Read Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 30:12-17
While “exodus” is a central motif by which to make sense of the entire Scriptures, “exile” plays a similarly large role. In exodus, the people of Israel leave captivity in search of home. In exile, the people of Israel were driven out of home, into captivity. Throughout these Lenten reflections, what we are doing is following the trail that theme lays within the Bible. But any understanding of exodus is famished if it is not also accompanied by exile. All of us long, in a profound spiritual way, for a sense of home, and as Christians in Ireland today we must act to offer actual, concrete homes to those without them. But the under-side of that desire must be that we all in some sense experience life in exile, and the social scandal of our age is that there are thousands of people experiencing it in a very physical, very tangible way.
The narrative of the Scriptures unfolds around three exiles. The first is recounted in 2 Kings 15-17, and involves the displacement of the northern tribes of Israel by successive Assyrian rulers between 734BC and 722BC. The second exile is the one we will consider in more detail. It involved the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple of Solomon, by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. We read about this throughout the prophets, but the particular story is told in Jeremiah 52:1-30. There is a third exile, which occurred just as the New Testament was being written, following the failed uprising against the Romans in 70AD. It is this tragedy, which unfolded over decades, which Jesus refers to in the “Olivet discourses” found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.
Throughout the Scriptures, the promise of home is tied up with purpose. For Israel, home is not merely a location, but entails a vocation. The land that is promised to Israel is meant to be the ground upon which they erect a light to the nations. The society they are called to construct is meant to ring true with the values of YHWH. This is all fine theological dancing around a point that many in Ireland know from hard experience: home is more than a house. Home requires more than just a roof over our heads, although there are far too many without even that. The shock of exile is existential for Israel. In Psalm 137 we hear them cry, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” To be stripped of our home is to be stripped of our identity. We have considered how Abram embraced that risk in answering God’s call, but in the stories of exile, the Scriptures confront us with the depressingly common experience of home being taken from us. That is not the heroic story our society likes to tell, of the rugged individual brave enough to go it alone against received wisdom and forge a new and bold path for themselves. Exile leaves no space for such Hollywood accounts of spiritual superheroes. In the shock of exile, we find alienation without alleviation.
The grief and anger expressed in the famous 137th – “By the rivers of Babylon” – Psalm show in anguished detail how destabilising it can be to have home removed from you. The Israelites had individual tormentors, soldiers who mocked and derided them on their forced march to Babylon. Today, the torment is more likely sourced in vague and hard-to-describe market forces. “Interest rates”, “consumer demand” and even “vulture funds” may not have the agency to ridicule their victims, but they harass and bully nonetheless. While it is difficult to point out these forces at work, it is impossible to miss their very real victims. In times of such desperate insecurity, the safety once promised by home is longed for. The Psalmist pledges: “may my right hand forget its skill” if I forget what it was like to have a place I knew and where I was known.
There is not just grief, but anger. The psalm ends with an image of such cold revenge that modern readers might want to mute it. “Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” For those who live in affluent comfort, such raw sentiments appear savage. But those who have experienced the agony of exile might more readily empathise. It is one of the great surprises of Irish political life that the last decade of austerity has not seen more violent opposition. If a vulture fund hiked up the rent on your apartment and left you calling on Focus Ireland or Peter McVerry Trust to house you and your children, would you not be tempted to tear down an economic system that so prioritises profit over people? In the absence of visible protest, we can be deluded into thinking that there is no opposition. We can trick ourselves into thinking we have matured past the era of class warfare, when in fact, as the billionaire, Warren Buffet puts it, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
The desolation of exile, the devastation of homelessness can feel like the end of the world. That’s the sentiment we find in Psalm 137. How can we go on? The prophet Jeremiah, faced with the same predicament, often expresses the same sentiment. His lament is complicated. While the exile happened in history in 587BC, Jeremiah is convinced that Jerusalem was lost long before then, when Israel had repudiated its vocation to be a light to the world and embraced instead the easier path of going with the status quo. Home can be destroyed long before official homelessness is declared. In Ireland, in 2018, where official housing policy tracks more closely the needs of profit than people, the broader jeremiad of Jeremiah has direct relevance; how have the founding hopes of our nation been betrayed?
Jeremiah’s grief is profound. He judges that Israel’s “hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous” (v. 12). He could be speaking for the thousands of Irish people experiencing homelessness when he continues (v. 13):
“There is no one to plead your cause,
no remedy for your sore,
no healing for you.”
