By the rivers of Babylon–Lectionary Reflections on Proper 22, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

The lesson from Lamentations and the Psalm this week are both responses to what was perhaps the most traumatic event in the history of God’s chosen people up to that point. In 596 BCE, after hundreds of years of survival against unbelievable odds, the kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian empire. A decade or so later, after an unwise rebellion, the armies of Babylon came in and finished the job. They destroyed the temple of Solomon, the city of Jerusalem, and carried off all of the most important people into exile in Babylon. Decades later, after Babylon was conquered by Persia, the exiles were permitted to return home and to rebuild their lives, their city, and their temple.

It was then, amidst the scars of that destruction, that both the Psalm and the lamentation we heard were composed. The reading from Lamentations describes Jerusalem as it stands after destruction. It lies empty, lonely, no one comes up to the annual festivals. Her priests groan, her young girls grieve. But the author places blame for Jerusalem’s fate squarely on God. God has caused this suffering because of Jerusalem’s many sins. So the punishment is just.

The Psalm gives voice to the suffering and grief of refugees. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The words of the psalm evoke deep feelings of regret and sadness at living in exile. In a far away land, they were expected to build new lives and also to entertain their captors. Without hope of return, and perhaps even doubting whether their God would ever hear their cries and respond to their situation, they mourned the loss of their homeland and also, probably, the loss of their faith.

On one level, we can enter into and empathize with their situation. That deep, universal human feeling of homelessness and desire to return is what has made the opening verses of Psalm 137 so appealing to poets and musicians over the years. But all of a sudden, the tone changed dramatically. Instead of words of grief and anguish, suddenly the Psalmist begins to express anger, hatred, and violence:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

Harsh and offensive language, isn’t it? Language, and sentiments, that we hardly like to acknowledge. Indeed, the liturgist’s first impulse is to leave those two verses out of our worship. Even John Wesley is reported to have said that the words of the last verses of Psalm 137 should never be on the lips of any congregation. Yet there they are; and they are as much a part of that Psalm as the words we like. Moreover, they are the product of the same experience, most likely, the words of a single author.

We live in a world in which the plight of the refugee has become commonplace. In the 1990s we became accustomed to seeing images of people in the former Yugoslavia being forced out of their homes—Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Serbs, Kosovars. Millions have been displaced by the conflict in the Congo. 2 million have fled the fighting in Syria in the last two years.  And there are the Palestinians—forced from their homes and land sixty years ago, millions live in refugee camps.

Human rights groups estimate that there at least 14 million people who have left their countries because of war or natural disaster. Iraq alone counts for some 2 million. In addition, there are more than 20 million people who have been forced from their homes but are living somewhere else in their nation.

This psalm, written by a refugee, reminds us of the scars and pain caused by conflict. The last verses remind us as well that overcoming conflict, and healing that pain can be almost impossible. Yet to deny refugees the full depth of their pain is to deny the reality of their experience. Most important of all, perhaps, we can see in the emergence of the Jewish people out of that experience of exile, a new, deeper understanding of who they were, and who their God was.

We can’t expect today’s refugees to understand themselves and their experience in the ways the Jewish people did during the exile. The reality is that for most humans to be driven from one’s country and one’s land is a deep and lasting wound. Most refugees would echo the sentiments of those last few verses and would continue to search for ways to make that vision a reality through the use of violence.

Perhaps that is why the lasting conflicts in our world seem to go on forever. Old wounds never heal; and ethnic and national groups may continue to seek vengeance for crimes committed decades, or even centuries ago. So for us to speak the words of Ps. 137 is to enter into the lives and experiences of people whom we don’t know, but whose suffering is profound and real. We may not understand or be able to plumb the depths of their pain, but the words of the Psalm and of Lamentation are a powerful reminder of their lives and suffering.

We may find such experiences unfathomable, even though we are familiar with the images on TV. We have no idea how we might respond if we were faced with such a situation. And too, when we wonder how we might help those in need, we can do little more than wring our hands or write a check. Indeed, like the psalmist who wrote the words of Psalm 137, we too have no idea how to respond when faced with such suffering.