ac.2:9-10), who were residing in Jerusalem at the time, heard the good news of Jesus Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles, each in his own native language (Greek: dialektos) (Ac.2:8). Whatever one may think about the nature of the actual historical event behind this description, the theological significance of Jews of different languages hearing the good news, each in his own native language, is that the process that began with Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon has reached a point where there is no contradiction between being a Jew and being a “Parthian, or Mede, or Elamite…”

One key stage in this process was the translation of the sacred texts of the Hebrews into Greek. This Greek version, the Septuagint, was made during an extended period covering the late centuries BCE, and the making of that translation implies that diaspora Jews understood that they could, as Jews, belong to the mainstream culture of the (Greek-speaking) cities in which they had settled, and could read their sacred texts in the language of that mainstream culture.  The legend relating to the origin of this translation that is found in the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates is also noteworthy. That seventy-two scholars (six from each Israelite tribe) should, in precisely seventy-two days, produce a Greek rendering of the Pentateuch that was deemed perfectly acceptable to the Jewish community at Alexandria, as the Letter claims,4 could only have come about by divine intervention. By implication, therefore, the translation has divine approval and the Greek language (and culture) is recognized as a suitable medium for divine communication.5 And when we turn to Luke’s description of what has been referred to above as the Pentecost event, we are told that, through the action of the Holy Spirit (Ac.2:4), many different languages become the medium of communication of the good news of Jesus Christ.  So that the Holy Spirit is described as making communication possible not only between God and human beings (the foreigners in Jerusalem hear the apostles preaching “the marvels of God” – Ac.2:11), but also between human beings of different languages (the foreigners receive the message each “in his own native language” – Ac.2:7-8), that is to say, from the point of view of our study, across human cultures

Babel and the Eschatological Vision of the book of Revelation

What, then, of Babel and the “confusion of languages”? I return to the Babel story which was discussed at the beginning and raise again the question: from the point of view of the biblical canon as a whole, is the diversity of languages (cultures) which, according to that story, was brought about by God (Yahweh) to be considered a blessing, or a punishment? Is the plurality, the enormous diversity of cultures that characterizes the human condition to be understood as a “fall” from an original condition of unity of language and culture?

What Luke’s description of the Pentecost event implies is that each language, each culture, is a unique and privileged channel, as it were, of access to God. Each of these foreigners, we are told, heard the preaching of the apostles in his own native language. And when we turn to the book of Revelation and look at the depiction of the eschatological destiny of humanity redeemed in Christ, we find a picture of great throngs of people, “from every nation, race, tribe and language” (Rev.7:9), gathered round the throne of God, and exulting in the worship and praise of God (Rev.7:9-17).  This picture, it is clear, emphasizes the enormous diversity of peoples by which the ultimate fulfillment of humanity is characterized.

Moreover, of particular significance in this regard is the description, towards the end of the book of Revelation, of the “new heaven and the new earth” (Rev.21:1ff), the ultimate destiny of the whole of God’s creation.  In this context, we read, there will be no more death or mourning, or sadness or pain. God will live among human beings, will make his home among them. Most important of all, we find the covenant formula [“I will be your (their) God and you (they) will be my people”] which, as we saw above, expressed the exclusive relationship between God (Yahweh) and the people of Israel, appearing again (Rev.21:3). However, as is brought out in recent translations such as the New Revised Standard Version, there is an important variation to that formula; for we read in Rev. 21:3, “…they (human beings) will be his peopleS” ( laioi – plural).  This more recent translation, based on what has been found to be superior manuscript evidence,6 makes clear that the book of Revelation views the eschatological fulfillment of humanity not as a return to a situation where, as prior to the Babel story, the whole world was said to be mono-lingual (and mono-cultural), but as the coming of a new creation in which God’s people, now representing every race, tribe, nation and language, will sing God’s praises eternally, each in its own language.

In the light of this eschatological vision, then, we may reflect again on the significance of the Babel story. And in Gen.11:9, the claim is made that the name “Babel” is derived from the root of the Hebrew word meaning “to confuse” (balal), and hence that the name connotes the “confusion of languages” which God (Yahweh) brought about. As many commentators point out, however, the term Babel in the Babylonian language (Akkadian) actually means “gate of god” (bab-ilu)7 So that perhaps there is a subtle suggestion here that the multiplicity of human languages and cultures, the “confusion of languages”, is in fact a gateway to the divine, in the sense that it brings about the ultimate fulfillment of God’s commission to Noah and his sons to “[b]reed, multiply and fill the earth” (Gen.9:1). And it was God’s confusion of the language of the people of Babel that produced the multiplicity of cultures that fill the earth, each of which, as we have seen, is a unique and privileged vehicle through which God’s Spirit leads human beings to their ultimate destiny.

