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Singing the Songs of Babylon

2010 November 4

I arrived home at midnight last night after three exhausting days at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation. I’ve been to Emergent events in the past and have returned home inspired, ignited, and hopeful, but this event was different. As friends mentioned after the event, in the past we have gone home ready to change the world and pumped up with the joy of friendships and yes, even the navel-gazing affirmation of our own spiritual intelligence. Those events shaped the conversation and inspired us to build something new. This wasn’t that sort of event.

Since leaving yesterday, I’ve been walking around with an ache in my heart. I feel wounded and broken – my soul has been permanently changed and now feels alien in its own skin. What we heard these last few days changed us. And I am beginning to realize that we can’t unlearn what we heard this week, the stories we heard have altered our very being. We can choose to deny what we heard or refuse to let what we heard move us to action, but there is no going back to the people we were before this conversation – for us as individuals or for the organization Emergent Village.

Strange thing is, I wasn’t expecting this conference to affect me so strongly. I knew about the horrors of colonialism. I’ve read books on liberation and postcolonial theology. I speak up for justice and believe the call for Christians is to end oppression. I admit my complicity in ongoing oppression and colonialism and strive to repent of such sins. All those things I knew in my head. But sitting down and listening to the stories and the prophetic words of people who speak the truth about their own experiences with such things is something entirely different. I hope over the next few weeks to write about some of what I heard there, but for right now all I can do is attempt to process the space I am in at the moment.

This ache in my heart, this realization that opening myself up to hearing these words means that I can never return to who I was before is difficult. It is an uncomfortable liminal space to inhabit. And it is in that uncertain space of discomfort that we ended the conference. No moments of feeling theologically astute for chatting with some famous theologian, no triumphal feeling of understanding the emergence of the church in postmodern times – simply people stripped raw, uncertain how to move forward. For me, the uncomfortable strangeness of that discomfort was manifest in how the event wrapped-up.

Here we had spent three days discussing the effects of the colonial project. The speakers had led us to see how the Bible is used as a colonizing text and how the rituals and trapping of the Western church have colonized the minds of indigenous peoples. Their dream is to find ways to do distinctly indigenous theology and develop spiritual practices that are native to who they are. They pleaded with us to stop seeing Western theology, philosophy, academia, and liturgy as the norm that all others must aspire to or at least subjugate their spiritual language to. And above all to not just allow native peoples space to pursue those paths, but to join in with them valuing their voices just as much as we value Western voices.

So after all that we closed with a time of communion where we stood serving the broken body of Christ to one another. And as we served someone started singing hymns. Old hymns. Traditional hymns. The hymns of the great Western churches. As others shakily joined in, I sat in my chair stunned and silent feeling that something was deeply wrong. And then Musa Dube, the Botswanan biblical scholar who had been sharing and challenging us about the need to re-imagine our theology and rituals started singing “How Great Thou Art.” She later shared how singing is how she has always been able to connect with God. And it was in that moment that the tears started to fall. I couldn’t help but weep that when confronted with our own complicity in the sins of empire the only way we knew how to respond was by singing the songs of Babylon. That in even this moment of worship all we knew to do was speak the language of empire. Part of me wanted to believe that in that moment it was enough to be who we were, but part of me also wanted to stop the whole thing and beg Richard Twiss or Musa Dube to give us the language to move beyond ourselves. Yet all I could do was weep at my inability to do anything but sing the songs of Babylon as an offering of reconciliation to the God who brings freedom to the oppressed. And that has left the ache in my heart that has stripped me raw.


19 Responses leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010

    Wow, thank you for sharing this reflection, Julie.

  2. Russell permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Thanks for taking me to that place of …????

  3. November 4, 2010

    I have sat at the feet of folks who taught me of my complicity. I have been taken under wing by people who live their faith in the midst of gun fire. I have felt heartache like you describe, Julie. Thank you for your vulnerability.

    It is in those in-between spaces that I wonder though what we can sing. It seems in those moments for me that no choice comes without baggage. If I sing Hamba Nathi or Gloria a Dios, I feel like I’m overstepping boundaries and trying to sing someone else’s song. If I sing the old songs, I feel like I’m continuing the paradigm that has been destructive. Sometimes in those spaces, I simply remain silent out of respect. But at some point I have to move…and then, what?

    So, I sing them all, with anyone who is willing to sing with me. We sing together our heartache and hope. We confess and pardon. We cry, eat, tend our children and begin the work of love again. What else can we do?

    So, pick a song…any song…from Babylon, Botswana, Bogota…and I will sing with you…even if I don’t know the words.

