“By the Rivers of Babylon”: Thoughts on Exile for the 4th of July

Invited to Rochester, New York to speak in July 1852, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked if his listeners meant ” to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?” After all, he said, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.” Being asked to celebrate a slaveholding country as a former slave brought to his mind one of the most distinctive poems of the Hebrew scriptures:

1856 Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Portrait of Frederick Douglass from 1856 – National Portrait Gallery

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord‘s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth… (Ps 137:1-6a, KJV)

For Michigan State professor David W. Stowe, writing earlier today for Religion News Service, Douglass’ famous speech (“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”) exemplifies how “this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African-Americans.” Not just Douglass and later activists like Paul Robeson and Jeremiah Wright, but immigrants like Korean Americans have asked how they can “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.”

In the 16th century, that was also true of the spiritual forebears of many European Americans. “Protestants,” observes Alec Ryrie in his new history of that group, “translated, paraphrased, quoted, and sang that Psalm [137] more than any other, and understood their own exiles through it” (p. 133). Protestantism soon grew into an established religion, imbued with power and privilege, but during the Reformation its converts rarely felt at home in their homelands. Thousands stood their ground and suffered persecution, but many more fled, arguing (in Ryrie’s summary) that

exile was not cowardice but a vocation. Christ, after all, told those who were persecuted in one city to flee to the next [Mt 10:23]. Exiles inevitably discovered that their travels changed them. Perhaps that was God’s purpose. If all Christians are exiles on earth, and pilgrims to heaven, perhaps we should all taste the bitter clarity of literal exile? What better way to remember that your true home is in heaven than to leave your earthly home behind? Then you could be both an exile and a pilgrim, fleeing from danger to discover where God is calling you.

Ryrie estimates that over a million European Protestants went into exile during the Reformation and religious wars that followed it, from the 50,000 French and Dutch Protestants who sought refuge in the England of Elizabeth I to the 400,000 Huguenots who fled France under Louis XIV.

Huguenot families going into exile in 1661
Protestant families being expelled from La Rochelle, France in 1661 – Wikimedia

Ryrie points out that not all Reformation-era Protestants welcomed their exiled co-religionists. When 200 Italian Protestants left Locarno and entered Switzerland in 1555, the government of Zurich “expected them to assimilate and learn German, and in the meantime restricted their civil rights. Italian-speaking preachers were suspected of heresy. Further Italian arrivals were discouraged, and the Locarnese slowly dispersed to other Swiss cities. The individuals survived, but the community perished” (Protestants, p. 137).

Unfortunately, we see contemporary examples of that theme all too often in an America whose evangelical-backed government is no friend of those in exile, Christian or otherwise. In that sense, Psalm 137 now serves as a complicated metaphor for Christians in America: revealing them to be both the taunted and the taunters.

So if we’re to remember that Christians live in any country as “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11), that we are “strangers and foreigners on the earth” who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:13,16), then the solution isn’t to spiritualize exile and withdraw from the world. It’s to serve others, including those in literal exile. In another oft-cited scripture from the time of the Babylonian Captivity, God urges his people to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).

This weekend can remind us of that, if we let it. While the 4th of July is ostensibly about celebrating the nation, what it actually does best is to gather together the diverse members of cities, towns, and neighborhoods — experienced, not imagined, communities. It’s a chance to get to know better the neighbors whom we’re called to love — and especially, to listen for the weeping of those neighbors who are trying to remember Zion in what feels a lot like Babylon.

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