“You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee”: How exiles rewrote the Hebrew Scriptures

You can read David Gushee’s Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism in an evening or afternoon.  You can and you should.

In a blog post, Gushee described his book as:

A love affair with Jesus that for the great majority of 40 years was spent in Southern Baptist and evangelical contexts, until my own sense of moral and intellectual integrity forced me to take stands leading to my exit from those worlds.

Everybody’s story is different. Of course millions of American Christians remain quite happily situated in Southern Baptist and/or evangelical Christianity. I wish them only the best, and am done fighting with them.

But millions of others have made their exits, or had their exits made for them, and now wander in a kind of exile.

This reference to exile reminded me of that day in 1979 when, driving to my social work job at Louisville’s Central State Hospital, I heard my first Tom Petty song. “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some,” Petty wailed plaintively.  Then came one of the greatest hooks in the history of rock and roll: “You don’t. Have. To live like a refugee.”

Refugees and exiles are strangers in a strange land; they can’t go home again.  At least that’s how it feels.

Two vignettes from Gushee’s book stick in my mind.

First, there is the faculty meeting at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1990s when seminary president J. Albert Mohler informed the faculty that, henceforth, “those who believed that women should serve as pastors would no longer be hired, promoted, or tenured at Southern Seminary.”

I vividly remember one of my younger female colleagues getting up from the meeting in which the policy was announced, running from the room, and throwing up in the hall.  It’s not every day that you are professionally executed by public decree.

The second punch to the gut was Gushee’s description of the backlash he received in 2014 when he wrote a series of articles on LGBT inclusion for Baptist News Global and followed that with a carefully argued book on the same subject, Changing our Minds.

I was not surprised to learn that the InterVarsity Press refused to publish a revised edition of Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics (co-authored by his mentor, Glen Stassen), or that speaking engagements at evangelical venues vanished like smoke. But I wasn’t prepared to learn that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship responded to Gushee’s stand by abruptly cancelling his role as their theologian-in-residence.

With the characteristic paralysis of the Southern moderate, CBF neither affirmed my theological work nor rejected it on theological grounds. The organization quietly dismissed me from service not because of a principled theological conviction but based on pressure from that part of the constituency that would not abide my continuing in any official CBF role.

Gushee’s embrace of LGBT inclusion flows naturally from the way he reads his Bible. Al Mohler relegates women to a secondary status because his reading of the Bible leaves him no option. The CBF, it appears, rejects both options but lacks a third alternative.

Traditional evangelical theology leaps from the fall of Adam to the cross of Christ, and everything in between (including the life and teaching of Jesus) is of secondary importance. The story must begin with a perfect world, so the theory of evolution, which posits millions of years of predation and pain, is a non-starter.

Women play second fiddle to men because Eve tempted Adam to sin and was duly punished for her crimes. It’s right there in Genesis 3.

Unfortunately for Al Mohler, the fall of Adam isn’t the lynchpin of the Old Testament. In fact, after Genesis 5, the first human disappears from the Hebrew Scriptures. The single exception is the first verse of First Chronicles where Adam, Seth and Enoch kick off eight chapters of “begats.” The list of names ends with 1 Chronicles 9:1: “And Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.”

The Hebrew Scriptures were largely written by people who lived like refugees because they had no choice.

In 598 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon swept through the northern regions of Judah carrying off thousands of captives. Eleven years later, after taking care of more pressing business, the Babylonians were back.

This time they built siege ramps around the holy city of Jerusalem and starved the inhabitants into submission.

Once inside the city walls, they murdered thousands of innocent people (women and children included).

Once in control of Jerusalem, the Babylonians ground Solomon’s glorious temple to dust along with the king’s palace next door.

Then they reduced the city walls to rubble, leveled every structure of any significance and carried the leading families of Judah into forced exile in far-off Babylonia.

This horror is the real lynchpin of the Bible because the lion’s share of the Hebrew Scriptures were written or heavily edited during this period of physical, social and spiritual turmoil.