  4. Juli permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Thank you for making me think about that. As I do so, I think about how one of the things that most compromises colonialism is to reject its narratives about itself, particularly its uniqueness, its specialness. I feel like digressing before I even get to my point, forgive me. It isn’t even a very clear digression, but you really struck a chord (forgive the pun, too) with me and things that I have been thinking about about narrative and symbolism, and how I feel like they apply to this sort of thing. So:

    In the United States, we look at our ancestors and antecedents being the Founding Fathers, that all that informs our spirit flows through them. They saw themselves as Englishmen, but Englishmen who could find no proper station and standing for themselves and their fellow Englishmen in England from afar; no respect, no representation. We imagine in our colonial narrative that our history, our culture is somehow theirs, but what informs and betrays a culture more than its mythology? When I look around the United States of today, we are ignorant of English mythology, though. It is the waves of Central European, especially German, immigrants who shaped our mythology, even among those with no European heritage at all. And though we imagine ourselves to have colonized away whatever came before us, if there is anything in mythology that is special in how it explains our relationship with a place, we can let ourselves slip in to it from time to time because the spirit of the place is still there somewhere, somehow buried, but the old myths that were here long before the Germans’ (or those of the English, now forgotten) can still connect us back to that spirit and transcend our empire and erase it, especially if we allow ourselves to be informed, even colonized, by its truth. We imagine that we are cohesive, refined, that we have a single history of triumph and conquering, but we cannot erase the marks of other narratives upon us; the Englishmen had their country’s myths replaced with those of Germans; those who believe that their ancestors tamed the land must face people whose cultures remind them that there were civilizations here long before our ancestors ever set foot upon this ground; we must look at our history of change and know that the world will not stay the same in the future, and that we cannot vainly demand that it do so unless we wish to be driven mad by how little even the present is what we think it is; we think that we have built something, that we are part of something, but we are always assimilating instead of building.

    And so, though I don’t know how well I have made the link, it is in the minds of the Babylonians that there is a song of Babylon, but the songs they sing there had antecedents and referents far beyond them, too, to what came before. There may be something of a tune from the Garden that was long forgotten still lingering on in a song in Babylon, that we can connect with to transcend Babylon, and to connect with the song that came before, even if we do it though a thick fog, the modern colonial words which think they have hidden the fact that the song did not belong to the colonizers, but what came before them. Empires love to bask in the glow of all that they have created, but they have created nothing; in the beginning there was the word, and though we’ve forgotten the words, we remember the songs, and if we can allow ourselves to get lost in them, we can reach something beyond the triumphant lyrics, the true spirit of the words, the resonance of the melody. So sing boldly, and laugh at those who believe that in them words and music were created.

  5. November 5, 2010

    Wow, Julie. I saw all the tweets about the conference and the title of the conference and yet I didn’t imagine that it would give the attendees the kind of experience you are describing. I am so eager to read your forthcoming thoughts about what you experienced. Thanks for sharing, and prayers are with you as you journey forth through the “raw.”

  6. November 5, 2010

    Thanks Julie.

  7. November 5, 2010

    Wow. I teach young people, mostly christians, economics. We are scraping the surface of the horrors of colonialism. What I couldn’t grasp or discern, our inability to communicate and commune apart from such language and ideology, you have made plain.

    What tears does and should that bring?

    We so need the raw. Please share more as you will.

  8. Lisa Carlton permalink
    November 5, 2010

    Beautiful reflection Julie. I am so eager to hear more about what you learned.

  9. November 5, 2010

    Julie, thank you for taking the time to share your experience. I have never been to an Emergent conference, but I’ve been curious about it. I am grateful to be transported there through your words. I’ll be sure to keep reading as you write more about it.

  10. Dave Gladson permalink
    November 5, 2010

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish I had made plans to stay for the entire event.

  11. November 5, 2010

    thank you for sharing this julie. i was so sad i couldn’t be there but i’m a crazy mess right now with back stuff. as i read your words, though, it kind of freaked me out because it made me cry, too. and i wasn’t expecting it. oh the damage that’s been done. oh the restoration & reconciliation that God’s spirit can bring. it scares me, how much work needs to be done, but when i read stories like you just told it reminds me of what could be.

  12. November 7, 2010

    Julie, I’m confused. As I thought about what you wrote here, I recalled how the original Babylonian captives had difficulty singing the songs of faith:

    For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
    and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
    How could we sing the LORD’s song
    in a foreign land?”

    But my first reaction was, in what way(s) are these old hymns, like “How Great Thou Art,” songs of Babylon? How were they used as implements of colonial oppression? To be sure, some of them have military imagery (e.g., “Lift High the Cross,” “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”), but these were never my favorites anyway.

    Many of these hymns are deeply embedded in my memory and my faith experience. To me they ARE the LORD’s songs.

  13. November 7, 2010

    Greetings from the UK and a big thank you for this post which I have now blogged on here:

  14. November 7, 2010

    I was so hoping to be there–even planning on it at one point–and just couldn’t do it. But now I’m especially sorry I wasn’t. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. November 13, 2010

    Thanks for this, Julie. I’m so glad to have found your blog and am deeply moved by your post. I’m putting your blog in my Google reader and will read whatever you post. Your words are profoundly affecting me already – thank you.

  16. M. Luterinho permalink
    November 13, 2010

    Another book to consider as we move forward is “The Next Evangelicalism and Many Colors ” by Soong-Chan Rah. This further consider not only colonization but whether the emergent church is just another theological colonization.

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