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How to Move Forward When Society Exiles Our Values

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“Exile” is a very negative word, conjuring up images of forced deportation and political banishment.

Even in the milder forms of some traditions’ practice of “shunning” those who have misbehaved, a kind of social and psychological exile alienates one from the community.

The Bible’s account of the Babylonian exile is an important component of the covenant narrative that journeys from bondage to liberation, to wilderness and settlement, to nation and decline, to defeat and to exile.

I believe we could make a case that without the experience of the exile, the reframing of the covenant as a matter of the “heart” – rather than as a matter of law, nation and land – would not have become a theological reference point for the early Christians’ understanding of their experience with what God had disclosed to them in Jesus.

The point of this suggestion is not to celebrate exile, but to ponder if, beneath its more obvious historical expressions, exile might also be a metaphor for alienations that are created by “empires” more subtle than ones bearing names like Egypt, Babylon or Rome.

I’m thinking of the helplessness that seems to have gripped a large portion of our national community in the face of the accelerating dysfunction of our highest levels of the U.S. government.

Forces that seem quite inconsistent with the values we claim as a foundation for our society appear to have taken control of our identity.

Swept along in a current of deception and manipulation, our grasping for stabilizing virtues of integrity, compassion, justice and cooperation sees them washed away by their roots.

The collaboration of a visible and vociferous portion of the religious community in this process has led to a kind of “theological exile” as well, where values long associated with covenant faith are given pejorative labels like “socialist” and “liberal,” which immediately lead to their dismissal by many.

A recent lectionary text from the book of Jeremiah (29:1-14) finds a letter from the prophet to the exiles of the first deportation to Babylon in 597 BCE.

In it, he offers counsel to the helplessness and despair that is quite understandable: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat of their produce, have sons and daughters and multiply your numbers. Seek the welfare of the city where you are exiled, and pray to the Lord on its behalf (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

He warns them not to listen to prophets who offer deceptive words that the crisis is really not that serious.

Their redemption from exile will occur only after the empire of Babylon has run its course, 70 years hence (Jeremiah 29:8-10).

Implicit in this counsel and warning is a restatement of the covenant promise (Jeremiah 29:11-14), which assures them that restoration will come on the other side of Babylon’s reign.

There is no denying of the reality of the power of the empire and the experience of exile. But there is a clear reminder that there are choices, even amid captivity.

To build houses, to plant gardens and to nurture offspring suggest investing life in things of more duration than the fleeting power of an empire.

Perhaps there is timeless counsel for any time and place where there is a “Babylonian captivity of the spirit” in the face of a culture spinning out of control while trying to maintain frameworks of privilege and security and illusions of economic progress at the expense of the welfare of people and planet.

We can do things in exile that will help what lies beyond the temporary captivity of the current empire:

  1. “Build houses and live in them.”

Invest time and energy into things that will extend beyond the present captivity and be a basis for a common good – education, especially for the youngest members of the family and broadly consistent enough to afford every child maximum opportunity to grow into full potential.

An example is the effort of ministers, spearheaded by Charles Foster Johnson, to mobilize support by state for public education.

  1. “Plant gardens and eat their produce.”

Put resources at the service of sustainable means of preserving a culture of “enough” rather than competing in a life-depleting contest for “more.” Encourage children at an early age to “think green.”

3. “Pray for the context of your captivity.”

The “empire” and those who maintain it sow the seeds of their own decline, and there is a horizon beyond the one visible now.

Like Babylon, subsequent empires, real and metaphorical, will have their season; and the foundations laid in their midst will be the basis for the community that lives through their rise and fall.

There is a promise of a restoration, and there are processes and procedures that will bring that about. Meanwhile, there are things we can do.

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.