Rejecting Exile

My home parish hosted Walter Breuggemann for a weekend recently. And yeah, I geeked out over that about as much as you might expect. For someone like me, who spends a whole lot of time thinking about biblical scholarship and also about theology and also about mainline Protestant culture and about how to get these different worlds talking to one another, this was excitement on a par–dare I say it–with the release of a new Harry Potter book. (Not Deathly Hallows, though. Let’s not exaggerate here.)

Saturday’s lecture was a sweeping introduction to the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, centering on the prophet as a voice subverting and resisting the dominant narrative of empire. The ideas were pretty basic, in the best way, and were thoroughly grounded, beautifully and clearly explained, and peppered with sharp wit. (One of the most pitch-perfect images came out of a digression into the importance and sacredness of the biblical canon: “It’s like having a family album. There are more attractive pictures of other people elsewhere…but this is our family.”) It was a lovely and inspiring day, and I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole thing, and honestly, that’s about all I have to say about that.

Sunday’s lecture (which you can and should watch here)–how do I put this–gave me considerably more grist for the mill. Breuggemann moved from talking about prophecy generally to talking more specifically about exile as a metaphor for the current state of the gospel community in America, and…I just didn’t quite buy it. I feel like it wouldn’t really be fair to fuss at specific pieces of his argument, since he made it pretty clear that his emphasis was more on the metaphor of exile than on the historical reality of Jewish exile which gave rise to that metaphor. He noted furthermore that no metaphor is going to fit its historical antecedent (is that the word I want?) precisely. Also, it’s cheating to attack specific points without first comprehensively paraphrasing his argument, which latter seems too much like work.*

But taking the historical argument apart piece by piece isn’t the point here. Breuggemann’s lecture got me thinking: is the metaphor of exile an authentic one for Christians today? Is it fair to think of ourselves, as Christians both individually and communally, as displaced, cut off from our “home,” isolated within a foreign community that is indifferent or hostile to us and that seeks at all costs to assimilate us to itself, or even to erase us altogether? Is it useful to envision ourselves in this way? Does it open us up to God and to other people?

One of the things that concerns me about the metaphor of exile is the variety of ways in which various people talking about the lecture before and afterward paraphrased it. As I heard it, Breuggemann’s argument was that Christians feel as though we are in exile due to an increasing sense that our baptismal values–the values of the gospel–are no longer (if they ever were) the values of the dominant culture. That is, we live in a world dominated by the cruel exigencies of the market rather than by the Christian virtues of generosity, hospitality, and self-giving love. Okay, cool! That is a sentiment I can get behind. But when I heard other people describe what they were hearing, there was a subtle difference: people talked about the demise of Christendom, that is, a world in which Christian culture was the default setting. People talked about feeling pushed aside, displaced, misunderstood. And I think these are two ideas which are fundamentally very different, but which bleed into one another incredibly easily. We need to distinguish between “We have an abiding sense that our baptismal values are not the values of the dominant culture” and “We’re anxious about not being quite as much the center of our own universe as we used to be.” The former is a deep concern for me. The latter is a grief that I think is probably understandable, but that, honestly, I really struggle to understand or sympathize with.

So, here’s a more tentative question: What does it do to other people to claim the language of exile? We claim a metaphorical exile; is that–can it possibly be–a neutral act with regard to those among us who are literally in exile? As I listened to Breuggemann’s lecture, I thought, What would a refugee with no support network and little English think of this? And honestly, I don’t have any idea. (Which is something I need to sit with.) Are we taking on the romance of exile without being privy to its disorienting, devastating grief?

And my last, still-more-inchoate thought: It seems to me that exile as a concept depends on the idea of a pre-exilic existence, a home that exists, somewhere, to which you maintain your loyalty, on which you pin your hopes. You used to be in control, have self-determination, live in your homeland. You used to be part of the dominant culture. Though it looks forward to the future, the exilic imagination necessarily has strong roots in the past. And I want to say that my identity as Christian is fundamentally at odds with this sense. The Kingdom of God is always already-but-not-yet, always looking forward, never looking backward. I guess this is where one could bring in Paradise and the Fall and say that really, we’re exiled from Eden; but that’s not a story that gets me very far. Because to me, saying “I want to return to Paradise” is like saying “I want to turn away from this world,” and I will always reject that. Always. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it, is not some other place, from which we have been exiled, to which we will return. It is this place, transfigured into what we can even now see that it might be. This place is our home. That is the whole point.



*Okay, I’m going to cheat, just a little: 1. Breuggemann’s sweeping dismissal of empires as culturally sterile, homogeneous entities (“If you’ve seen one empire, you’ve seen all the empires;” “By and large empires do not have any visions; they just imagine keeping doing what they’re doing, but they do it better”) is just…not true. The Babylonian empire =/= Persian =/= Roman. There were definitely some strong similarities in the ways those empires chose to administer their vassal states, but that’s mostly because the Babylonians were really freaking good at it to begin with, is what I dimly remember. 2. He characterizes the formation of the Torah during the Persian period as a straightforward rejection of the culture of empire, rather than a complex borrowing, transformation, and appropriation of the high culture of the ancient Near Eastern powers. He cites Genesis 1 as a text that develops in order to show that “the world does not belong to the gods of the Persians, or the gods of the empire, but the world belongs to the God who has long loved the Jews”; but the very thing that makes this text work in that way is its total saturation in the mythology and literature of the powers it seeks to supplant.** 3. This is a little further out of my (former) area of expertise, but every time he draws a sharp dichotomy between the gospel community and the “market ideology” of contemporary global capitalism, I think, “Wait, didn’t capitalism develop within a Christian society? Do we really get to wash our hands of this market ideology?”

**WRT 1 and 2, I feel moderately confident that he knows that the historical situation was much more complicated than he’s making it out to be, and is simplifying for the sake of telling a coherent story to a non-specialist audience. Which opens up whole new vistas of puzzlement and frustration for me.  It just hurts me inside when people dismiss or malign the monumental achievements of human civilization to make a rhetorical point.