“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

The sounds of Boney M echoed through our lecture room. Some of the younger cadets looked a little lost (what sort of old music is this?), but everyone (even the Training Principal) grooved to the reggae beats of “By the Rivers of Babylon”. Our guest lecturer, Lt. Colin Reynolds (Corps Officer at Sunshine), while discussing the Salvation Army’s intercultural mission, used this song to focus in on this line – also from Psalm 137:4 – “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” Boney M had based their song on Psalm 137, a Psalm of lament and vengeance from the perspective of the exiled Jewish people in Babylon.

Psalm 137 (NIV)

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.

The experience of the Jewish people, forcibly removed from their land in 586 BCE, parallels closely with the current experience of many people seeking asylum, forcibly removed from their home because of persecution and conflict. According to the UNHCR, there were 59.5 million displaced people in the world by the end of 2014 – the highest number ever recorded. It is reasonable to think that those sitting in refugee camps throughout the world would also weep for their former lands, fondly remembering their connection with the place of their birth. Those of us who have lived in peace and prosperity for much of our lives struggle to understand the trauma associated with dislocation, particularly when the place we have had to leave gives us cultural and religious meaning. The “memory of Zion” for the Jewish exiles in Babylon was a source of both hope and mourning, particularly when their “tormentors demanded songs of joy … of Zion” (v. 3). Their memories considered “Jerusalem [their] highest joy” (v. 6), yet to express these songs, the special songs of Yahweh, to the audience of their captivity was a betrayal of the special relationship between Yahweh and His chosen people. Those who are forced to seek asylum must surely feel the same tension.

There are points of Scripture that make us uncomfortable, and the curse offered at end of Psalm 137 is one these points that grate on our understanding of God – after all, our God is surely not one who seeks revenge or condemns innocents to die. However, this curse captures the emotional response to persecution and dislocation understandable in any context – those who hurt me must receive justice, and even vengeance. In the context of the Jewish exile, the punishment of the Babylonians was enforced by the subsequent empires of Media and Persia. For those fleeing their countries today, the conflicting emotions of despair and hatred must be considered in their subsequent adjustments to a new land. As Christians we are called to follow a new way – the pursuit of forgiveness and a call to love. We are also called to put aside any sense of nationalism to pledge our allegiance to a new Kingdom – the Kingdom of God. Yet within our own context we must consider the pain and suffering of those who flee, and accept that anger against those who hurt and persecute us is part of being human.

There is an irony that for Christians in Australia today, our perspective is from the opposite side to the Jewish exiles in Psalm 137. We may not be the tormentors who forcibly displace others, but we do ask them to sing their songs of joy in a foreign land, and expect a grateful response when we “encourage” those who settle in our land to be more like us. We zealously protect our borders from the “other”, claiming that our territorial sovereignty is more important than international obligations, compassion, or human dignity. Our political debates around people seeking refuge and asylum are couched in terms which demonise the other and reinforce our cultural superiority. This is not in alignment with our Christian mandate: to pursue love and forgiveness, and offer allegiance to the Kingdom of God above our own nationalism.

How, then, do we allow those seeking asylum and refuge to “sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land”? Firstly, we need to wrestle to hear God’s heart through Scripture for the plight of the marginalised. Mercy for the oppressed stranger permeates the Old Testament – Leviticus 19:33-34 reminds us that:

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God”.

In Jesus’ ministry we see those on society’s margins welcomed in – the “sinners and tax collectors” and Samaritans alike found their place in the company of Jesus. At the very least we must consider those who are seeking asylum in our country to be loved by Jesus, just like the sinners and tax collectors and Samaritans of Jesus’ day.

The Refugee Council’s theme for 2015-2017 is “in courage let us all combine”. As we consider the Scriptural mandate for our response to people seeking refuge and asylum, let us courageously seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for our involvement in giving the voiceless a voice, standing up for human dignity, and compassionately helping those in need without discrimination.

Written by Captain Ben Anderson

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