Before Israel could reflect on the theological significance of this catastrophe she had to speak her agony. The Book of Lamentations reads like an open wound and the Psalms of Lament (44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85 and 90) clear a path for the rage and pathos of Psalm 137.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?

Deprived of songs, the psalmist gave free rein to his rage:

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

The psalmist had likely seen the little ones of Judah dispatched in precisely this fashion. In fact, the passion behind the poetry suggests that his own children may have been among the victims.

Again and again, this overwhelming hunger for revenge bubbled to the surface as the children of Israel committed their entire history to parchment for the first time. We may be living like refugees now, they told one another, but there was a time, long ago, when Yahweh fought for his chosen people and someday, some way, our God will revert to form.

The copious violence in the Hebrew Scriptures isn’t a reliable guide to actual history (thank God), but it shows us how it feels to live like a refugee.

Why has Yahweh unleashed this horror on his children? That was the big question. The 10 tribes of Israel were swept away by the Assyrians because they abandoned Yahweh for foreign gods — Judah’s religious leaders had been saying that for over a century.

According to Jeremiah, a prophet who felt God’s fire in his bones just as Nebuchadnezzar came to power, Judah was no better than her northern neighbor and could expect the same penalty.

At first the religious leaders were so outraged by Jeremiah that they revoked his status as theologian-in residence. But when Nebuchadnezzar showed up on their door step, Baruch the scribe started writing down every word the prophet spoke and this time everyone was listening. The early chapters of Genesis don’t provide many cosmological clues; that wasn’t the point of the story. The saga of Adam and Eve tracks the history of Israel. It’s a parable. (Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard — chapter five — is a more compact example of the same genre.) Adam and Eve are placed in Eden, ordered to tend the garden and permitted to partake of its bountiful produce … with one notable exception. But the first couple rebels against their creator and are exiled to east of Eden.

If you’re living like a refugee, the story connects.

Technically, the period of Babylonian exile ended with an edict of Cyrus (538 BCE) that allowed foreign refugees to return to their homelands. But when Ezra the priest journeyed to Jerusalem a century later, the people were still living like refugees.

Ezra recounts the entire history of Israel in exhaustive detail before delivering the punchline.

In the land that thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom thou has set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36, 37)

Ezra decided that if he could wall Israel off from the rest of the world (by forcing the men of Judah to divorce their foreign wives) the glory of Yahweh might return to Israel. This exclusive, wall-building strategy became the controlling narrative of the Old Testament.

But Ezra and his coreligionists were challenged by a compelling minority report.

The shock of exile drove the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) to a vision of Yahweh that left the parochial concerns of Ezra in the dust. God is bringing an end to exile, Isaiah argued, so Israel can be a light of liberation to the entire world.

Isaiah’s inclusive principle shows up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably in God’s crucial decision to bless the whole world by blessing Abraham (Genesis 12: 3). And in the fullness of time, Isaiah’s vision nested in the soul of a young prophet from Nazareth who appeared on the dusty roads of Galilee preaching good news to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed (Luke 4: 18,19).

Jesus saw himself as the incarnation of Israel, God’s suffering servant, the ultimate exile. Jesus died with the shame and suffering of the world pressed down on his slumping shoulders: “My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Then the miracle of Easter morning broke the power of death and exile for good.

At the conclusion of Still Christian, David Gushee talks about the scores of young LGBT men and women who read Changing our Minds and realized that, if these things were true, they didn’t have to live like refugees any more.

“My sense of solidarity with them has only deepened,” Gushee writes, “while my resistance to rejectionist (and bystander) Christianity has only intensified.”

For too long we have been limping between two opinions like the bystanders of Elijah’s day. Should we read our Bibles like Ezra or the Second Isaiah, like J. Albert Mohler or David P. Gushee?

We’d like to kick that can down the road forever, but the day of reckoning is upon us. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.”

You don’t have to live like a refugee.

3 thoughts on ““You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee”: How exiles rewrote the Hebrew Scriptures

  1. An aha moment occurred for me when I decided to abandon superstition and focus on the message of Jesus. A psychologist said it this way, “I’m okay, you’re okay”. Theologians complicate the message.

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