Saturday, August 9, 2008

Oh, Babylon!

Fr. Neuhaus just posted his latest installment in a series of reflections on the Christian life-in-exile. His thoughts will eventually (hopefully, soon!) become a book.

He approaches the question through the scriptures of the Hebrew exile. I especially appreciated the quote from Jeremiah: "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 you will find your welfare." (emphasis mine)

Seeking the welfare of my "city"--and its expanding circles of "cities"--has always been a curious puzzle to me. My natural inclination is to reject the city of exile and go live in a cave somewhere. As my children grow, too, I tend to want to find that cave (though perhaps a bit larger).

But Jeremiah encourages us to live and flourish in the land of exile--always waiting in hope for our freedom. He asks us to seek the good for the city, no matter how corrupt and wicked it is. The city, too, may be delivered (think of Ninevah). Daniel and his companions become servants to the king of their exile. Their service is so excellent, in fact, that they become the king's favorites, and he makes them governors of his land.

Neuhaus reminds us, however, that service to the city can only go so far.

"... the story illustrates what it means to seek the peace of the city of our exile. The young Judeans went along with a great deal but drew the line at worshiping a false god. Much better to die than to violate the first commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” In the first centuries of the Christian movement, martyrs went singing to their deaths rather than do something so seemingly innocuous as burning a pinch of incense before the statues of emperors who had been officially deified. Also today, Christians worry about the ways in which accommodation to this foreign city can become betrayal. At least they should. The temptation to worship false gods usually presents itself in subtle forms. It does not usually announce itself with the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music."

The worship of false gods helps neither the city nor the exile: rejection of the true, the good, and the beautiful only sets up obstacles between now and the final deliverance. How do we serve, like Daniel? And when, like him, do we know it is time to face the furnace? I note, as I'm sure Neuhaus has also noted, that Daniel and his companions were known to be men of prayer and fasting. I believe that somewhere in those moments they discovered that line of demarcation between service to the king and the first commandment.

Seek the good, for yourself and your land of exile. The days are coming!

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