Diasporas: Israel, the Church, and Lessons from Exile


The word "diaspora," a Greek term, was originally coined to describe the experience of the Jewish people after the Babylonian captivity of 586 B.C.  Even after the return from exile to Jerusalem, Jewish communities continued to exist throughout much of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, including Babylon, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome. "Diaspora' referred to the people of that dispersion. The term was eventually extended in this century to refer to other peoples who are dispersed to regions outside their original homeland, such as the Irish experience following the Potato Famine, the African experience in Europe and the Americas, and the Chinese experience following the Maoist Revolution. But it is worth noting that the conditions of exile may be geographic or metaphoric, voluntary or involuntary. Studying the literature of diaspora means to pay attention to how the old country, land, or nation still has some claim or hold on those who have migrated to another place, and this may include communities who were enslaved, those who chose to immigrate for reasons of labor or trade, those who were dispersed for political or imperial reasons, as well as those who are in cultural exile--a more loose term describing individuals or communities who are in some sense "transnational," living between, alongside, or in several communities.   More specifically, taking an diasporan approach to what is often called "ethnic" literature calls for the language and theory of postcolonialism to be applied to the immigrant experience. Much of what we have discussed this semester--questions of identity, nationhood, hegemony, hybridity, etc.--can be applied to the experience of diasporas.

In particular, undergoing diaspora means to reexamine the meaning of home, its different senses of where, what, and how. Diasporan peoples find themselves restricting, expanding (and mixing and matching) their new and old homes, their new and old lives and identities. To be in a diaspora is to be part of a larger group in transition, part of an alternative community within a larger national whole, and to be an individual who must feel the claims of various nations and cultures. It is a study of what is taken with one, of what is left behind, and of what is transformed.  Displacement and liberation are both at hand. It should be clear, then, that there is no one model for such experiences--each diaspora is different, as are the differing responses of a community's members. Though some general observations can be made, the Cuban diaspora in South Florida fled for different reasons than the various Asian communities that have come to the U.S. Those Germans who fled Nazi control have still a different story to tell as they worked to relocate themselves in such places as Australia, India, and Argentina. The struggles and issues that an Amy Tan writes about are lightyears away from the shifting mimicry of a Salman Rusdie or the public, "secular" intellectual criticism of an Edward Said.

The biblical tradition stresses justice for, even agape love of, those in exile. Recalling enslavement in Egypt, the Mosaic law enjoins: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Ex 22:21, also cf. Deut 24:17-18, 27:19, Zech 7:8-10). Economic and domestic compassion proceeds from Israel's own experience of being cut off from her home. Likewise, the New Testament continues to recognize the importance of treating diasporas with hospitality (Matt 25:35, Heb 13:1-3). As I stressed last time, the particular landedness and landlessness of Israel does not automatically apply to other diasporas because of God's particular revealed purposes for the ancient Jewish nation. Their various experiences of exile carried with them not only memories of slavery but also lessons in faith-building, as well as judgment for sin. Scripture certainly teaches that God oversees the nations and is concerned for their justice, repentance, etc. By extension, we can suggest, then, that God uses other experiences of diaspora for his purposes. However, I am reluctant to start concluding why another diaspora occurs from God's perspective. Rather, I would conclude that the biblical commands concerning those in exile already tell us what the Christian community's response should be--compassion, hospitality, and justice.

At the same time, I want to suggest that diasporan theory help us understand certain aspects of the diasporas of Israel and the infant Christian Church in Acts, which may in turn offer useful reflection on the larger issues at hand.  In regards to Israel's Babylonian captivity, I will examine two passages closely. The first, Psalm 137, is a bitter prayer of resistance in exile. It repays quotation in full:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill .
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

Remember, O LORD , what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
"Tear it down," they cried,
"tear it down to its foundations!"

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks

Unlike the book of Lamentations, which regards exile as both a curse and yet also a just punishment (cf. 1:3-5, 1:18, 2:9ff.), this psalm focuses on the struggle of being in exile and the injustice of what has been done to exiles. There is a sense of physical displacement; they are in the wrong locale--by a Babylonian river, rather than home. Equally, there is cultural displacement, the songs of Zion, songs which identify the people's relationship to God and land, are demanded for entertainment by the oppressor. To sing one's songs in this way is to recontextualize them as something decidedly goyish, is to give into the hegemony of the dominant power. What the Babylonian oppressor calls for is the cultural equivalent of the physical leveling that the Edomites cheered on (cf. Obad 1:8-13).  Both leveling and entertaining represent an end to one's commitment, to what embodies that commitment. Thus, the singer's self-curse. To forget the center of one's identity is to lose the purpose for one's skill and song. And notice how the psalm ends in such imprecatory rage!  Let be done to the oppressor what was done to my people. By praying this way, the poet gives to God all the bitterness and pain, yet also leaves with God the choice of vengeance for injustice.