It is important to note that the metaphor here is not religious, martial, political, or economic. Jeremiah depicts the plight of exile in terms of health and well-being. Flourishing is impossible when home is absent. Perhaps this is a metaphor we can consider for our own society. Is the commitment to profit over people best described as a cancer or a parasite, as something that grows without limit and saps the energy of the holistic body? In verse 14 the prophet declares to Israel: “All your lovers have forgotten you.” Ireland’s commitment and fidelity to the principles of neoliberal capitalism – how faithful we have been as lovers for decades – has not meant that any help is forthcoming for those now stranded by the economic crash and its fitful revival. The shareholders around the globe who reaped the profit of Irish labour are ignorant of the housing crisis. Their money has been made. The plight of those who made it does not concern them.
Collectively, Irish society has pledged itself to a particularly brutal form of capitalism, based around minimising costs and maximising profits. Tax loopholes abound, as we have allied our wellbeing to the fickle demands of the globalised markets. The words of Jeremiah to Israel in exile take on terrible force when we consider them as words for our society and its failure to provide the basics of life:
“I have struck you as an enemy would
and punished you as would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great
and your sins so many.”
In the last year, as the plight of the homeless has become unavoidable, we have heard political leaders and government officials attempt, at times, to describe the problem in terms of individual faults. The idea is floated that “WE” do not have a homelessness crisis. Rather, there are certain “individuals” who are homeless because they can be no other way. The “Us” versus “Them” dynamic has, sadly, gained considerable purchase among ordinary people who are lucky enough to not feel the risk of losing their home.
But the account of exile in the Scriptures re-frames this conversation for Christians. The bible is clear that social devastation of this scale is always the product of social factors. Lest that sound too vague and diffuse, social devastation on this scale arises because the society loves profit and accumulation more than it loves its neighbours. A deep question constantly asked throughout the bible is why do the wicked prosper? For those left sleeping rough or living in a hostel or a B&B, for those working three jobs to pay their exorbitant rent on a place where they have no security, for those saving every cent in the desperate hope of buying a house that it will take 35 years to pay off, and for those struggling still under negative equity, having bought into the hollow dreams offered the last time the market was buoyant, what hope is there? Why do the wicked ways of savage capitalism prosper?
Jeremiah drives us to cry out: “God, why is it so damn hard to build a just society?”
This text offers no definitive answer. Lent is the time of preparation where we ready ourselves to hear God’s final answer, whispered from the cross. But we are given a word of hope here. In verse 16 and 17, having admitted that he has used Babylon to call Israel back from its wandering, God promises that does not mean he does not care about justice. The wicked will not prosper in the end.
“But all who devour you will be devoured;
all your enemies will go into exile.
Those who plunder you will be plundered;
all who make spoil of you I will despoil.
But I will restore you to health
and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord,
“because you are called an outcast,
Zion for whom no one cares.”
As dark as the day of exile might seem, it is not the time to give up the hope of justice. Even as Irish society, that has loaded ten years of austerity on the poorest while the wealthiest saw their prospects improve, is not beyond hope. The disease is incurable if we rely on the practices that made us sick to make us well. But those who have been the victims of this dysfunctional relationship with brutal capitalism can be restored, if the society they are part of re-commits to the cause of justice and the love of neighbour.
The anguish of exile, the pain caused by the housing crisis, can be a new beginning for our culture. In the words of the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, “only grief permits newness.” As we consider the human cost of our partial prosperity, we can be confronted by how we have to find a different way to share our resources, and to guarantee each person in our land the basics they need to live – water and food, a home and dignity, an education and freedom.
1. “Throughout the Scriptures, the promise of home is tied up with purpose.” If the church in Ireland often feels ill-at-ease in today’s culture, what might that say about how well we are fulfilling our purpose?
2. “To be stripped of our home is to be stripped of our identity.” What fresh identities does society tend to impose on those who experience homelessness? What impact do those labels have on their lives?
3. Psalm 137 features calls for shocking violence. How do you react to such words in Holy Scripture? If there is an impulse to withdraw from such texts, what do you think is driving that?
4. We can be tempted to think of the homelessness crisis as a problem of individual failings, or as the consequences of immoral choices. This can be encouraged by powerful voices in our society. How does Jeremiah’s lament against societal injustice in the midst of exile inform how we hear such opinions?
5. Walter Brueggemann teaches us that “only grief permits newness.” How does this idea apply to Irish Christians and to wider Irish society today?
For further consideration:
Marc Chagall (1887-1985) was one of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th Century. His works capture in a profound fashion the alienation and agony of the Jewish people in Europe in that century, and often rotate around Christian imagery and the experience of exile. The Jewish Museum in New York City had a special exhibit of some of his most striking “exile” paintings in 2013 and the works can be viewed online.