States of Exile – Review

States of Exile is the third book in the Polyglossia series which engages the radical reformation tradition with contemporary issues and authors.  In this book Epp Weaver explores exile as a theological mode (from a broadly Yoderian perspective) as well as the social reality of exile as it exists in Israel-Palestine.

This leads him to develop what I take as the strength of the book which is its even flow between the value and place of reflection and practice.  Rarely is there is a point in the book when you get the impression that the author is forcing his theology to be practical or that he is trying to support his practice with the appropriate theology.  Perhaps more simply Weaver’s account can simply be called a work of theology and allow it stand as a type of benchmark for future work.

The book is divided into three sections; Diaspora, Witness, and Return.  The first chapter frames what it means to function in a biblical and theological mode of exile.  Being in exile is being out of control.  Theology that is undertaken in an exilic mode is one that is vigilant against attempts to control the parameters and possibilities of its discourse.  It is an expression that can be surprised and even overturned.  Epp Weaver warns against a belief that this can be easily practiced noting Yoder’s attempt to put forward an exilic model that at times fell victim to his own critique.  The second chapter introduces contemporary reflections on exile from Israel-Palestine.  This chapter attempts to value the contribution that comes from exile while guarding against inappropriate romanticizing of its reality.  Exile in addition to being out of control is also means being unsettled.  One is not allowed to be lulled into the expectations of power and so can offer a perspective from outside the dominant expressions that keep things the way they are.  It is this chapter that raises what may be the most haunting and pressing question.  “Is this critically laudable aspect of exile, however, compatible with a struggle to end the physical condition of exile?”  Can one work from an exilic mode while also trying to end exilic realities?  This question remains unanswered as the struggles between exile and homecoming happen in particular circumstances with a variety of factors.  Perhaps what needs to be restored is land and houses.  Perhaps what needs to be restored is identity and value.

The section Witness announces that “the church in diaspora is a church in mission.”  This means that exile is both the site and style of mission.  As the site of mission the church learns to what it means for Christ and the church to address the contemporary powers as he did in the New Testament.  As a style of mission the church must allow Christ to be an active agent calling even the church into question so that the church does not assume the positions of power that can be made available to her.  This means that the church does not proclaim final works of theology nor does it assume a final perspective ethic.  It continues to navigate ethics and theology paying close attention to the particular situation while trying to listen and follow Christ who may be calling outside of traditional forms.

In the final section Epp Weaver offers a number of images and practices that may point towards a theologically responsible expression of return.  Being responsible in this task is that expressions of return do not simply continue the cycle of displacement for another group.  Here Epp Weaver points to the possibilities of a binational state as opposed to a two-state solution in Israeli-Palestine.  Chapter nine problematizes the notion of ‘terrorism’ so that we might better discern the breadth of violence enacted in the middle-east.  Chapter ten explores specific groups (often consisting of both Israelis and Palestinians)  performing acts of history and remembrance so that present circumstances can be disrupted and new possibilities be opened for the future.

Even if you are not interested in the particulars of the Israel-Palestine conflict this book remains a significant piece of theology for a church navigating increasingly exilic spaces.  Epp Weaver acknowledges that provisional boundaries are always at play.  The task is to assume responsibility for shifts or opens that need to be made while not taking full control of the task, sealing off Christ’s surprising work inside and outside these boundaries.  This remains a critical and crucial task for the church.  It is here that States of Exile remains a little weak, as perhaps it must.  In a brief section on evaluating how Christ may come to us beyond the walls of the church Epp Weaver offers a couple of criteria.  The most problematic seems to be that we can discern this voice from our reading of the Bible.  There should be a ‘harmonization’ between Christ’s contemporary work and the Bible’s witness (105).  What is lacking is not so much an appeal to the role of Bible but the manner in which the Bible is presented.  It is difficult enough to account for a harmonization within the Bible never mind how the Bible can be harmonized with contemporary expressions.  Direct appeals to the Bible can quickly lend themselves to the sort of ‘control’ that this book attempts to evade.

States of Exile is an excellent addition to the Polyglossia series which is proving to carve out an important space between rigorous contemporary thought and the sometimes grinding daily life and call of the church.

As a postscript the editors of this series may want to become a little more vigilant against the overuse of terms like ‘rupture’ and ‘explode’ in subsequent volumes as such terms are starting to come off as a little formulaic as opposed to adding punch.

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