This reference to the God’s Spirit brings us to a consideration of “spirit” (common “s”) as an aspect of personhood in the Pauline epistles and of the role that God’s Spirit, or the Holy Spirit (capital “s”), plays in communication not only between God and human persons, but also between individual human persons and across human cultures. And it is here, by way of conclusion to this study, that I wish to make a link with the theme of this year’s conference.

“Personhood” in Paul and Caribbean Personhood

In 1Thess.5:23, Paul, winding up his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, makes the following prayer: “May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may your spirit (pneuma), life (psyche) and body (soma) be kept blameless for the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (In English translations psyche, in this context, is more commonly rendered as “soul”.) As many commentators have noted, this is the only instance where this tripartite division of the human being appears, and hence interpreting it has posed a major problem. Many would agree, however, that read in the context, the expression refers to the human individual in his/her totality, that Paul is praying that every aspect of the human individual may come under God’s sanctifying action.

Elsewhere, in his letter to the Romans, Paul refers to “God, whom I serve with my spirit (pneuma)” (Rom.1:9) and in chapter 8 of that letter, Paul states that in the Christian, “the Spirit (capital “s”) himself joins with our spirit (common “s”) to bear witness that we are children of God” (Rom.8:16). So that at least one aspect of spirit (common “s”) in human beings  would seem to be their capacity to be open to the influence and action of the divine (or Holy) Spirit (capital “s”). Moreover, what constitutes this human individual who is open to the influence of God’s Spirit is a living body, or what, using the more common translation of psyche mentioned above, we might describe as a body(soma)-soul(psyche) complex. And this “body-soul complex”, this living body, is radically determined by culture.  Thus, our bodies are determined by our racial composition and our sex, but how we understand and value these is determined by our culture. So that culturally, for example, sex becomes “engendered”, that is to say, certain culture-specific values are attached to being either male or female.  Now the dimension of “spirit” in the human individual, the capacity for openness to action of the divine Spirit is, it seems to me, rooted in the culturally determined “body-soul complex” and it is in this sense that I speak of a traditional Caribbean spirit or, to use the terminology of the theme of this conference, the spiritual (common “s”) dimension of Caribbean personhood. And by this latter expression I refer to the values that are embedded in the experiences and lives of Caribbean persons that bring a God- or Spirit- (capital “s”) dimension into those lives and experiences.  I give three examples, taken from different areas of the (officially) English-speaking Caribbean.

The first example comes from Guyana, and I quote directly from a Message from the superior of the Benedictine monastery on the Mazaruni River in Guyana, Bro. Paschal Jordan, O.S.B.:

A priest-friend told the following story: he got into a boat, deep in the interior of Guyana, with a local priest and two local catechists.  The four of them were just pulling from the landing when one of the catechists spotted a large fish caught in a net someone had set.  He leaned out of the boat and helped himself to the fish.  My priest-friend was indignant: “Here,” he expostulated, “are two priests and two catechists together, and does the Seventh Commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ mean nothing to us?” The others looked at him in astonishment.  Then the local priest smiled gently and explained: “Taking the fish is not stealing for us, Father; but if we had taken the net, that would have been theft!”8

The second example also has to do with fish.  Visiting St. Lucia some twenty or more years ago, I was speaking one day to a fisherman on one of the beaches.  We got to talking about the price at which he sold his catch and he said to me that he sold his fish at two dollars per pound. Coming from a background where king fish, red snapper and shark are all sold at different prices, my immediate response was: “What kind of fish?” At first he seemed nonplussed, but when I explained my question he in turn explained that, whatever the catch on any given day, the price of fish was always two dollars a pound.

Before going on to my third example, which does not involve fish, let me reflect briefly on these first two. What we have here in our traditional culture, it seems to me, is the sense that the bounty of the earth (and of the sea) is for everyone. So that, from the point of view of the catechist of the first example: “The river is full of fish and if I take this one, another one will go in for the person(s) who set the net.” In a related sense, what lies behind the selling of all kinds of fish at the same price, it seems to me, is the (perhaps unconscious and certainly unarticulated) sense in the fisherman: “I did not put the fish in the sea, nor do I have to work any harder to catch one or other kind of fish. Fishing provides me with my living, and whatever the sea yields (or, whatever ‘God sends’) from day to day will provide for my daily sustenance.”

