Conversations Among Exiles

by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997, pp. 630-632. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In response to times of crisis, Leviticus urged the practice of holiness, and Deuteronomy stressed neighborliness. Unless the experience of loss is expressed, examined and understood, new ways of living are not able to emerge.

Our society is marked by a deep dislocation that touches every aspect of our lives. The old certitudes seem less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and fragile; the established governmental, educational, judicial and medical institutions seem less and less able to deliver what we need and have come to expect; the old social fabrics are fraying under the assault of selfishness, fear, anger and greed.

There seems no going back to our former world, since the circumstances making that world sustainable have changed. Because the church has been intimately connected with the old patterns of certitude, privilege and domination, it shares a common jeopardy with other old institutions. Church members are confused about authority, bewildered about mission, worried about finances, contentious about norms and ethics, and anxious about the church’s survival.

Our numbed and bewildered society lacks ways of thinking and speaking that can help us find remedies—that can enable us to go deep into the crisis and so avoid denial, and to imagine a better future and so avoid despair. But when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, it has ways of speaking, knowing and imagining that can successfully address our cultural malaise. When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair.

When thinking about dislocation, an Old Testament teacher moves by "dynamic analogy" to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Hebrew scriptures. By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighborliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E. In that year Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. For ancient Israel, it was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric. It was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted. In that wrenching time, ancient Israel faced the temptation of denial—the pretense that there had been no loss—and it faced the temptation of despair—the inability to see any way out.

The Old Testament stories of exile might be a resource, perhaps the only resource, to move us from denial and despair to possibility. Ancient Israel understood that unless loss is examined and understood, newness will not come. The traditions of exile suggest four ways of speech and of faithful imagination that the church can practice and offer as antidotes to denial and despair.

The ancient community of exiles learned, first of all, to express sadness, rage, anger and loss honestly. The Israelites lost nearly everything when they lost Jerusalem. Similarly, the current loss of old patterns of hegemony that gave privilege to whites and males and their various entourages seems immense. The enormous rage that accompanies such a loss shows up in family abuse, in absurd armament programs and budgets, in abusive prison policies, in a passion for capital punishment and in assaults upon the poor in the name of "reform."

From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage. It can learn to address these emotions to God, for it is God who is terminating our unjust privilege and deceptive certitude. Ancient Israel broke the pattern of denial by engaging in speeches of complaint and lamentation that dared to say how overwhelming was the loss, how great the anxiety, how deep the consequent fear. Lamentations expresses the sadness of this experience by describing a bereft Jerusalem: "She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her" (1:2).

Psalm 137 expresses the rage generated by loss: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones / and dash them against hate rocks!" Psalm 79 gives voice to an indignation that tilts toward a desire for vengeance: "We have become a taunt to our neighbors, / mocked and derided by those around us.... / Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors / the taunts with which they taunt us."

The poet dares to echo ancient Lamech with his unrestrained thirst for vengeance, 70 times seven. The bitterness directed in our society against humanists, Muslims, homosexuals, communists and so forth is in the Old Testament addressed to the God from whom no secret can be kept. Such cathartic utterances are also an honest and courageous practice of prayer. They offer an opportunity for turning brutalizing loss into an act of faith that may in turn issue into positive energy. These speech practices give us a way to vent our rage at loss without letting it escalate into actions that will hurt our neighbors.

Ancient Israel also models for us the disciplines of order and holiness. At the time of the exile, some people believed that life in Jerusalem had been trivialized and emptied of meaning. All parts of life, including God, self and neighbor, had been reduced to managed "things." The sacramental voice of the priests (identified in scholarship as "the priestly tradition")—a kind of language markedly absent in our shrill moralisms—insists that when old patterns of meaning are destroyed, one may find refuge in liturgic construals of ordered holiness. People like us shy away from holiness, worried about ostentatiousness or self-righteous punctiliousness. But in that urgent situation, the priests did not flinch. Without embarrassment, they proclaimed God’s call: "I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy. You shall not defile yourselves. ... You shall be holy for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44-45).

In response to the crisis of displacement, the Book of Leviticus advocates stringent notions of holiness. We would not wish to follow all these concrete instructions about how to maintain purity and shun defilement. But what is important is that these displaced people for whom almost everything was out of control set out to reorder and recover life through an intentional resolve about communion with God. They understood that life in faith is not happenstance or accident. It does not come about automatically. It requires attentiveness. Leviticus urges concrete bodily ways of intentionally directing life toward the holiness of God, a holiness that comforts even as it demands. This holiness—without which we cannot live—is not available upon request but arises in and through practices that invite God to come dwell among us. Indeed, according to the priestly tradition, the community must prepare a suitable habitat for God’s presence.

In times of dislocation the temptation is to become self-preoccupied and self-indulgent. But the priestly sacramental tradition knows that even deep dislocation cannot empty life of the mystery of God, a mystery that requires us to engage in concrete action and sustained thought. The reduction of life to having and possessing and to trivial entertainment is a sign and measure of our deathly alternative to holiness. Indeed, the prophet Amos warns that such indulgences will eventually drive Israel from the land and drive Yahweh from Israel.

