This beautiful photo By the Rivers of Babylon is by HungLiu. By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept.
This is one of the most poignant lines in Scripture (Psalm 137:1) recalling such sad times of exile. Those exiles wondered “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.
Ben Quash, in Abiding, reminds us of the wisdom that the people of God are nearer to God “when they are in some sort of exile”. The Letter to Hebrews reminds us that “we have no abiding city” and Jesus has warning for those who feel too much at home in this world. Exile and the loss of home(land) must be an awful experience, shaking people to the roots of their identity. I don’t know whether it would be possible to sing any sort of song in such a strange land.
Quash, and many others, suggest that Christians should choose exile. This is “some sort of exile” which may, or may not have the brutality of violent removal and fearful flight. Quash refers to Hauerwas and Yoder who commend life lived “out of control”, “without the compulsion to hold on to the strings of power”. This is some sort of exile which is a walking with God who showed himself in Jesus as having nowhere to lay his head and who finished his days on the dump outside Jerusalem’s city wall.
The Jewish prophet Jeremiah points the way to vocation found in exile. He makes the “prison” of exile into a far more constructive way of life. He writes: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
It is countercultural and strange to live “out of control”, accepting exilic status and praying for our enemies. It means that we are no longer to see ourselves as “host” but as “guest”. (It may be that the Church can’t be trusted with being “host”. There have been so many complaints about the abuse of power by the Church “in control”). When Jeremiah suggests that the exiles “pray for the welfare of the city” he is encouraging them to be “good guests”. The exiles’ vocation was, and is, how to be a blessing to a host culture on territory which is strange, without losing heart.
I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.
Pope Gregory VII
Our own culture is strange. There are many things that go on in society which are strange ways. Many aspects of social policy (I am thinking of the “bedroom tax” and other impending welfare reforms and the impoverishment of families and children) are out of our control. We don’t see the world in the same way. Our values are different. In many ways, we are in a strange land. Most of us don’t bear the physical hardships of those in refugee camps, but there is much that we lament. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Singing the Lord’s song in this strange land is something Jeremiah and Quosh insist that we do. The worship offered by exiles is, according to Quash, both resistance and gift. Quash writes:
God’s will to restore people to freedom before him, to overturn the idolatrous service of other gods, needs people who will use their voices to ‘sing his new song’ …
The early Christians may have handled the currency of the Empire each day, but before any of that, before sunrise, they met as the people of God, as the Church. That was their true city, their real ‘kingdom’, their Jerusalem. Christians’ present challenge too, is to live and work in the world in such a way that the song they sing as people in the Church is strong enough and beautiful enough to relativise ad transform other less sacred songs.