The third example is from an experience I had over Christmas just past.  We live pretty near to the centre of Port-of-Spain and so we normally have a stream of people ringing the doorbell to ask for money or for something to eat. Early on Boxing morning I hear the doorbell and when I drag myself out of bed to answer it, I find a man, probably in his sixties. As he begins to speak, his accent identifies him immediately as a villager from one of the valleys set deep in the Northern range of Trinidad.  He explains that he had come to Port-of-Spain with a group of friends on the previous evening to “lime”, he had had too much to drink, and had been left to sleep it off in a park (the Savannah) quite near to my home. After informing me that he lived a great distance away and that he would have to walk home, he makes his request: “Ask the madam to make something for me to eat and drink.” And, without waiting for a response from me, he sits down on the doorstep to wait for his meal.  So I prepare something and take it out to him.  And as he accepts it, he says: “Tell the madam thanks!” And leaves.

As I reflected on this experience, it occurred to me that it was beyond the power of that man’s imagination to conceive the possibility that he might have been turned away from my door with nothing to eat.  He had explained his situation, made his request, and had simply sat down to wait until something had been prepared for him to eat.  When I described what had happened to my wife, the “madam” who had remained ensconced in her bed during the whole episode, her response was: “That was a male chauvinist if ever there was one!”  One can agree, of course. Traditional Caribbean culture has fairly clearly defined roles for men and women, and it was probably also beyond that man’s imagination to conceive the possibility, given a “madam” in the house, that I, as the man of the house, would prepare something for him to eat. But to grant this is not to concede that it constitutes the sum total of what the episode reveals about that early morning visitor to my home.

For this last example, together with the two others points, it seems to me, to a deeply rooted sense born partly, perhaps, of our aboriginal Amerindian experience, and partly out of the experience of dislocation and colonial exploitation, that the bounty of this earth is not mine or yours or “massa’s”, but God’s (more recently “Jah’s”), and thus is really for the use and disposal of everyone9 It is this sense of God’s ownership of the bounty of the earth, which is, I believe, integral to traditional Caribbean culture that is but one aspect of what I referred to above as the Caribbean spirit.

It is this Caribbean spirit that is the medium through which we, I believe, as Caribbean persons, are open to the influence of God’s Spirit. It is this Caribbean spirit which, to return to what was described above as the significance of the Babel story, provides the language or indeed the languages that we, as Caribbean persons use now, in this present time to worship God and which we will use, at the eschatological fulfillment, to sing the praises of God.




  1. Biblical texts cited are from the New Jerusalem Bible translation.
  2. The term “sacred ethnocentrism” is borrowed from G. Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. N.Y., Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997.
  3. While the attitude to the non-Israelite nations described here is shocking, we must notice that there is an undercurrent in the biblical texts which paints a somewhat different picture.  Thus, Moses’ own wife, Zipporah, was a daughter of a Midianite priest (Ex.2:16-22; see also Num.12:1ff.); likewise, the wife of Joseph and mother of his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim, was daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen.41:50-52); Rahab the prostitute from Jericho who hid the spies that had been sent by Joshua was saved, with her whole family, from the “curse of destruction” (Jos.6:24-25); Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, who refused to abandon her mother-in-law after her husband’s death, became the great grandmother of King David, and this despite Moses’ harsh words about Moabites in Dt.23:4-5.
  4. See The Letter of Aristeas in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Vol. 2, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913, pp.83-122, especially p.100, nos. 47-51; pp.120-121, nos. 301-311.
  5. It is interesting to note here that “the entire Church of the first centuries accepted the LXX as an inspired work” and that the “doctrine of the inspiration of the LXX has remained even to the present time in the Eastern Churches”.  In the West, “only Jerome rejected the inspiration of the LXX and later Latin theology followed him, disregarding the previous unanimity of the Church on the question”. Augustine’s position on the deuterocanonical writings, however, should be noted: “With regard to whatever is in the Septuagint that is not in the Hebrew manuscripts, we can say that the one Spirit wished to say them through the writers of the former rather than through the latter in order to show that both the one and the other are inspired (De Civ. Dei 18.43).”  Quotations taken from R. F. Smith, “Inspiration and Inerrancy”, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. by R. E. Brown, et al., London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1970, Article 66, par. 68.
  6. See B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Stuttgart, United Bible Societies, 1994, p. 688.
  7. See Article on “Babel” by F. A. Spina in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. N.Y., Doubleday, 1992, Vol. 1, p.561ff.
  8. From Mount St. Benedict Newsletter, Christmas 1999, p.6.  Although it is not mentioned, I suspect that the catechists were Amerindians.
  9. This sense is also profoundly biblical.  See eg. Lev.25:23ff.; Ps.24:1-2; Dt.24:19-22.


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