The book of Leviticus pursues the theme of disciplined holiness as it pertains to daily life. The creation poem of Genesis l:1-2:4a presents the same theme on a larger scale. This exilic liturgy affirms the goodness of an ordered world under God’s governing blessing. Indeed, it is a counterliturgy, because it affirms a kind of life remote from the reality of these displaced people. In their worship, the Israelites would not give in to their circumstances. Their characterization of the world as God’s creation is marked by the reiterated verdict, "It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good." And it affirms that "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all work."

The beginning point for the holiness that recovers and reorders life is indeed sabbath. This holy time should be marked neither by legalism and "blue laws" nor by frantic, feverish, self-indulgent entertainment. The priests envision a restfulness that makes neighborly communication possible. Sacramentalism is a cogent alternative to despair, an awareness that even here and now we are in God’s demanding and assuring presence.

From Israel we can also learn the importance of striving to establish a sense of community. The Book of Deuteronomy, a primary document for exiles, became pivotal for the formation of Judaism. Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to flee the hard task of community formation for the sake of private well-being. This is all too evident in our own society, where public responsibility is on the wane and the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate. We can see this self-preoccupied individualism in the greed that our society calls "opportunity," in the demise of public health care because it is "too costly," and in the decay of public institutions regarded as too expensive to maintain, as though taxation were a penalty rather than a necessary neighborly act.

The Deuteronomic tradition presents society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and policies that enhance neighborliness. Deuteronomy insists that economic life must be organized to ensure the well-being of widows, orphans and immigrants. This response to dislocation insists that maintaining a public economy of compassion and justice is a way to move beyond despair. "You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice. You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember you were a slave in Egypt ...," Deuteronomy commands. A society that cannot be generous to those in need will not be blessed. The book instructs, "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.... Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You shall rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be."

This is perhaps the most astonishing command in the Bible. It was the practice in that ancient world, as it is now, that anyone who owed money to another had to work it off. The more owed, the more work required. And if one owed enough, one might eventually belong to the "company store." But ancient Israel set a limit to such debt-related work, in order to prevent the formation of a permanent underclass. No matter how great the debt, it was to be worked off for six years and no longer. Then whatever debt remained was canceled. Deuteronomy makes clear that economic practice is a form of neighborliness and that economic provision must be adjusted to sustain community.

Times of dislocation are particularly apt to foster a permanent underclass. Nervous and anxious people may be tempted to gouge their economically vulnerable neighbors. But the Bible presents dislocation as a motivation for building a more just society. The laws of public life might be very different if all remained aware of their own vulnerability.

Finally, we can learn from the Old Testament to proclaim the God who creates new social possibilities beyond the shrunken horizons of defeat and submissive docility. The exiles in Babylon faced an empire that seemed to circumscribe and dictate everything, just as the military-industrial complex seems to circumscribe our lives. Ancient Israel came within a whisker of being able to imagine its future only in the terms permitted and sanctioned by Babylon. Into this scene stepped the prophet Isaiah, the most vigorous, daring and imaginative of all the voices of faith during the exile.

In the midst of the suffering and despair of his people, Isaiah offered a radical new possibility. He dared to say defiantly, in the face of imperial power, "Your God reigns." The God who is here proclaimed anew announces comfort and asserts that the time of suffering is ending. Isaiah invites his community to return home: "Depart, depart.. . go out from the midst of it" (52:11) You shall go out in joy, /you shall be led back in peace" (55:12).

The return from exile may indeed be geographical. But first the movement is emotional, liturgical and imaginative; it requires forming a vision of the future free of the fearful dreams of entrenched power. It demands that we imaginatively free ourselves from the powers that have kept us in thrall, perhaps to a complacent orthodoxy, perhaps to excessive self-protection and self-assurance, perhaps to the fraudulent comforts of imperial finance and weaponry. One can almost sense in Isaiah’s daring poetry the dancing lightness of a small child, countering the weary soberness of jaded adults who have held the world too long in one position. The return from exile begins with an emotional act of civil disobedience.

Frederick Buechner, in his recent book Longing for Home, writes: "We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home that beckons us." But, he adds, "woe to us if we forget the homeless ones who have no vote, no power, nobody to lobby for them, who might as well have no faces. Woe to us if we forget our own homelessness. To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless is to have homes all over the place but not really to be home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intrinsically interwoven that there can be no peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us." It is the same message Isaiah eloquently proclaimed in the sixth century when he invited the exiles home.

Most refused the offer. Most stayed with the empire which seemed to have all the goodies. A few took the chance. They are the ones who have kept faith and the possibility of a new future alive for us.

In our time of dislocation the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human. It can express sadness, rage and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality. It can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible. It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation, focused on those in need. And it can express new social possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news. Before us is the choice between succumbing to a fearful self-preoccupation that shrivels the spirit or heeding God’s call to re-enter the pain of the world and the possibility of renewal and salvation.