In the summer of 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, a massacre of Jews took place. Roughly 1,600 men, women, and children were rounded up and burned. As a witness described the scene: “Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers’ breasts, people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance.” Bloodied and wounded, they were pushed into a barn, which was then doused with kerosene and lit, by their non-Jewish neighbors.
As David Stowe observes in Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137, this terrifying episode re-enacts verses 3 and 9 of one of the Bible’s most enigmatic poems. Polish Jews are forced to sing and to put their children to death, or as the King James Bible puts it: “For there they that carried us away captive…required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion…. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
While few of us have faced this kind of horrific suffering, many of us can sympathize with the vivid language of the psalm, in the way it articulates the experience of exile. Alienation, loneliness, loss, and estrangement: these are no less familiar to the suburban soccer mom than to the Syrian refugee.
Stowe, a professor at Michigan State University, structures his book according to the three parts of the psalm. With a nod to Paul Ricouer’s 2004 volume, these are history, memory, forgetting. Part exegetical commentary, part cultural history, part personal rumination, Stowe’s book maps the experience of the psalm to the experience of Israel and, in turn, to the experience of musicians, activists, preachers, and theologians throughout the centuries.
If a Hebrew psalm can have a biography, then Song of Exileis an attempt to tell its story.
A Poetic Memory Project
In the first section, “History,” Stowe examines the history behind the psalm, the 50 or so years following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He does so in conversation with the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the experience of Korean-Americans, the Bay Psalms Book of 1640, Elizabeth Smart's 1945 poem, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and musical settings of the opening lines of Psalm 137, from Bach to the reggae album “Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians.
In part two, “Memory,” Stowe opens with a concert he attends in New Haven, Connecticut, featuring Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, whose song “Jerusalem” is a defiant Zionist anthem about a people “with no place to be.” For Matisyahu, Stowe writes, Psalm 137 is a charge to remember one’s identity. Stowe here distinguishes between mneme, a memory that pops to mind unbidden, and anamnesis, an active work of remembrance. Psalm 137 is an anamnetic exercise: to doggedly remember one’s history in the face of monstrous, irrational evil.
Antonín Dvořák's 1894 composition, Biblical Songs, Opus 99, #7, captures the psalm’s cry of remembrance in both “dark” and dissonant “jocular” tones. For African-Americans, from Frederick Douglas’ famous oration in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” to Jeremiah Wright’s sermon, “Faith in a Foreign Land” (which includes the phrase the audacity to hope), Psalm 137 voices their specific experience of exile. To sing Psalm 137, as a kind of poetic “memory project,” is to sing a protest against enslavement and second-class citizenry.
Section three of the psalm, “Forgetting,” is, as Stowe points out, the “least used in song or liturgy but most controversial.” With its seemingly cruel language, the psalm’s call for vengeance has been largely excised from liturgical repertoires across church history. But we are wrong to do so, argues the Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf. In a conversation with Stowe, Volf insists that psalms such as these remain within the church’s worship. As Volf puts it, "they may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness."
This side of the cross of Christ, however, it is not clear how an imprecatory psalm fits into the church’s speech patterns. Stowe notes, in detail, how both Augustine and Benedict interpreted Psalm 137 allegorically, while Isaac Watts excluded it from his 1719 hymnal, The Songs of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, because he judged it “opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel.”
Stowe also describes how a peculiar form of “American vengeance,” often baptized by Christians with appeals to Psalm 137, stands in sharp contrast to “theologies of vengeance,” as articulated by Volf or Reinhold Niebuhr. To say that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (per Romans 12) is one thing. Quite another is to put on our lips the last verses of Psalm 137. Stowe asks: Is it possible to pray language of vengeance without lapsing into revenge fantasies?
A Travelogue of Exile
Befitting the work of a biographer, Stowe chooses to describe rather than opine on the subject of his investigation. What results is an often-meandering travelogue of Psalm 137’s reception by Jewish and Christian communities over the past two millennia. While the three sub-headings provide a focus for each section of the book, the contents themselves lack a coherent thread. They seem to follow instead the author’s journalistic curiosity, a point that Stowe readily acknowledges.
If a biography aims to tell a subject’s story faithfully, then Song of Exile is an examination of a psalm that fails to possess a clear enough through-line but which opens up a history of fascination and controversy around the question of exile. And while the book may be burdened with the idiosyncratic interests of its author, in some cases resulting in long-winding excursions, the gift to the reader is greater self-awareness.
In his examination of Psalm 137’s use and misuse, Stowe poses an intriguing question: “why, given the pervasive historical impact of the Bible on American culture, has the Babylonian exile not registered a more significant presence in our culture?” In a country full of outsiders and migrants, why is Psalm 137 not better known? Or, put otherwise, why does the Exodus prove more popular than the Exile to Americans?
Americans share a defining myth of leaving a land of oppression for the land of freedom. To come to these shores is to escape slavery and reach the land of opportunity. Moses, not Jeremiah, functions as the paradigmatic hero, with the exodus story playing out, in one form or another, in political speeches, screenplays, sports dramas and tech-company vision statements. The U.S.A. is the Promised Land, not Babylon. Here we are at home, not in exile.
But not quite, Stowe reminds us. For Latino-Americans or victims of sex trafficking, the experience of exile in this country is entirely real. And plenty of our friends and neighbors understand what it means to feel traumatized by experiences of tragic loss or displacement. This is why, as various biblical scholars and liturgists express all throughout Song of Exile, Psalm 137 is badly needed in the church’s life.
Songs of Protest
Without making room for Psalmist’s cries of anguish and vengeance, the church leaves itself vulnerable to theologies and pastoral practices that are incapable of dealing with the experience of violence—and its systemic, multi-generational reverberations, played out in the public square and in the privacy of our homes.
As Volf tells Stowe, reading Psalm 137 gives voice to violent emotions, so as to diffuse the impulse toward violent actions: “by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice.” It may also be a way to remind ourselves, as Stowe adds, that “everyone is potentially Judean, potentially Babylonian; potentially a victim, potentially a perpetrator.”
This is all easier said than done, of course, as Christians have long felt and as Stowe records in his chronicle of the enduring mystery of Psalm 137, but it bears mentioning all the same—from the pulpit or class lectern, on the back porch or at the kitchen table, and in the therapist’s office, if need be.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and director of Brehm Texas, a center for worship, theology, and the arts.