The following is the second half of an invited presentation I gave at University UMC in Chapel Hill for “Table Talk; Pastor-Led Conversations for Youth and Adults.” I was invited to speak on Jeremiah by Mitzi Johnson, Pastor of Spiritual Formation, for the 2016 series “Scandal, Politics, Thrills, and Love in the Prophets.” I halved it for length; be sure to read Part I here.
Now that we know a little bit more about who Jeremiah is, let’s talk about his vocation and consider if what “the weeping prophet” wrote thousands of years ago is relevant for us today.
The prophetic vocation, it seems, is often one of agony, of soul piercing grief. Nothing makes this clearer than Jeremiah’s most neglected scriptural contribution; the book of Lamentations. Its five “chapters” are actually poems, each bubbling up from Jeremiah’s broken heart in response to witnessing the destruction of his beloved city; “My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief” he cries. The reason for Jeremiah’s grief must surely have to do with the love he had for his own idolatrous, unfaithful friends but also the realization that not even God’s own dwelling place was safe from divine wrath.
The city and its temple was leveled in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, an event which also marked the end of what Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel calls “the classical era in the history of prophecy.” (The Prophets, xxiii) This single event would have been the end of all hope for the people Israel, the final undoing of all that God had accomplished for them in rescuing them from bondage in Egypt, sustaining them in the Sinai wilderness, and bringing them finally into the promised land of abundance. On that fateful day 26 centuries ago, all meaning and purpose would have been utterly destroyed. The very universe shook as the walls of Solomon’s Temple tumbled to the ground. Contrary to Walter Brueggeman’s claim that all prophetic activity balances cynicism with hope, Lamentations concludes with unrestrained despair;
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lam 5:21-22)
I wondered why I was asked to speak on this particular day, on this particular prophet. After some thought, I realized Jeremiah is the first Major Prophet to be discussed at Table Talk and prophesy ends with him, so… this ends the series, have a great rest of your Sunday!
It may have been coincidence to have me speak the day before we remember our own nation’s birth. It may have been coincidence that the youth director’s partner is also a veteran of the war in Iraq, who has witnessed, no, carried out what Clausewitz calls “the continuation of policy by other means.” But I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in God, no matter how self-indicting that belief may be for me as one who dutifully eviscerated our enemies when I was called to embrace them.
For fourteen months I wandered the wilderness as an artilleryman attached to 1st-14th Infantry Regiment. I left for Iraq in January 2004 thinking I was a good person. But one night ten months later, my faith in myself was destroyed as everything I thought I knew about myself, about the moral universe, was up-ended.
His name was Daniel McConnell, and I learned later that he had two daughters back home in Duluth, Minnesota. I went to war thinking my death might mean something, that dying for my country was somehow inherently virtuous. Like British poet and WWI casualty Wilfred Owen, I believed “the old lie: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori,” that it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.(Owen, Dulce et decorum est, line 27-28) The words were penned by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, and were affixed to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery just two years after Owen exposed them as a fraud. One of the problems that Jeremiah sees as contributing to the destruction of his people is that their “prophets have seen false and deceptive visions… [they] have seen for [the people] oracles false and misleading.”
The popular and accepted oracles were of peace and prosperity; prophets and priests alike “treated the wound of [God’s] people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there [was] no peace.” (vv. 8.11 & 6.14) Preaching truthfully when a people is under judgment, according to the second poem of Lament by Jeremiah, has the purpose of “exposing iniquity [in order] to restore fortunes.” It is a message that is almost universally rejected, for he was threatened with death (Jer 11.21-23) and put in the stocks after being publicly beaten by a temple official. (Jer 20.1-2)
SPC McConnell’s death was anything but meaningful. In fact, through his death, God showed me how far from ‘good’ I had fallen. As I surveyed the gory scene of his slow demise, my mind wandered to innumerable others from the prior eleven months, and I wondered why I hadn’t wept over so many broken and bleeding brown bodies I encountered in eleven months of combat. In 2008, I compared that moment of realization to having discovered a membership card for the KKK in my wallet, upon which I could make out the clear outlines of my own signature.
Heschel insists “the prophets are scandalized,” (Prophets, 3) they are people “sleepless and grave” (11) who have been “shattered by some cataclysmic experience.” (14) Something in them has snapped, whether it is the soothing serpentine coils of consumer satisfaction or the insulated isolationism of bomb-dropping drones thousands of miles away. I no longer wonder why I was invited here to speak today, because I believe combat veterans have something to share with our nation, something they carry back with them from the sands of Abraham’s sons and daughters, a land watered with the tears of prophets like Jeremiah and the blood of patriots like Daniel. Veterans and prophets alike are sleepless and grave. The grave is where 20 people like me will find solace today; every 72 minutes a veteran will take their own life, crushed under the unbearable weight of a story our nation often refuses hear; a story born so long ago that an entire generation has simply inherited, without challenge, targeted extrajudicial strikes in lands they’ve never known; peace prizes to our history’s most lethal president; college education hung like a carrot at the end of a rifle’s long and undiscriminating scope.
