Exile: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Often in the pages of this blog, we speak of being in exile. Yet, when we speak of this, it is often with the question of “how” we are to live this life of exile, whereas the better question might be “where”.
The question of “how” has to do with us, our activity, our response to a life of exile. On the other hand, “where” we spend our exile may well be beyond our control. We can see this very clearly in the Old Testament. Noah and his company are adrift on the high seas for forty days and nights as a flood rages that is beyond their control. The Children of Israel wander for forty years in the wilderness, something not of their choosing. Moses spends forty days and nights on Sinai, enveloped in a cloud of fire and smoke. After being established in the land, the entire nation is carried off into exile in Babylon and Persia for not heeding the message of the prophets. In the New Testament, we even read that Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. In all these instances, there seems to be a common thread (beyond any numerical significance). It is “where” the events took place. Noah in an unrelenting flood, the Israelites in a harsh wilderness, Moses shrouded in smoke as lightening flashes, a nation by the rivers of Babylon surrounded by strange gods and customs, Jesus in the desert in the company of his demonic adversary. None of these places were of their choosing. All of these places were wild, unfamiliar and frightening, as is the real experience of exile.
While I appreciate much that Rod Dreher has presented in ‘The Benedict Option” it seems to me that he is proposing a self-exile to be undertaken on our terms, dependent on our control of the situation. After all, if we are to be in exile, we want that exile to be orderly, contained and, if possible, reasonably comfortable. As I look at the biblical examples of exile, however, I see a very different picture. Isaiah in the temple watches his well laid plans for life spin out of control among the sounds of the cherubim. Jeremiah forced into a prophetic role, is cast into a pit of lamentation and then carried off to distant Egypt to meet his death. Daniel in Babylon finds the angel of God in the midst of a fiery furnace and receives a vision of the future. Jesus comes out of the desert strengthened and prepared to engage the world in which he lived.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Exile, in my opinion, is not the same as withdrawal. Indeed, our exile will often be in those places in which we encounter that which is frightening and disorderly, unruly or out of control, those places that cause us the greatest fear and anxiety. Our exile will often be in the presence of those who, quite frankly, frighten us with their strangeness, their difference, their demands. Exile is not a place of safety, in which we are left to our own devices, but rather an opportunity for engagement. It is the opportunity to remember who and what we are as believers.
As culture and politics shift, as many churches become pale reflections of what they once were, we may feel like the Psalmist saying, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”. Yet, it is in this strange land of exile that the ancient song needs to be heard. Yes, we are in exile, one not of our own choosing. It is an exile that may last for days, years or decades. That is not under our control. In this strange land, however, we can sing that ancient song.