Yoder on Diaspora and Hospitality

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. (Jeremiah 29:7, NRSV)

This verse from Jeremiah will be at the heart of my presentation.  As we work through the texts of John Howard Yoder, and as I offer some reflections on what hospitality might have to do with diaspora, we will return to it often.

Yoder’s compelling essay “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” gives an account of Babel that is significantly different from the way contemporary Protestant theology has rendered it.  The people of God constructed the tower of Babel as an act of independence toward their salvation, by trying to “[reach] heaven on their own.”[1]  God responds to this idolatry with the confusion of tongues.  Because the people no longer share a common language, the construction of Babel is interrupted.  God’s people are furthermore dispersed from the land, to live in exile under the Babylonian Empire.

The galuth (literally “scattering”) or diaspora of Israel by God is typically understood as a punishment for Israel’s idolatry.  As a result, the life of the Jewish community in exile is seen as a great loss from their former unity.  Yoder questions this interpretation on “Jeremian grounds.”  The verse from Jeremiah 29:7, he argues, precludes a punitive interpretation of the text: “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.”  It does not sound like an angry admonition.  Something else is going on.

Drawing on Stephan Zweig’s poem-drama Jeremiah, various sources of Jewish historical interpretation, and Jeffrey Stout’s influential book Ethics after Babel, Yoder makes his case that galuth or the diaspora, is in fact the commissioning of God’s people.  When we read the Babel community not as an ideal unified whole but as idolatry, we must read the dispersal not as punishment and a lamentable loss of unity, but as God’s act of liberation from idolatry.

The particular kind of unity that is idolatrous is what Yoder identifies as “the effort of a human community to absolutize itself.”[2]  The construction of Babel marks a desire of the people to preserve their culture and a common discourse by establishing themselves in the world like other nations.  This is the idolatry that diaspora liberates.  Furthermore, the confusion of languages, “is “confusion” only when measured against the simplicity of imperially enforced uniformity.”[3]  In other words, the diversification of languages at Babel was a confusion of Israel’s attempt to seize its own history. (Pentecost sits in stark contrast: the act of speaking in tongues is not a “confusion” here because it is received as a gift, as a liberating blessing. Diversification of language, of discourses, is a gift of the Spirit, and an essential part of the church’s faithfulness).

Another place in which our reading of the Babel text needs attention is regarding the notion of return from exile.  It is often understood that diaspora is a loss because things are other than they were and therefore other than they ought to be.  The message of return from exile is certainly important in the prophets, but as Yoder astutely notes, it was precisely the false prophets that preached imminent return and restoration.  Instead of “return” becoming the goal of exile, the notion of return becomes “functional as a metaphor for God’s renewing the life of faith anywhere.”[4]

Return to the land is consistently postponed, deferred.  In other words, any notion of return as something brought about by the people of God is precluded by the Jeremian call to seek the welfare of the city.  Galuth or diaspora, therefore, opens for a new way of being in the world, in which “[n]othing about the self-esteem of the bearers of this new lifestyle is dependent upon or drives toward cultural homogeneity, political control, or autarchy.”[5]  Return, just as restoration, is the work of the Messiah who is to come. 

Here Christians might protest that because the Messiah has already come, the ethic or character of the mission for God’s people changes once again.  Diasporic living, some might think, becomes more difficult, because of the discernment required of what belongs to the new order of creation and what is passing away.  The discernment of what God is doing in the world, however, precedes the first Messianic coming, and the call of Jesus remains the same as the call of Jeremian Jews—the call to faithfulness.

What kind of ethics do we have after Babel?  If Babel names “the absence of univocality,”[6] is the form of moral discourse that remains completely relative?  How do we share our moral discourses, our ethics, when they are diversified? If the diasporic community seeks the welfare of the city in every aspect of life, hasn’t the very moral validity of God’s people itself become relative?  Yoder’s answer is ‘no.’  What remains untranslatable and non-negotiable “is that there is no other God [but YHWH].”[7]  This is the Jewish answer, and the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ Lordship is nothing less.

