By the Waters of Babylon

From All-Creatures
Christian Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth

By the Waters of Babylon

By Gracia Fay Ellwood, on The Peaceable Table

Those of us who, finding ourselves called to the role of prophet, have presented the Animal Concern to our Meeting or church or temple and encountered harsh and repeated resistance may, like Silas, feel exiled from our spiritual home. The pain is acute and long-lasting.

The Theme of Exile

Exile is a major theme in Western religion. It resonates through Jewish writing; repeated mass captivity or expulsions and experiences of geographic exile over thousands of years have stimulated reflections on all of human life as exile. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept . . . . How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" (Ps. 137:1, 4) mourns the psalmist. Christian mystics and hymnwriters have pondered their individual life's journey as that of an exile or pilgrim: "I am a stranger here, within a foreign land; / My home is far away . . ."

It appears frequently in literature as well. Several of Jane Austen's novels are based on the theme of young women forced out of their homes (or under threat of same) by heartless patriarchal inheritance laws and practices, and thrown on the world with small or nonexistent resources. J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings has a background theme of the age-long exile of the High Elves from their native country. The Lady Galadriel sings ". . . here beyond the Sundering Seas now fall the Elven-tears. . . . What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?"

In George Eliot's classic tale Silas Marner, the theme has a specifically ecclesiastical dimention that is likely to resonate with some readers of PT. Silas, the protagonist, is thrown out of his church as a result of his closest friend's dishonesty and betrayal, and falls into the black hole of loss of faith. Silas takes up residence among strangers, seeking consolation in a soul-shriveling false god. But a golden-haired orphan girl toddles into his house one winter night, and, to his surprise, he begins to find God's hand at work in his life once more.

Prophets in Exile

Those of us who, finding ourselves called to the role of prophet, have presented the Animal Concern to our Meeting or church or temple and encountered harsh and repeated resistance may, like Silas, feel exiled from our spiritual home. The pain is acute and long-lasting. We may not have been literally excommunicated (and some may continue in their worship communities, though feeling alienated). But many of us shared Silas' experience of anguished astonishment: our fellow Friends or church members, whom we assumed had given their first loyalty to the Good News of Peace/nonviolence and Jesus' compassion for the suffering, seemed more intent on their own security or gratification, careless of the slaughter of the innocent, as well as of threats to their own health and to the earth. Most also seemed unwilling to face the matter honestly. They tend to evade the central question of bloodshed, shutting the whole issue out, or talking defensively about freedom of choice, claiming that that they are being dictated to, or perhaps finding support for their lifestyle in harsh and impersonal evolutionary patterns (that they would never apply to treatment of people)

In all honesty, some of us may have found that we are not be quite so guiltless as Silas Marner. Feeling that we have been maligned and the Good News betrayed, we may have responded uncharitably, even bitterly--if not aloud, among ourselves or in our own minds. The self-righteousness we were unfairly accused of may, after all, make its appearance. And the Friends/fellow worshippers we felt had done the betraying may not all be such villains after all. They may be feeding (flesh-centered) dinners to homeless people in our cities, or, over their own fried chicken dinners, planning and enacting compassionate projects to help human beings in the latest crisis situation abroad.

The Choices of Exile

Where does this state of affairs leave us? To begin with, we cannot count on going home again. It is not impossible that widespread transformation will after all come soon, but as with the movements in England and the US to end human slavery, effective change may well take generations. We do well to learn to live in exile, and we may even find some unexpected blessings there. Our experience and our sympathies are likely to enlarge, as we find friends and wise teachers among prophetic individuals from both our own and other traditions, ranging from Jews and Unitarians to Evangelicals.

How are we do conduct ourselves in exile? The question is a vitally important one; however frustrated and few and marginalized we may often feel in the face of the mainline, the spiritual alternatives we face are as crucial as those we present[ed] to our fellow worshippers. Dwelling on our frustrations and anger on behalf of the animals and ourselves will increase a bitterness that can do enormously more harm than we realize. A single historical example: first- and second-generation Jewish Christians, thrown out of their synagogues by fellow worshippers who could not accept their interpretations of Scripture as pointing to and culminating in Jesus, allowed their bitterness to seep into their accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, changing the narratives. Significantly, the monstrously cruel and violent Pontius Pilate of history, later recalled by Rome for excessive brutality, was recast by gospel writers as a well-intentioned but weak and vacillating man who was swayed by a Jewish mob to crucify Jesus. The writer of the first gospel even has the mob crying "His blood be on us and on our children!" The poisonous fruit of antisemitism that these libelous themes in the Christian story bore in nearly two thousand years of subsequent history is horrifying beyond measure. It may be hard to imagine that we might be at at such a historical watershed as these early Christian exiles, and have comparable influence. But the truth remains that all things, all beings are connected, and we do not know what fruit our own rage and bitterness might bear. We cannot afford to cultivate it. We must live as though our thoughts and words will fan out and shape the future to an extent beyond our imagining.

The Inner Home

The most important refuge we can find, the indispensible source of life and of the universal compassion we are called to incarnate, must be within. A psalm attributed to Moses, who was born in exile and never set foot in the promised land, begins with the line "Lord, you have been our home throughout all generations" (Ps. 90:1). Still another psalm, perhaps by an exile who had once thought God dwelt only in one locality, celebrates a God who is found wherever she or he may set foot: ""If I ascend to heaven, thou art there; / If I make my bed in Sheol, lo, thou art there!" (Ps. 139:8). We can only live with grace in exile, and faithfully fulfil our prophetic calling, by turning daily, even hourly, to this inner Home, this Beloved. It is after all this Source of Love who has called and inspired us to speak and enact Her/His love and liberation for all: for these, the least of all our brothers and sisters, and for the recalcitrant who still insist on killing and eating them.

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