Whether or not it is an entirely appropriate analogy, the Covid-19 epidemic and subsequent lockdown has resulted in a type of exile for many of us from our "native country" of "convenience, comfort and complacency.” We have been expelled from our “homeland,” and forced to live in a “foreign land” where we have needed to adapt to a new culture while also struggling to remember, revise, and restore the values we held most dear before our exile.
In exploring this exile concept I did a little research about one of the most significant events in Jewish history, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC, and thus the deep disruption of the religious and political basis of the Jewish culture. Most of the Jewish community was exiled to Babylon, the period known as as the Babylonian Exile. The exile was devastating especially to the socially elite and to the cultural, political and remarkable economical success during the reign of King Solomon ("Solomon in all his glory” as it was noted). So after the razing of Jerusalem, off the Jewish people go in exile, humbled, chastised and feeling punished for their idolatry and disobedience to the righteousness of their founding teachings. For some seventy years, the story continues, they had to survive in grief and lamentation among the conquering Persians “by the Rivers of Babylon.” (See below the now familiar recorded words of the 137th Psalm.)
But there’s a positive ending of sorts to the story. Out of one of Judaism’s darkest hours also arose one of their most significant transformations in religious and social history. During the exile the Jewish remnant in Babylon, especially the emerging important role of the scribes, reevaluated the purity of their faith's most sacred early traditions, consolidated and revised their original documents, and essentially created the basis for the beginning of their history as an enduring universal religion that later gave birth to the monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Islam. In other words, the exile provided an opportunity for the Jewish people to experience and learn from a different culture but also to rediscover and redefine what was really important to them as a people committed to the morality and righteousness of their founders. (For more information on the Babylon Exile and its impact see The New World Encyclopedia https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Babylonian_Exile.)
The above is, of course, a gross summary of a much more complicated history, but I offer it as a basis of comparison for what I feel we are experiencing during our own national period of “exile.” We are truly adrift in a foreign world of dislocation and uncertainty where we are compelled to adapt or perish as a nation, and perhaps even as a species. I can imagine the Jewish exiles in Babylon saying over and over again, “How did this happen? We were so in control, so wealthy, feeling so exceptional and powerful. Let’s just deny this has happened to us, and that it is not our fault. Oh, yes, we had reneged on our commitments to care for the poor and support a historical covenant that we would hold ourselves humbly accountable to a Yahweh of justice and compassion. And we knew we were exploiting and despoiling the earth and its people out of greed? But did we deserve such an overwhelming rebuke?”
Many in our nation especially, and much of the rest of the world, are impacted by the extensiveness and resiliency of the virus and its profound, sweeping disruption of the entire social and economic fabric of the planet. Why has it lasted so long? Where is our vaunted scientific, wealth, and entrepreneurial community when we need them? Why has the pandemic been so destructive of our economy and way of life (except for the military and stock market - good question)? For many, the question is even more personal and rebellious: “Who has the moral or political right to say that I must wear a mask and adhere to rules and regulations that impinge on my individual sovereignty, especially when it involves the sacrifice of my “freedom” in the name of “government” or “the common good?” In the words of many parents, “You need to your room (in exile) and think about what you just said!"
The classic definition of exile is “to be expelled or barred from a native country, typically for political or punishment reasons.” In a way, both of those reasons, political and punishment, seem to apply. The political reasons for the prolonged virus and prolonged exile are apparent. I suppose, however, we are reluctant to accept the reason for all the hardship is punishment from God for our transgressions, but it might be easier to accept that Gaia and the laws of nature can no longer accept our abuse and thus we find ourselves struggling with the environmental consequences of our reluctance to obey those laws.
Much of the prophetic tradition of the Bible provides the warnings of accountability and possible destruction if social and environmental abuse is not checked. But of incredible importance, the prophetic tradition also offers a pivot to hope. I appreciate the endurance of their message because they offer us an alternative to despair. They encourage - demand - to “repair the breaches” between the way we are now living and the way we know we must live. At heart I want to believe our people haven’t forgotten the original ideal that we are inherently “created equal,” that we are a generous and compassionate country that still believes we can say, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” yet the breach between that ideal and the reality of nationalism, racism and wealth disparity judges us as the prophets judged their people.
There is a growing sense that the pandemic exile is both a catastrophe but also perhaps a saving grace. The question that challenges us is what are we to learn during this time about what it means to be a country united around our founding ideals (if not the faulted structure that enshrined racism) in the Constitution. Will we be able to humbly admit to the terrible exploitation embedded in our capitalistic economy system, and, alternatively, create incentives and values that support cooperation and social and economic equality? Can we answer the call to reckoning (repentance, truth and reconciliation) as the way through our denials of the harm and non-sustainability of racism and the climate crisis we have created? I suppose we would prefer these to be primarily political questions that others will need to answer to, but these questions are even more essentially personal, individual questions of accountability. What are we each learning from being in our present “exile?" That would be a good question for our journalling and our family and group discussions.
As a coda to the reference to the biblical tradition above, I consider sentencing a person to prison as an exile. We send people away, exile them, to punish them, often for political reasons as in the history of mass incarceration. One of my motivations for my prison and criminal justice reform work is to provide opportunities for those sent to prison to learn from their exile about how they want to live when they return. Rather than a process named “corrections,” I prefer society’s goal for the prisoner would be “rehabilitation and re-entry,” and all the resources available to our prisons would be applied to reaching that goal. Perhaps that same goal of “rehabilitation and re-entry" would apply to us individually, and as a nation, as we seek to leave our pandemic and lockdown exile the wiser and more committed to the practice of nonviolence and serving the common good. May it be so.
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.