The Jeremian model is for the people of God learning to live well under imperial rule.  Seek the welfare of the city has to do with how we ought to live and is therefore essentially ethical.  [This is really just a continuation of our discussion of character ethics and the minority church from last class].  A diasporic ethic undercuts the Enlightenment’s emphasis on a universal moral plane as well as autonomous individualism.

The Jeremian model (what Yoder calls “Babel”) promotes community-dependent discourse and does not see this as a barrier to meaningful communication across discursive boundaries.  It is another idolatry, namely what he calls “babble,” that denies the possibility for trans-communal dialogue.[8]  This distinction is drawn in Yoder’s essay, “Meaning after Babble.”

I am less concerned here with Yoder’s critique of Stout, where they agree and/or disagree, than I am with furthering the character of ethics after Babel according to what I have discussed so far.  Not only is diaspora not punitive, not only is it the mission of the people of God, their call to faithfulness is perhaps most radicalized in the last part of the verse we have been continuously coming back to: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Diaspora living is not simply living well under imperial power yet somehow apart from it.  Jeremiah is not calling for quietism or sectarianism.  The welfare (peace, freedom, and well-being), and salvation of Israel is inextricably bound up with that of Babylon.  Exilic living requires engagement with the other.  Community-dependent discourses take place across communities at the level of everyday life, through face to face encounters, on the plane of immanence, and not somehow above or abstracted from them.  “Rather than seeking a “higher” or a “prior” level (as several kind of “foundational” appeals do), we must enter concretely into the other community (that is, one particular community at a time) long enough, deeply enough, vulnerably enough, to be able to articulate our Word in their words.”[9]  In the Jeremian call, witness to the other and faithful living as God’s people, are irreducible.

So, what do Babel and diaspora have to do with hospitality?  I submit that the Jeremian call advocates for what we may call an ethic of hospitality.  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” I would suggest that this verse is probably quite strange to us as an ethical exhortation for today.  Living in exile is likely an unimaginable notion for most of western Christianity.  We tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today.

But on what grounds, really, can we think of ourselves as anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here long before us. We arrived as guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world with anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Furthermore, our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call an imperial ethic—the same ethic of the people who constructed the tower at Babel.  We have convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through our own acts of domination, control, and coercion.  We were first guests and foreigners in this land, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage.  As a result, we have now become hostages to these habits of thought and life.  The exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, is a call that a comfortable, majority church must learn to receive again and again.

We think of hospitality as something offered by hosts to their guests, or to strangers passing through.  Hosts are those who are residents in a place.  Hosts open their homes, the places they own, over which the have control, to foreigners.  Hospitality then is understood as a capacity or virtue that the host possesses and exercises.  In Jeremiah, however, the roles are radically reversed!  The exhortation to seek the welfare of the other is given to the minority, the newcomer to the city, the resident alien.

The response of a foreign minority to a new empire can go one of two ways according to our discussion so far.  One option is for the minority to seek a handle on power in order to preserve and protect their own culture and to move their history forward.  By replicating the ethic (way of life) of the city in this way, the minority effectively becomes hostage to imperial forms of power.  It does not practice hospitality but hostility.

The second option is to seek the welfare of the city and thereby proclaim that “God’s capacity to bring about the fulfillment of his righteous goals is not dependent on us.”[10]  In the second, Jeremian option, hospitality is the form of life practiced by those who presumably have no place to host in, no hostel.  In what way then, do the exiled people of God become hosts to their strange Gentile city guests?  In the ways I have already alluded to throughout: by recognizing dispersion as a co-missioning, by receiving their minority status as a gift of diversification, by engaging in the life of the city in non-dominating and non-coercive ways (the third way between the Essene and Zealot option), and by bearing witness to the Lordship of one God, Jesus Christ, the locus of the meaning of history; the lamb that was slain who is worthy to receive power.

[1] John Howard Yoder, “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 62.

[2] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 62.

[3] Ibid, 63.

[4] Ibid, 53.

[5] Ibid, 59.

[6] Ibid, 72.

[7] Ibid, 76.

[8] John Howard Yoder, “Meaning after Babble: With Jeffrey Stout Beyond Relativism,” in Journal of Religious Ethics (2001), 132.

[9] Yoder, “Meaning after Babble,” 132.

[10] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 67.


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