Thursday, April 3, 2014

By the rivers of Babylon?

From Toledo, IA
"By the Waters of Babylon" - Evelyn de Morgan, 1882-1883 (via Wikipedia)
When I was in high school the band Sublime was cool. I graduated the year after their lead singer died of a drug overdose just weeks before their major label album released and became wildly popular. The summer after high school the rock band I was in with my friends, Honnold, played a number of shows with a punk band from southeast Iowa, Blank Skeme, who often played "Rivers of Babylon" by Sublime at their shows. I loved that song (still do).

Little did I know then (despite having grown up in the church), the song was based on another "song," Psalm 137, a lament by the people of Israel who were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. The people are asked by their captors to sing a song of Zion, which only brings to their mind images of Jerusalem burning. The people can only sit down and weep.

I've spilled a lot of digital ink on this blog and elsewhere about this exile experience, because it is the same situation described in Jeremiah, particularly in chapter 29 where the "seek the peace of the city" passage is found. I've said that "seeking the peace of the farm town" has become a mantra for my family moving back to this little town of Toledo, Iowa, in rural Tama County. I've talked about how it's not been easy for me to transition back into a rural community after 15 years of living in suburbs or college towns. I've sometimes thought that living here is a kind of "exile," and so I've maybe unconsciously identified myself with the Jews in Babylonian captivity.

But I think I've glossed over something very important...we chose to move back here. The Jews in exile most certainly did not. How can I honestly speak of this being an exile experience if it was self-imposed? - But we have power in our chosen community that some, perhaps many, of our neighbors who didn't necessarily choose to live here do not.

Only 20% of people in our community has a college education. Between my wife and I we have six degrees, undergraduate and graduate. Our household income is well above the average for the community because my wife has a professional mental health services job and I'm a high-tech telecommuter for a university.

I've preached recently about the "take the log out of your eye" text in Matthew and Luke, and it might be the case that my thinking of our being here in rural Iowa as a "exile" experience is a case of having a log in my eye; that log being my own power and privilege in our setting. And to walk around my community saying I'm in "exile" can come off as being exceedingly condescending. Hardly the stance of humility and being-with (rather than over) that I'm called to.

So it's maybe more accurate that we're in a "return" situation. Not everyone came back from Babylon to Jerusalem. A thriving Jewish community stayed there and eventually became quite influential in Jewry of the ancient near-east. But those who did return were elites and set about rebuilding the temple and re-establishing Jerusalem. It was the case, however, that return from exile meant living on land that was no longer fully yours, land that was subject to a series of empires over the coming centuries, up to and beyond the time of Jesus. So even in the return from Babylon, there's a sense of being not-quite at home, but trying to make a go of it nevertheless.

Perhaps that's a better place to imagine myself in this new-ish chapter...

(My thanks to Isaac Villegas for helping bring about this "help your brother take the speck out of his eye" moment.)

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