Abiding in Exile - Returning from exile with faithfulness 03/25/2021

Abiding in Exile - Returning from exile with faithfulness 03/25/2021

March 25, 2021

By Eric Rucker

“Then King Solomon conscripted slave labor (to build the Temple).” (1 Kings 9:21)
I’m noticing myself starting to relax, to take an exhale. There is an easing of tension in my body as I anticipate our society begin to leave exile. I know that the pandemic is not “over,” but with the vaccines released, and some of our most vulnerable people receiving shots, I have begun to hope. 
But I’ve felt a certain sadness as I have relaxed. Because I’ve noticed that my relaxation has brought with it a tendency to return to old habits, to a familiar tuning-out from the world’s pain. It’s like my subconscious feels safe enough to avoid reality again, in ways that I did before the high-alert state of the pandemic. I recently came across a poem that spoke to this experience, and it shocked me like a bolt of lightning: 
“When people say 
‘we have made it through worse before’
all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones
of those who did not make it, those who did not
survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who
did not live to watch the parade roll down the street.”
I’m saying to myself, “We made it through the worst,” but I wonder whether I do so at the cost of remembering that many did not make it to the end of this exile. 
There is a consistent pattern of the human experience that we see in Scripture: 
exile > return > forgetting
When God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, they went into exile in the wilderness. As they wandered, God taught them about a different way of being a community – a way that would be sensitive to the most vulnerable among them, a way that was organized so that there would be “no poor among you.” (Dt. 15:4) But then Israel left exile and entered the Promised Land. And when they did so, the more powerful among them began to relax and forget. They forgot the lessons learned in exile, and they betrayed their commitment to ease the suffering of those on the margins. Scripture tells us that Israel’s King Solomon constructed an empire, amassing a standing army of horses and chariots and enslaving foreigners to build the Temple (1 Kgs. 9). Solomon acted exactly how Pharaoh had acted when Pharaoh oppressed the Hebrew people. The irony is thick: the people liberated from Egypt’s oppression have now become “Egypt.” The powerful of Israel have become so comfortable again that they can no longer hear “the wind slapping against the gravestones” of those they are oppressing. Returning from exile has allowed them to insulate themselves.  
To be clear, I am not condemning the practice of rest nor our need to step away for self-care. We SO deserve a break after the last 14 months. Please be gentle with yourself.  But I am saying that if we take vacation, we must make sure it’s not a permanent vacation – never moving back into contact with the new awareness we gained about pain and inequity during COVID-19. 
We are called into a new synthesis: we must move forward with hope, while also integrating a permanent consciousness of the struggles we became more aware of during exile. 
Jesus lived in this both/and. He feasted, but he did so in the midst of God’s struggling people. He rested, but he also turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. He was leading the people out of exile while holding on to the lessons of the exile. 
What does this mean for me? It means that as I celebrate our progress, I also hold these realities in consciousness: 

  • The overall life expectancy in America decreased by a whole year in 2020; but the overall life expectancy of Black and Hispanic people decreased disproportionately more, dropping 2 and 3 years, respectively, reflecting the racial inequity in our economic and healthcare systems. 
  • While the pandemic has resulted in job loss for both sexes, women’s careers have been disproportionately derailed by the pandemic. 
  • And while it will take time to gather comprehensive data, it is clear that COVID-19’s effects are increasing mental health issues and suicides for American youth. 

How can you prepare for a return from exile with faithfulness? How can you hope and celebrate, while keeping in view all that was lost? How can you exhale into newness, while still knowing this: there is work to be done.