I still remember the first big church fight I witnessed. It happened at a Sunday evening service when a musical group which had been asked to “lead some choruses” (it was the early 70s) decided to give a rendition of Boney M’s disco classic “By The Rivers of Babylon” which at the time I think was the UK Number One. There was a large group of outraged Pentecostals after that service, some of them displayed their lack of biblical knowledge and hadn’t realised that the Boney M’s song was actually a version of Psalm 137 and thought that the group had just decided to play a pop song. Other people knew the words were from the Psalms but still thought any song performed on Top of the Pops, should never be performed in church. The result of that “rammie” at church is that I have always remembered Psalm 137.
Just recently I have been paying it a bit more attention to it again because I think it has some significant implications for how we think about being church in our increasingly Post Modern and Post Christian culture.
A wee bit of historical background will maybe help us grasp its contemporary significance. In the 6th century BC, Judah was a small independent country in a volatile time in history. In a story to be repeated in almost every age, a huge global superpower, Babylon, invaded and took over the smaller nation. To make sure there was no ongoing resistance to their take over the Babylonians executed the King, had the nobles taken back to Babylon as prisoners, burnt down the great temple of Solomon, and had many of the population forcibly relocated to a new home deep inside their empire. In this new unwelcoming homeland for God’s people they had to learn to live as a minority among people with different customs, religions and languages who were often hostile and rarely helpful. It was out of that experience that someone wrote Psalm 137
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
That Psalm reveals that this beleaguered group of God’s People were struggling to come to terms with what had happened to them and how they could possibly exist as God’s people in this new hostile culture they were surrounded by. One writer commenting on verse 4 says
“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.”
Its no wonder that these Jewish people were struggling to come to terms with what had happened to them, just think of the changes they had experienced against their will. They had gone from
Being a majority —> to be being a minority
Being in control of the culture —> to being powerless
Being protected as God’s people —> to being persecuted for being God’s People
Being respected for being God’s people —> to be ridiculed for being God’s people
Having their values affirmed by the culture —> to experiences their values colliding with the culture
It looks like for most of these refugees they reacted in three basic ways.
- With expressions of sadness … “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
- With a sense of nostalgia ... ” May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”
- With outright hatred … “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
The more I have thought about what happened to this generation of God’s people thousands of years ago, the more I can see parallels with the experience of being God’s People in Europe in my generation. In my generation what has been called “Christendom” has been progressively destroyed. The sort of alliance there was between the church and the state in Europe for almost a thousand years and which gave the Church and Christianity a privileged position is crumbling away to nothing.
Right now as Christians in Europe we are experiencing what those people from Judah went through, though not perhaps as violently and abruptly. As Christians we have gone from being a majority to be being a minority, atheists, agonistic and people from other faiths now outnumber us. We no longer really exercise any control in our culture, we are essentially powerless, governments ask for opinions and then just ignore them as being irrelevant. Where the law once protected Christianity and its morals, increasingly it feels like we are being persecuted for being God’s People. Christians are losing their jobs for expressing their faith in ways that would have been perfectly acceptable even 10 years ago. We are no longer respected for being God’s people, now we are constantly ridiculed for being Christians. Today’s politically correct comedians avoid jokes about Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists but never let up on their ridiculing everything about the Church, Christ and Christianity. Its no wonder we feel besieged. Where once just about everyone in our culture, while they may not have lived by them, affirmed Christian values, now our values are increasingly colliding with the values of our contemporary culture and bringing us into conflict with employers, authorities and public opinion.
Someone put it like this,
“… today Christendom is crumbling. People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice. Christians are losing ours. We are going into exile and we don’t like it. Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing. People stronger than us have taken us into exile. Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.”
The more I think about, the more It feels to me that many Christians and Churches are living in Psalm 137:4. They are struggling to work out what it means “to sing the songs of the Lord in the strange land,” the alien environment for the church that is contemporary Europe.
I hear a lot of sadness about what has happened to the church, that around Europe so many church buildings lie derelict and so few people go to those that are still open.
Nostalgia is also a prevalent reaction, I encounter a lot of people who tell me what their church used to be like, what it was like when Billy Graham drew enormous crowds in London and Glasgow.
Sadly I also hear many Christians responding to the new culture with what sounds very like hatred. They protest on the streets with warnings of destruction for our culture which sound more like a desire for revenge. Some of the things which are said about homosexual people are shocking when they come from a community which is meant to love even its enemies. I am constantly dismayed by the anger I hear from Christians on radio phone ins, tv discussion programmes and expressed in comments on social media. There is definitely almost lust for revenge, that pleading with God for him to come in judgment.
The interesting thing for me is how God responded to those exiles back in Babylon in the 6th century. Instead of a wave of thunderbolts, he sent one of the recent popular prophets there probably had ever been, Jeremiah. Jeremiah didn’t do a lot to improve his popularity with this statement he delivered on God’s behalf.
“Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
The exiles were seeking God’s judgement on the pagan culture that surrounded them, God tells them instead to seek its welfare!
Instead of withdrawing, and brooding over what had happened to them with a mixture of anger, sadness and nostalgia God says His people are to get involved in the culture around them. They were to get involved in commerce, to work for the common good of these people who had ridiculed and persecuted them and opposed everything they stood for. As if that wasn’t bad enough instead of praying about how bad these people were and for the destruction of their cities and country and even babies, God says they were to pray for its welfare, to pray not that it would be destroyed but that it would actually flourish.
What’s running through my mind is what implications God’s words through Jeremiah to those exiles living thousands of years ago have for us as exiles today?
What do you think those implications might be?
How do we seek the good of a culture whose values we don’t share?