By the Rivers of Babylon (Dennis Aubrey)

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Psalm 137:1-4 (King James Version)

When I lived in Los Angeles from 1972 to 2000, the city was filled with men and women who lived and died on the streets. It seemed an inevitable part of urban life, where displaced humanity would collect in the hidden corners of our cities. Facilities for the mentally ill had closed, prices for homes had accelerated and more people lost their ability to own or even rent. I knew what was happening in the rust belt cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo and so many other centers of the American manufacturing industries. I knew that businesses were closing and workers and their families were left bereft, often without the pensions to which they had contributed for years. In Los Angeles, the mad dash for riches and fame demonstrated a disdain for those who were not part of the race. With two of my great friends of those times, I built a theater in the skid row district of downtown Los Angeles and the homeless were a part of life there. The images of the homeless on the streets, burning fires in barrels to keep warm, huddled in sleeping bags on the sidewalks in the shelter of downtown buildings, haunted me for years. But, like everything that has happened in my life, they receded into the eddies of my wake and eventually into the dark recesses of memory.

Lately, however, those images have been coming back to me. I thought that maybe it was because of my recent brush with mortality, maybe it was because I have been thinking more about my past, but now I realize it is because of the country in which I live at this moment.

Abbaye de Bénédictins Saint-Pierre, Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The politics of our times has taken a toll on me and probably every other living American. The deep divisions in our society polarize both friends and enemies and the camps are irreconcilable. I don’t know if there is any way for this to change. It doesn’t matter on which side of the aisle you stand. What is undeniable is that we live in an American society where our infrastructure is crumbling. Bridges, roads, buildings and public transportation, all are in need of repair and maintenance. Nightly, over 600,000 people sleep in shelters. How many more sleep in alleys or cars, under bridges, or in parks? Almost fifty million Americans live in households where sufficient food is a problem. That includes sixteen million children. We are living in an America in a state of decay.

The immense wealth of America is used to wage wars that are not wars. We create enemies and give them immense power. We arm our friends and our foes. War is one of the largest segments of our economy, and the only one that creates its own demand. We give power to the unworthy. The unworthy reward us by working for their own interests and not ours. We are living in an America that has lost its way.

This is not the America I envisioned growing up. This is not representative of the American Dream of which we were so proud. This is not the America that the rest of the world once admired and emulated. This is no longer my home but a strange and foreign land.

Église Notre-Dame du Pré, Donzy-le-Pré (Nièvre) Photo by PJ McKey

The other morning I awoke with the reggae classic “By the Rivers of Babylon” going through my head. All day long it persisted and then I realized that like the Israelites in Babylon, we too are prisoners. We are held captive by passing years, decay, corruption and accumulating despair of America. As the despair grows, it changes the world around us until it is a foreign place. We are in Babylon, captives.

How then can we sing those songs of our youth, our songs of Zion?

As always, there is a story that goes with this post. It is rare that I am introduced to Bible verses in songs, but the Psalm cited at the top of this post is an exception. Years ago, I worked with a voice talent in Los Angeles named Roger Steffens. Roger was also host of a famous radio show called “Reggae Beat” on KCRW. In those years I knew almost nothing about reggae or its religious underpinnings but in the three or four times I worked with Roger, he always talked to me about the music and where it came from. I knew Bob Marley from “Redemption Song” but little else. In fact I only heard about “Redemption Song” because of the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover on the album “Somewhere in Africa”. Roger was aghast at my ignorance and intoned that “Reggae is more than Bob Marley.”

One of the songs he introduced me to was “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians, recorded in 1970 that opened my eyes to the Rastafarian world and to one of the most moving verses of the Bible for me.

20 thoughts on “By the Rivers of Babylon (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thank you, Dennis. I’d say you took the words right out of my mouth, but I can’t. They came from you. I’m so blessed by your friendship. This text has had deep meaning for many years. William Stringfellow (East Harlem street lawyer, the Berrigan Brothers’ and Bishop Pike’s lawyer, lay theologian and author) focused on Psalm 137 and its companion in the Book of Revelation in much the same way you do here. Most obvious is “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land”. It was after three days with Bill quickly followed by reading James Cone’s “The Spirituals and the Blues” that Psalm 137 became the text for a sermon at Gunnison Memorial Chapel (Saint Lawrence University) later published by The Christian Century as “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom.”

    Thinking back on that time leads me to recognize how much the sharp edge of the gospel has dulled over the years. Thank you for helping to bring it back. “The Fall,” wrote Stringfellow, is where the nation is. The Fall is the locus of America.”

    1. Gordon, I love this portion of the verse, although what follows, the malediction, is pretty extreme. But the expression of loss and song is heartbreaking.

  2. Your photography has been a true pleasure to me, a beautiful remembrance of the past upon which we are built, and a celebration of the good. Thank you. I, too see the decline. I saw it in the 1980s when all seemed well. People used to tease me about being “Mr. Worst-Case Scenario.” One of my buddies whom I worked with for 20 years said, “Ken, some people’s glass is half full. Some people’s glass is half empty. You have no glass.” Of all the things that face us, I believe the methamphetamine problem to be the very worst. You cannot even help them. They are so demonized by their bondage and damage to their mind and nerves, that they can never be trusted, and they don’t want to turn around. I believe in God, and in miracles, although from all appearances and experience, I don’t seem to have the gift to heal people–if I did, I wish I could heal some of them. My fear is not only for our country writ large, but I have eight kids and four grandkids–what happens to them?! God is good, and although we see through the glass darkly, some day, I hope to gain enough of God’s perspective to understand the reason it all had to be this way. In the meantime, I try to celebrate the good and, with Job, keep a humble attitude toward God whenever things aren’t good. I look forward to the day when we are no longer exiles.

    1. Ken, so nice to hear from you and to be able to attach a name – if you wouldn’t mind, could you sign your Anonymous comments Ken so that I know it is you. It helps me to relate to you and your comments.

      I am usually the most “Glass half-full” person around, but every once in awhile, I just can’t help myself. I have found many of my friends, both conservative and liberal, demonizing each other continuously. People who would get along in real life demonize each other on the internet. And there is no way to talk to the people on either side. This depresses me utterly. So with you, I will try to celebrate the good and keep a humble attitude.

  3. There is always more to learn, know, understand.

    The ‘state’ of the USA, as everywhere, is a momentary state in the endless flux of changes. None of it is planned – what is planned is soon overtaken by unforeseeable events. We lurch from this to that continually, like people half awake.
    I have noticed patterns, however fleeting.
    There is constant talk of ’40 years of hurt’. I have noticed since I began to notice things around me, that every 10 years, almost to the dot, there has been an economic collapse. The system is patched up, band-aided, and set on its creaking way again. Some times it stumbles, but mostly it lasts about 8-10 years before it goes again.
    Of course, it’s the vulnerable ie 99% of us, who take the fall .
    How long has this been going on, I wonder?

    1. We do live in a patched up world right now. The problem that I have noticed over the years is that with every stumble, it is the 99% who take the hit. The cynical part of me says that those who profit are the ones who encourage this cycle. Certainly they don’t seem to get punished for any actions that they take that result in these collapses.

  4. Interesting contour in your photo of the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter formed by the blue sky under the arch. It’s shaped as a keystone, perhaps even a heavenly keystone that helps bear the weight of the world. Genesis (11 : 1-9 tells the story of the Babylonians attempting to build a tower tall enough to touch the sky, and so heaven.

    1. I love the reference to the Babylonians attempting to build that tower to touch the sky. The Babel story is one of my favorites from the Bible for so many reasons – aspiration, hubris, conceit and vanity all mixed together. I used to think that the cathedrals in Europe suffered from that but after years of research and photographing, am not so sure. There were mathematical models that the builders were using that had theological importance to them. I now wonder if that was the case in Babylon as well.

  5. The different opinions are also expressed all the way over here – I have a friend who was anti-Trump and who has now become pro because of the US unemployment rate falling to its lowest in 50 years. I didn’t know what to say when she praised him long and passionately, contradicting her earlier opinions. So I changed the subject.
    There’s a lot of ugliness out there but also a lot of beauty, and you’ve photographed some of it and shown us. Keep on keeping on, Dennis.

    1. Trish, such a delight to hear from you again. Am well enough now to keep on keepin’ on … in fact I think for the first time in years I’m ahead of the curve.

  6. Dear Dennis, I have taken the liberty to reblog this as I truly think it reflects the “state”of the US; there are many thoughts here I share. I also like the song River of Babyleon and of course the Pslam. Best regards, Michael

    1. Michael, pleased and delighted to hear that you have reblogged this, especially because of your normal position on such things. You are, of course, always a welcome addition to our Via Lucis world.

  7. Dennis,

    Danke für Deine nachdenklichen Zeilen!

    Es ist aber spiegelgleich für Deutschland → Viel Armut, Obdachlosigkeit und Menschen, bei welchen die Rente nicht zum Leben reicht. Wogegen Menschen aus anderen Kontinenten hier wie im Paradies leben.

    Du sprichst mir aus der Seele. Es sind aber Deine Worte, wie vorher schon vermerkt wurde!

  8. Thanks for this. I have been working with homeless people for 35 years, and am the founder of the Ali Forney Center in NYC, the world’s largest organization that provides housing for homeless LGBT youth. I often reflect how every living being is a temple of God’s love, and how when we leave people to suffer in destitution in the streets we are desecrating those temples. Your photos of ruined churches speak volumes in this regard.

  9. Thank you for this, Dennis, which speaks so well for so many of us, on the eastern coasts of the Atlantic as well as the western. With all the strange and bitter fruit ripening in time for the current European parliamentary elections, it has certainly become a strange land.

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