I’ve been in quarantine for nearly two weeks and I am going stir crazy. I am longing to be able to go for a walk or a cycle ride again and venture beyond our front garden wall. I am telling myself: Friday. Even if it’s raining, on Friday I will go out.
But underlying this is a growing sense that the end of the wider coronavirus restrictions may never come. I find myself daydreaming about holidays, or what I might do in church, or at Christmas. Then I come back to reality, because I wonder if the life I’ve known will ever be possible again.
This is how I feel:
By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
(Then it gets quite nasty, which is for another day’s comment.)
For the Jews in exile 2500 years ago, thousands of miles away from home in Babylon, I wonder if they felt a similar sense of despair. There were prophets like Hananiah, who foretold that the exile would only last two years before God broke the yoke of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 28). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was a doomsayer, rejecting any sunny optimism.
Or was he? He encouraged the exiles to make the most of their time in exile – that in the flourishing of Babylon would be their flourishing. He foretold it would be 70 years before they might return home.
In fact, many of the dispersed Jews never returned to Jerusalem. For those who did, and for those who didn’t, life would never be the same as it had been before the Babylonian conquest.
I am finding it very hard to believe that my life will ever be the same as it was before the virus hit. I feel something of the anger that the nasty end of the psalm expresses, however silly it may be to be angry with a little blob of protein.
I also feel something of the nostalgia expressed in the psalm. Ah – those happy days of travelling by train; of singing in a crowd; of meeting up with family and friends; of coffee and cake, of events and Interesting Things To Do.
Jerusalem was (is!) a real place. The psalmist resolves never to forget it. Their longing for the end of exile is rooted in a real place. It’s not abstract.
Zion, on the other hand, is ambiguous. It can sometimes be a synonym for Jerusalem, but at other times it means a kind of idealised, maybe utopian, homeland-to-come. For example, when Bob Marley sang about Zion, he wasn’t thinking about the city of Jerusalem itself.
For the exile with hope, home is not where you’ve come from but where you’re going.
The songs of Zion could be songs about the world to come, not the world that used to be. But because Zion has this ambiguity about it, our hope is rooted in reality. It shouldn’t be spiritualised.
The challenge of the psalm, perhaps, is not to hang up our harps in sad despair, but to bring our anger and our nostalgia into the light and learn how to sing of the world to come, while still in this strange, foreign land of exile.
So perhaps I am asking the wrong question in my frustration, nostalgia and anger. Rather than try to figure out how I can do the things I used to do but within the ever-changing restrictions of the pandemic, perhaps the question should go forwards: What kind of world do I hope for? What will be important in the world I hope for? And then: How can I practise what I hope for while still in this strange land?
It’s not about how I can live when I get back to Jerusalem, but how do I live here and now, and flourish here and now in what is important to me?
Can this kind of exilic Zion thinking be applied to society? At the moment, the narrative is about propping up enough of the life we knew so that we can survive this exile until the old life can be restored – in the travel industry, the hospitality sector, university education, church services and community projects and just about everything else.
What if we were able to think together about what we want from the world and truly build a new normal, one that’s more like the world we want, here in the exile that no one wanted but that’s where we are for the foreseeable future? What if we could do this and make sure that justice for those who are most vulnerable is at the forefront of our concerns?
What if we could figure out how to sing songs of Zion in Babylon?
I doubt it will happen. It took the Jewish people centuries to transition from a pre-exilic, temple-based culture, and I’m naïve if I think our culture will change itself in a matter of months.
But I can change. I can change my outlook from anger and nostalgia to hope.
At least, I can try…