Compare such a prayer with Jeremiah's letter to the exiles:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jer 29:4-7)

Jeremiah goes on assure the people that after 70 years, God will return them from exile, for "I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD , "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future [. . .] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you [. . . ,] and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile" (29:11,14). Notice that such a promise looks to at least some measure of shalom even apart from Zion (also cf. Jer 24).  It offers continued existence as a multi-generational community. Jeremiah instructs the people not to be controlled by hatred nor to live as one without an investment in a new place. Yet such an investment does not guarantee freedom from change nor does it preclude counter-cultural resistance. The examples of Daniel and Esther are instructive here. Each had to risk his or her life to obey the commands of Yahweh while in a foreign place, even as each also choose to adapt to foreign court life (cf. Dan 1-2, 6, Esther 4-5). Identity contains both negotiables and non-negotiables.

Post-exilic Judaism continued to struggle with defining itself in continuity with its past (cf. Ezra, Nehemiah). In the world of the New Testament, Samaria, being populated by descendents of the settler communities that Babylon had interposed, represented the outsiders. Jews would refuse to walk through the region on grounds of ritual defilement. Jesus, surprisingly for some, made a hero of a Samaritan in his parable of the Good Neighbor (Lk 10:25-37) and was willing to cross taboos and converse with a Samaritan woman. In John 4, the woman challenged him with whose worship was most orthodox: "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus' response was to enlarge her understanding of identity and region:

Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (Jn 4: 21-24)

Jesus did not deny the particular role and place of the Jewish people, but he did expand the worship of God (with all that implies in life and thought) to a transnational status. Jesus as the Messiah, though coming from the Jewish nation, had come to bring deliverance to all peoples; "the time" now coming was one of the inbreaking of the Spirit with God's eschatological promise. As we have already discussed this semester, the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 showed God's love of diversity and blessing on the multiple voices of people. A debate about Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem was about to be a passť argument. Our worship includes our local identity, but it also incorporates that identity into something transcending any one place. We worship as who we are, yet we also choose to worship in the true way. The tradition of worshipping at Gerizim, according to Jesus, was less knowledgeable than that of worship at the Jewish temple.  Both were certainly considered important to Samaritan and Jewish identity respectively, and both contained a measure of truth to them. But both were fulfilled/transformed in the work of Christ; thus, the resurrected Lord commanded his followers: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The Christian vision is a missional one, and the diaspora experience of the early church became one with missional goals in mind, whether that exile was voluntary or involuntary (compare Acts 8:1-3 with 13:1-3). Christian identity is like that of diasporas in this sense too. We worship in a new place that invites us in and asks us to change, thus, setting us apart. Christians are never completely at home in this life; they are metaphorical exiles in the present world system (I Pet 1:1-2, 2:11). Our mission and identity have an element of creolization to it, for we are a people arising from various identity mixtures to form a new material, psychological, and spiritual self-definition.

What can be said then about the larger issues at hand? Along with the responsibility we have to people in exile discussed above, the following general observations can be made:

  1. Our identities are both fluid yet embedded in local historical settings, and thus they do suffer in exile. God's use of the Babylonian captivity to judge his people reminds us of the desperate measures that were needed to address their waywardness, for they were in a sense already in exile with their false worship and injustice.
  2. Likewise, the injustices that often happen to diasporas must be given to God, who can fully receive our rage at what has happened to our peoples.
  3. The Jewish promise of shalom in exile is a foreshadowing of the Christian responsibility to work for shalom in every culture and place, as well as a reminder of that ultimate shalom we all wait for.
  4. Not every form of hybridity and identity shifting is good, but the call to true worship is a transnational call, and Christian identity is called to that of transformation.
  5. Being metaphorically in exile reminds one to examine closely what pertains and doesn't pertain to one's ultimate identity. Counter-cultural resistance is often a necessity in order to remain true to God.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding