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.