Abiding in Exile - Unspeakable History 11/12/2020

Abiding in Exile - Unspeakable History 11/12/2020

November 10, 2020

By Lee Roorda Schott

November 12, 2020

In September, as we approached the six-month mark since the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. I was certain my Facebook news feed would be full of people’s reflections on all that had happened during that time. It had been half a year. So many things disrupted—still—and a challenging flu season and colder months upon us. I was curious to see what my friends would say, and I toyed with what I might add.
But that didn’t happen. Crickets.
A Google search today turns up a handful of news articles published around then on this subject. But this milestone passed largely unremarked, at least in what I was reading.
A friend said to me, not long ago, “When there’s trauma, people get silenced. It can take years before people can talk about it.” This friend was speaking from experience. He was victimized as a boy at the hands of a sexual predator who was also his pastor. Decades passed before he found his voice to begin to speak of what had occurred. 
Many stories like my friend’s never get told. Some experiences are lost to us. Unspeakable.
Have you ever noticed the hole in the history recounted in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament? We can trace the story of God’s people through genealogies and chronologies from Adam and Eve forward, across centuries. Until the great gap.
There’s a yawning silence in the middle of our Old Testament history. It contains decades.
It’s the exile, that period when God’s people have been uprooted from their homeland and forcibly relocated to Babylon. It’s “a black hole in the biblical tradition … a gap in the middle of biblical history,” according to David Carr who writes convincingly about this gap as evidence of the extreme trauma this time represented for our spiritual ancestors.[1]
Interestingly, it’s not the destruction of Jerusalem that cannot be told, with all its devastation. Read Lamentations, or the end of 2 Kings, or the end of 2 Chronicles. That part of the story can be discussed and considered from various angles. 
The story resumes again much later, in Ezra and Nehemiah, after Persia defeats Babylon and King Cyrus allows the Judeans to return and rebuild the temple. Second Isaiah, beginning at Isaiah 40, and other prophetic writings begin to imagine and reflect this restoration and return.
But the details of the exile itself are lost to history. Carr says that’s because “actual life in Babylonian exile was truly traumatic ‘speechless terror.’ It was ‘history that has no place.’ …[T]hose…exiles…who still wept ‘at the memory of Zion’ did not speak of life in Babylon.”[2]
This observation about the lost details of the exile makes me think differently about that silence I noticed at the six-month mark after the pandemic became real here in the United States. In a social media world where we talk about nearly everything, maybe our relative silence reflects a collective trauma that lies beyond our powers of speech. 
I don’t think we know yet how deeply we are affected by the loss of face-to-face contact, the cancellation of ceremonies and plans, griefs experienced without our usual rituals, and deaths unaccompanied by loved ones. We can recall ruefully those shortages of pork and toilet paper, but have we dealt with that sense of nearby shoppers—fellow human beings!—as hulking menaces when they come too close, without or even with a mask?
Just as David Carr notes about the pre-exile stories, I could totally recount the specifics of the days leading up to the lockdown imposed in mid-March 2020. I remember the avalanche of news reports of this closing and that cancellation, which changed everything. And the bishop’s email that said it’s time to cancel in-person worship.
What I can’t remember so well is the days that followed. They’re a blur of news and fears and supportive Zoom calls and phone check-ins. The anxiety of choosing among way too many webinars offering insight for living through a pandemic and “going virtual.” Questions of technology and platforms and communicating with constituents, and could my cousin and I dare a trip to Kansas City to see another cousin who had been diagnosed with cancer?
And the gradually clearer, sinking feeling when we realized this wasn’t a weeks-long phenomenon but much more, much longer. 
All of this, way before the challenges of reopening and George Floyd and the derecho and school-reopening decisions and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ramp-up to an election and record high new cases and the prospect of a winter wasteland without even the limited human contact we savored through the summer and into a warm November. More blur. More emotion. 
More trauma? 
I wonder how long before we’ll be able to speak of these things, well and truly. 
Until then, it seems of critical importance that we care for ourselves and one another as people who’ve gone through—are still going through—something. I heard a lament this week about the outcome of the election with a description that was entirely a lament about the impact of this pandemic! In this meantime, we might not be able to see all these things entirely clearly. It’s OK; we love one another anyway.
And look toward the day when we can look back with wonder at all we lived through. With God’s help.
An Invitation:

  • Read Psalm 137—a rare glimpse of life in exile—and consider how you might write a lament worthy of 2020. Take a stab at it. And then pray it, with white knuckles and gritted teeth if that’s what it takes. It’s OK. God can take it.
  • Consider how you’ll remember this time. We are living through a historic period. If you keep a journal or diary, consider how it might help you remember what you did and how you coped. What are the milestones or way markers that will remind you of your path? What might strengthen you as you review where you’ve been and how to be strong for the journey?
  • Notice where your path through 2020 feels blurry. Where do your words fail? Those might be places worthy of exploring further. Where are you being invited to lean into your memory or wonder?
  • Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if this traumatic period has left you bruised or hurting. Talk to a trusted friend, or seek out a professional counselor, or call a crisis line. You are not alone. 

A Prayer: O God, we don’t like to think we’ve been traumatized. But none of us have been through a pandemic before, and with everything this year, it’s been hard. Like those exiles in Babylon, telling our truth may feel impossible. But it may also be healing. Restore us, Lord. Give us words. Lead us beside still waters, as we seek to be well in you. In the healing name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] David Carr, Holy ResilienceThe Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale, 2014), 74. He points out that Daniel 1-6, although it is set in an exilic context, was written hundreds of years later. Ibid.
[2]Ibid., 75. One exception may be the harsh and unrelenting Psalm 137, which reflects the exiled psalmist’s raw rage.