On Being Exiled, Trains and Belonging

This is my sermon from this past Sunday:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:13–16)

The Snowpiercer

I saw a poignant illustration of what Ezekiel is talking about recently in the film Snowpiercer, which I might say is really all about the theme of exile. Front and center in the movie is this impulse of empire to preordain some to the front of the train and some to the back.

The movie takes place on a 20 car train that has been circling the Earth for 17 years after the entire Earth was frozen due to catastrophe related to global warming. The train is all that is left of humanity, the rich and poor together, in their fixed places, front and back, on an eternal train ride.

Everyone on train is exiled. Everyone on the train, “is someone cut off from a huge seedbed of human belonging, someone without base or root…” (J. Alison)

And if being exiled on a train isn’t bad enough, within the train there is an order that reflects Ezekiel’s condemnation of the powerful [ezek 34:2–6]:

“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the failings, but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick…but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

Those in the front live in luxury, attending school, relaxing in jacuzzis, eating sushi and steak, while those in the back live in absolute squalor. The poor are heavily guarded, are fed protein bars, which we learn are made up ground up cockroaches, and have their children periodically stolen and presumably taken to be put in service of those at the front of the train.

The main plot of the movie is about a man from the tail named Curtis who leads a revolt of a few from the tail who try and “fight their way to the front.”

The closer that Curtis and his crew get to the front, the more we see that there is an exile within exile. One of the starkest features of the film is the closer they get to the front the more opulent everything becomes. There is a dividing line between the front and the back that is “preordained” and is what keeps allows for the front to remain in its luxury.

Mason (Main Minister of the train): Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is. Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.

This is a perfect illustration of not just what Ezekiel is railing against in his community, but of they very assumptions that underwrite our very own society. (I also notice that it is a play on 1 Cor. 12)

Everything remains in proper balance so long as everyone knows their place and no one tries to move to the front.

Everything remains in proper balance so long as the underserving do not try and become the deserving.

The sacred engine, which is run by the conductor, shapes the nature of what it means to belong on this train. You do as he says, you remain where you are, and everything functions according to plan. Exile is inscribed into this system. Question that, challenge that, and all hell breaks loose. And as we learn in the film, to question “preordained particular position” is to jeopardize the stability of the entire train.

The Good, Rabble-Rousing Shepherd, who gathers rather than scatters.

Let me clear – this preordained system where some must remain in exile, some must be kept victims so that order can be sustained is one way that our churches, schools, cities, governments and nations can and do operate.

Society is always shaped by a sacred engine. Our communities are shaped by our theology of who God is and what God wants from us.
But they are not always the same sacred engine and they are not always headed in the same direction.

In Snowpiercer, we have an evil sacred engine that sustains itself off exile. In our nation something similar takes place when racism goes unquestioned, homophobia is legalized and protected by the law, violence is the necessary force to maintain the barriers between front of the train and the back of the train.

But Ezekiel, and the biblical tradition of which Jesus is a part, gives us an entirely different picture of the sacred engine and what it means to belong to a different kind of train.

For one, God harshly judges the train whose system of order is based on exiling the back from the front.

[Read 34:11–16]

Over against the kings, the shepherds of Israel is a different kind of “Sacred Engine.” God as the one true Good shepherd. And says to those in exile, “I seek for all of you lost in exile and I will gather you together. I will rescue you. I will feed you. I will help you.”

For the good shepherd, no one belongs in exile.

And for those of you familiar with the parable of the sheep in Goats in Matthew 25 something even more profound happens:

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

The parallels between Ezek. 34 and Matt 25 are important and not to be overlooked, and the if the point of Ezek. 34 is to show what it means to see God as the sacred engine, the good shepherd whose community he is building up is one that needs no victims, rejects the necessity of some needing to be exiles, and shapes belonging in ways where no one is excluded and everyone is cared for, then the point of Jesus’ parable in Matt 25 is that this good shepherd is actually found among the people in the tail of the train. He is one of the “least of these.” He is one who has been exiled, scapegoated, and one of the “undeserving” poor.

So I have wondered how Jesus might maneuver the train?

It’s unlikely, in my view that he would storm the front, creating the kind of bloodshed that takes place in the movie. But I believe he wouldn’t stand for the constant mistreatment of others. I believe that he would rebuke the privileged whose privilege comes at a cost and is based on the exiling of some, and I believe he himself would be found among those exiled.

I think that he would work to slowly win over the train person by person, not with the tools of violence but the tools of forgiveness and grace and mercy. And one step at a time he would work to spark a new imagination for what is possible when people aren’t suspicious of one another or trying to keep each others in their “preordained particular position.” When we no longer try to shame one another or find ways to think of ourselves in terms of inferiority or superiority.

Instead, Jesus would show that engineering an entirely different kind of a sacred engine would be possible. That belonging does need to require exiling. This is a train where the front is back and the back is front. It is one where the poor gain priority. Where the sick are cared for unquestionly, where love is extended because we know that it is love alone that powers this sacred engine.

I think Jesus would try and change their imagination about what is possible because he knows that you cannot change the system with the same thinking that created it. He would try to inspire people to not only picture but actually begin to live as though they were a part of this new train coming into creation. colony of heaven here on earth.

And his death would be the final sacrifice of love that reveals the brokenness of the old preordained order of the train, and makes possible the starting over for a new kind of community that is born out of a letting go of our desire to exile or even be exiled.

Where are we in this process? Are we protecting our seat on the train? Are we afraid to disrupt the order? Are we capable of new imaginations and seeing one another not through the lens’ of empire, but through the lens of Jesus’ sacrificial love? Are we willing to allow Jesus to slowly win us over to a new way of thinking? A new way of living with each other? A new way of belonging where everyone is considered, valued, and needed? Where we no longer have the need to dominate or shame, but instead recognize the very possibility that any one of these people might in fact be the Good Shepherd himself?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

One thought on “On Being Exiled, Trains and Belonging”

Comments are closed.