Most, if not all, of the nearly 150 Christian veterans I have counseled in eight years, have lamented the fundamental break in the civilian populace from wars which have broken records for length, lethality, and expense. Against all reason, America continues to talk about anything but the true costs of war. Ignorance, to veterans I know, is measured in human lives, and not just red, white and blue ones. If they could change one thing, they tell me, it would be the willful ignorance of what they refer to as “the other 99%” because when less than one percent of Americans serve during the two longest wars in our nation’s history, nobody talks about it because, well, majority rules.
The prophets were also always minority reports, dispatched noisily and relentlessly from what seemed to many like the far, far away reaches of the moral galaxy. “Their breathless impatience with injustice,” Heschel reminds us, “strike us as hysteria.”
Jeremiah often performed what we might call “prophetic theater,” some of which is hard to explain. Confronting the false prophet Hannaniah, he placed a “yoke of straps and bars” over his shoulders to signify the Babylonian yoke that God would place upon the shoulders of the Israelites. They were to take the yoke willingly and serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, who was going to be God’s servant, rather than king Zedekiah of Judah. Hananiah one-upped Jeremiah by breaking the brittle wood on the ground, making him the laughingstock once more (even if the wood yoke was replaced by one of iron and God would smite Hananiah before the end of the year).
Can we imagine being told by some wack-job, wearing the burdensome mantle of livestock, telling America to serve another nation on national television? How dare the Lord shift divine favor to a nation that doesn’t even know God’s name. Wouldn’t we side with the “prophet” promising prosperity and peace who is able to handily undermine the loaded symbolism? Or what if the White House were to be levelled by foreign powers, and you were to watch? I know some Christians who might rejoice, feeling justified in their smug dismissal of every abstract noun American propaganda could throw at them. But if you love our country like I do, despite all the wretchedness and duplicity I have witnessed firsthand, what is there to do but weep?
Were we to have the audacity to ask Jeremiah why he weeps, sitting there on the rubble of his nation’s capital, he might glare back at us, returning the question to its rightful place; “Don’t you?”
Do YOU weep, for every black life that matters to everyone except those in uniform, those in power, and those with privilege? Do you weep, your eyes spent, your soul in tumult?
Do YOU weep, for every technicolor LGBTQ body laid low by hailstorms of hate because the living document securing our independence is being suffocated by special interests? Do you weep, your heart poured out in grief?
Do YOU weep, for every brown body felled by remotely-detonated bombs purchased with your sales tax? Do you weep at the idea that God may be utterly rejecting us, and is angry with us beyond measure?
Ignorance, by chance or by design, is one of those “oracles false and misleading” that keep from our country the healing power of “exposing iniquity.” It might seem like our country is back on the right track after eight years of falling astray following 9/11. I know it does at times for me, that the political party currently in the White House lacks a certain belligerence so prominently on display by the other. We might sympathize with Jeremiah’s predicament, of conviction in the face of what seems like progress, but, with other prophets before and since, he calls us out of ignorant bliss, out of a self-imposed moral myopia that misses the forest for the trees by cherry picking from otherwise challenging texts. Here is the continuation of that bacon grease-infused proof text with which I began our session; “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart”
Toward the end of his life, Abraham Heschel reflected on marching to Selma with Martin Luther King. He remarked that, in the struggle for civil rights and for an end to all war, he was “praying with [his] feet.” With each step, he felt one heartbeat closer to God. This was no small feat for a German Jew who narrowly escaped the furnaces of Auschwitz, whose entire family was consumed by the unholy fire of patriotism. He never returned to the land of his birth, but nobody knew him as anything but the most hospitable and happy man anyone ever met. I suspect it is not that he never wept, but that his emotional scale was wider than most, that his deep sense of right and wrong helped propel him through tears to faithful action.
If these two posts have felt a bit all over the emotional map, then I have succeeded in sharing with you a bit of myself. Riding war’s wake, I often stir up people who (and ideas which) otherwise may wish to remain still. In the last interview before his death, Heschel wanted to remind people that words have incredible power, power to either create or destroy. In the aftermath of 9/11, our president stood on the rubble of 3,000 lives and marched us into at least one unlawful war. “We will never forget,” our nation cried out. “United we stand,” the world responded. Did you know that, 240 years ago, the first complaint against King George III in our declaration was that he “refused to assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
Which words and lives matter to us, and which do we forget?
In the sands of Iraq, I learned that some stuff matters and other stuff doesn’t. When I came home, I would often be told to calm down, let things go, and move on. Who was Daniel McConnell to me? Who did those Iraqis that I displaced, disenfranchised, or destroyed think they were? Those questions came back to haunt me, and I thank God that they did.
Done well, prayer will break your hardened heart, one slow step at a time. When it does, give thanks to God, because lukewarm indifference is more dangerous than cold hatred. If people tell you that you feel too much, then you have taken one pace closer to the God who takes all suffering upon themselves. Heschel leave us with the most pressing question Jeremiah holds before us;