By the Rivers of Babylon: Blueprint for a Church in Exile (Fortress Press, 2013)

[1] In the first six months of 2014, 5.5 million people were forcibly displaced. In the middle of the same year, 46.3 million people were being helped by UNHCR. Both of these are new highs, and indicate that refugee populations across the globe are now at record-setting levels.[1]

[2] Readers of Scripture are no stranger to the plight of refugees. A good portion of Scripture was composed by a community in exile. Exile as spiritual metaphor winds its way through our sacred texts.

[3] Robert Hoch worries that the church has spiritualized exile and disembodied it. Turning exile into metaphor, real exile, the exile of deported, shackled and tortured bodies and suffering communities, loses a grip on the liturgical and ethical practice of the church. Hoch writes this book as an invitation to return to understandings of church in exile in the bodily sense, real live worshipping communities that live literally on the borderlands of our culture.

[4] Hoch is very aware how easily such a work of theology might slip back into spiritualization, so he grounds the text in ethnographic research, offering multiple chapters on literal communities of exile. These exilic communities are worth our attention in their own right, simply as stories we should know, communities we ourselves might visit. Hoch tours two very near his own educational institution–Postville, Iowa, infamous for a horrific ICE raid that occurred in 2008 that rounded up many migrant workers employed at the nation’s largest kosher beef supplier; and homeless shelters in his own city of Dubuque, Iowa.

[5] Hoch then takes readers to three other communities–Casa Mariposa in Tucson, Arizona, a “nerve center” for immigration reform, advocacy, and sanctuary; Arriva Camp in Arizona’s Altar Valley, a shrine to the many who have died attempting to cross the border; and Cherith Brook, a Catholic Worker House in Kansas, City, MO.

[6] Hoch works by way of juxtaposition. In each chapter, he weaves either biblical or liturgical reflections into the ethnographic descriptions he offers of each community. Homelessness is paired with the gospel of Matthew. The Arriva Camps are compared to liturgy. Casa Mariposa evokes Ruth the Moabite, and so on. This method is fruitful for both poles of the juxtaposition. The biblical or theological texts take on greater depth juxtaposed with real exilic ministries. The real exilic ministries take on greater poignancy and spiritual depth in juxtaposition with the Bible.

[7] That being said, Hoch has a rather major worry in writing his book. How can churches in “typical settings” benefit from this work? Many churches, especially in the 21st century and the decline (by some measures) of religiosity in North American culture, have a feeling that they are entering into exile even in their own locales. Hoch writes, “Many congregations may talk about exile, but the act of spiritualizing exilic language anesthetizes the church to its sociopolitical and ethical difference. Crucially, such spiritualizing distances communities from the Christ who took such concrete realities as basic to the good news he proclaimed” (152).

[8] In other words, quite a bit of our talk of exile in “typical” settings is the equivalent of slumming. Even reading Hoch’s book can be an act of slumming. Reading the book is a freedom those with the means and time have to peer curiously into the lives of real exiled communities, perhaps with well-intentioned charitable purposes, but never actually to consider living with and entering into true exile.

[9] The churches Hoch studies, because they lived authentically and theologically among real exilic realities, came face to face with their own “complicity in systems of exile” (153), and this deepened and transformed their spirituality. In particular, Hoch notices that these communities by and large gave up traditional measures of “success” for their actions. Instead of measuring successes by number of new members or disciples, or numbers of beds in their shelters, or other types of growth, they simply committed themselves to faithful practice, to engage in gospel obedience.

[10] Other markers of true and embodied exilic communities include more public forms of liturgy, a commitment to being more confessional in public than most congregations. These communities, rather than talking about justice, instead translated justice in their embodied idioms of worship and liturgy and daily performance of ethical action.

[11] I found particularly compelling, if also frightening and intimidating, Hoch’s recognition that “as it deliberately wed itself to the notion of poverty, Cherith Brook joined its body to the body of the poor in something resembling a public declaration of marriage,” (155). It married the poor because it found Christ in them, and as the church, the bride of Christ, it entered into solidarity with them in filial relationship.

[12] Exilic communities also practice border “crossings” more regularly, including literal, real world borders. Hoch then uses this concept as a way to challenge “typical” congregations. What might it look like, for example, for a white congregation to cross a border and corporately declare its sin of systemic racism in the ghetto? How might congregations shift from expecting those already in exile to come to them instead work for reparations and repair that takes them into the midst of exile with those already in exile?

[13] The continuing danger in a discussion of a book like this is that many churches believe, as Hoch notes, that talking about mission is as good as mission (157), so reading a book about exile is as good as living in exile among exiles. In the end, Hoch notices that living this kind of mission, entering into exile and then abiding there over the longue durée, means trusting God to make a way through the wilderness. Communities who trust in this way “betrayed sensitivity to the new creation awakening amid the catacombs of hostility and defeat,” (163). In other words, it may be the case that exile is the only place where faith lives, and so churches called to faithfulness are called out into exile in order to experience faith as if for the first time.


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Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at