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
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
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.