As I am using the term, a metaphor is a characterization of something that may not be strictly accurate or literally true, but that has an important element of truth to it. A metaphor may get us to look at something in a way that we hadn‘t before, and make us think about it in a context that is new. Metaphors are not evaluated by their truth or falsity, but they are better evaluated pragmatically by the degree to which, or the ways in which, they help us to think more insightfully about a thing or situation.

The most interesting metaphor in the political/social/cultural/economic realm that has been offered up recently is Tom Friedman‘s claim that “The World is Flat”. Up until some 500 years ago many people took that statement to express a literal truth. Now, though very few would take it to express a literal truth, Friedman thinks we should appreciate an important sense in which it expresses a metaphorical truth: In our post–11/9 world, it is as if the world were flat, considering how easy it is to communicate and conduct business globally. (Friedman latches onto 11/9 because that is the day the Berlin Wall fell.)

I mention Friedman only to remind us of the power of a metaphor. Even if we don‘t agree with Friedman, his metaphor has framed a discussion in useful ways, and, at least for a while, the discussion is improved by the perspective he has offered. It may be that eventually the metaphor will have worn out its welcome, and it will become more useful to frame the discussion in other ways.

I wish to offer another metaphor – primarily in the political and military realm: In our post–9/11 world, the United States is in exile. I offer this metaphor in a tentative fashion, because I‘m unsure on the whole how helpful it is to think about our situation. In a world of refugees, evacuees, and persons displaced by forces beyond their control, it may seem surprising to view the United States itself as a nation in exile. But I do believe the metaphor frames certain issues, and gets us to ask certain interesting questions. If so, that will be its value. Is “exile” a useful metaphor for understanding the situation of the United States since 9/11?

History of the concept of Exile

People have doubtless been exiled for as long as there have been communities. In the Hebrew Bible we are rapidly introduced to Adam and Eve being cast out from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 23–24), Cain being sent away for killing Abel (4:14–16), and Hagar and Ishmael being turned out by Abraham for being a threat to Sarah and Isaac (21:10–21).

The concept of exile itself (Hebrew: gôlâh , galût) takes shape with the Judean exile to Babylon in the period of 597 to 538 BCE. This pivotal event in Jewish history (or at least in Jewish story–telling) is mentioned in and inferred from the Hebrew Bible without ever fully being described (unlike the Exodus–another good metaphor–which is equally pivotal, but better known because fully described). The Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem in 597 and exiled the cream of the southern Kingdom of Judah, installing Zedekiah as ruler over those who remained (2 Kings 24: 8–20). (It is striking to note that Babylon was located only about 50 miles south of what is now Baghdad.) When Zedekiah proved disloyal, the Babylonians returned in 587 and sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and deporting to Babylon many of those who had been left previously (2 Kings 25: 1–12). (It is hard to avoid comparing destruction of the Temple with destruction of the Twin Towers–“temple” of global capitalism.) Thus the main Judean community lived in exile in Babylon. When the Persians, under Cyrus, defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus allowed the Judeans (who by then simply constituted the Jews) to return to Jerusalem in 538 (2 Chronicles 36: 22–23). Many did, though not all.

While these are the external facts, the Judeans themselves (at least the ones who wrote the relevant portions of the Hebrew Bible) interpreted the exile as a punishment from Yahweh, saw their time in exile as a test of their faithfulness and as a preparation, and saw their restoration as promised and delivered by Yahweh.

Application of the Metaphor

Has the U. S. now been exiled – from its place or sense of security and power in the world? To say that it has is to suggest that some significant change has taken place. So it was with the Judeans, whose lives were significantly changed by the Babylonian conquest. The topic of this conference – Power in a Post–9/11 World – suggests some such radical discontinuity.

But we could argue about whether 9/11 was so significant for power and the U. S. situation. Perhaps it was not. After all, our GNP, or chances of violent death (at least relative to the rest of the world), are not changed much, if at all.

Yet even if our life circumstances are not statistically changed much, we no longer live with a sense of security: We feel vulnerable. One might argue that what has changed is not so much the circumstances, but the label placed on those circumstances. As when the U. S. considers itself “at war”–even when no war has been “declared”. Different things are then considered possible, or justified—such as wire–tapping, or torture. In this sense, perhaps the “war on terror” is itself a metaphor. Perhaps these feelings of insecurity have been cultivated in us to create a sense of exile, and hence a sense of emergency, without a legitimate basis.

