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Feeling like an exile

A psalm for people whose beliefs are minority views.
By John Nichols
Winter 2007 11.1.07

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By the rivers of Babylon—
     there we sat down and there we wept
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
     we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
     asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
     “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
     in a foreign land?

—Psalm 137:1–4

Many situations make us feel that we have been exiled to a “foreign land.” We might have moved to a culture so different that it was hard to get adjusted. We may have discovered that suddenly our most cherished beliefs are so radically at odds with those of the people around us that we must keep quiet about them, or if we speak, we must be prepared to defend ourselves.

This psalm is a reflection of what it was like for the Hebrew people to have lived in an exile that was imposed upon them. In 587 BCE Israel was conquered and its leadership was transported to Babylon, where the Hebrew people were permitted to live and work but not to leave. The Babylonians hoped that over time the Jews would lose their cultural and religious identity.

Babylon was an urbane civilization where the people worshiped many gods but none seriously. They considered their Jewish captives stiff-necked country bumpkins to ridicule and mock. “Sing us one of those crazy songs about Jerusalem,” they asked. This psalm vividly expresses the captives’ memory of that experience. The Jewish people remembered, “On the willows there we hung our harps,” for “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Many people live in some kind of Babylon. They live where they cannot speak some thoughts without criticism. To survive in such a negative culture, it is tempting to negate our own convictions as being finally not that important. It is tempting as well to keep quiet, walking away from conversations that might expose our differences. Either temptation sacrifices something of our integrity in order to maintain relationships that will be “safe” though always slightly dishonest. One of the most important spiritual strengths we have is the ability to be honest about who we are.

Recognizing that what was at stake was nothing less than the integrity of their souls, the Jews of Babylon formed communities in which their heritage and their ethical convictions became vastly more important to them in exile than they had been before. They sought one another’s support to affirm their differences from Babylonians and to raise their children as if those differences really mattered. Because they chose community rather than safety and anonymity, their convictions survived to make a lasting impression on the world. May we all seek and find the communities we most need in the foreign lands through which we must travel.

Excerpted with permission from A Wind Swept over the Waters: Reflections on Sixty Favorite Bible Passages, © 2007 John H. Nichols, published by Skinner House Books. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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