I have ambiguously mentioned an exile from the U. S. place or sense of control. These are really two very different things. Our position of control, while never significantly threatened by the U. S. S. R., might have more significantly been threatened by those events which showed that we do not only need to defend ourselves against other nations, which we can do quite well, but also against individuals – which turns out to be much harder to do. Earlier precursors to terrorist attacks include guerilla warfare and kamikaze attacks. These were, in a sense, the beginning of the end of real control of our own security. Perhaps what 9/11 did was to clearly exile us from our sense of control (a control that had in fact been lost earlier).

The concept of exile raises the question whether it is some sort of punishment. One can be a voluntary exile as an escape from some unpleasant or intolerable situation. Escapees from repressive regimes are usually seen as exiles. While the line between voluntary and involuntary may be hard to draw in some cases, generally involuntary exiles are the subject of some outside force, exercised as a punishment. Certainly the U. S. was involuntarily exiled from its position of power and security. Was 9/11 punishment from God for unfaithfulness to a certain conception of the moral and religious life, as some conservative religious people believed? Was 9/11 the predictable outcome of an arrogant and even hubristic attitude on the part of the U. S. to the rest of the world, as some liberals proposed? In either case, the U. S. would in some sense have gotten its just deserts. Notice that the fact of 9/11 and its consequences for the U. S. does not have moral complexion in and of itself. But we can choose to see it as having some such complexion. We can frame it by a metaphor which forces us to wonder whether it has such complexion.

What now? What does a community in exile do? The Judeans cultivated an exaggerated sense of nationalism, as a form of self–protection, to avoid the fate of the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites who, in an earlier exile (c. 733 BCE), assimilated and eventually dispersed. In particular the Judeans sought to avoid contamination from the surrounding culture. Has the U. S. sought to consolidate itself as a cradle of freedom, nurturing what is most worth preserving? Or has the U. S. begun a process of assimilation through adopting tools for protection – torture, surveillance, the Patriot Act – that will ultimately threaten our community itself from within?

Insofar as the Judeans saw their exile as a temporary state, they saw it too as a time of preparation for what was to come. To switch to a contemporary metaphor—they saw it as a “time out”. Before a time–out is over, it is often appropriate to ask what one has “learned”. The Judeans learned new ways to worship Yahweh in the absence of the Temple, and they learned a renewed sense of dependence on Yahweh. If the U. S. is in exile, it is appropriate to ask what the U. S. is learning from this experience. For many the lesson has been never again to let down our guard. (That would be rather like the recalcitrant child in time–out “learning” never again to get caught!) What other lessons might we learn?

What should a community in exile hope for? The Judeans hoped only for eventual restoration to their previous position as the chosen people of Yahweh. This was largely what their prophets foretold, though it took some 60 years. Is this an appropriate goal for the US? It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which U. S. foreign policy seems to be aimed simply at a complete restoration of the pre–9/11 U. S. position in the world. But is it possible? And would it be good?

If restoration is the goal of U. S. power in the world after 9/11, what is the proper attitude of and towards others who have been displaced? For example, should New Orleans evacuees be returned to a restored neighborhood in the 9th Ward? Or are some restorations unfeasible? If no feasible levees can make parts of New Orleans safe for habitation, perhaps no exertions of power can make the U. S. safe from terrorist attacks and petroleum blackmail. Perhaps we must find other ways of living in the world, rather than controlling the world and, where necessary, insulating ourselves from that world. Perhaps there are forces that are simply beyond our power to dictate and control, and the lessons from Katrina should be applied more generally.

Are there alternative goals for a community in exile–other than complete restoration or assimilation? Jeremiah (29:7) conveyed to the Judeans the surprising message from Yahweh that the exiles should “work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you...since on its welfare yours depends.” The implications of this advice are profound.

Lacking prophets in our own time, and so not knowing whether restoration of U. S. power and security is a certainty, perhaps the U. S. must learn to live in exile, in the same boat as others (to switch metaphors again), with other goals that work to build up the place to which we have been exiled—for on its welfare ours depends. What would it mean to “work for the good of” the world as it is now? Clearly this would mean finding ways to live in the world without being fully in control, learning to live with vulnerability, and hence learning what it is like to be vulnerable—as so many others in the world are. Perhaps these are the lessons to be learned in exile – in our world after 9/11.