Sermon preached at Salem Mennonite Congregation (Harrisonburg, VA)—September 16, 2001—Jeremiah 8:18–9:3
I feel lucky to be able to share with you folks this morning. It’s a challenge for me to try to think of words to share under such circumstances – but I have benefited greatly from trying. I have had to shift gears a bit from what I had planned to talk about this morning- reflections on my 25 years among Mennonites. Maybe I can do that later. I do want to say, though, that it is at times like this that I know for sure why I am a Mennonite – being a part of the EMU community, taking part in the discussions on MennoLink, gathering with Shalom friends the other night and sharing in our time together this morning; these are why I am a Mennonite.
Do Old Testament prophets still speak?
When I am under stress, my analytical faculties tend to go into overdrive. This has happened numerous times before, and it did again this past week. I try desperately to figure things out. I like being like this; but sometimes it is hard to quiet the gears in my mind enough to sleep. During one such stretch of time the other day, I began to think about the Old Testament prophets. What might they have to say to us here in North America?
So I began to think about the prophets and wondering how to work their thoughts into a sermon. Then, I had a conversation with Ruby the other day and she informed me of my sermon title and scriptural text. And they were perfect! They fit exactly with what I was thinking.
I believe the prophets –especially Jeremiah – are incredibly relevant for us today. Jeremiah’s contribution to our thinking and feeling and responding as people of faith to our current crisis lies in his powerful uniting of two themes. Only in uniting these two themes are we likely to be able to sustain a genuinely prophetic awareness in these times.
Jeremiah combined heart-rending grief over the suffering of his fellows with an unapologetic critique of his nation’s idolatry that had brought this suffering on. Grief and critique – one without the other is either superficial or callous, either subject to manipulation by power politics or subject to unfeeling self-righteousness.
Jeremiah certainly was not self-righteous. He indeed has harsh words for the people of his day – they have turned from God in their materialism and oppression of others, they have turned from God in their seeking security through political scheming, they have turned from God in their relying on a religiosity that masked injustice. However, Jeremiah’s critique stemmed from his love for his fellows. And when they suffer, Jeremiah does not gloat. Jeremiah weeps.
“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my people!” (9:1).
Jeremiah speaks to our grief
Jeremiah gives us words for our feelings of horror and sadness at the 5,000 violent deaths and the countless other lives that have been irrevocably up-turned this past week. If you have been listening to National Public Radio, you can’t help but be moved to tears over and over as you hear of the heartache, the tragedy. I’m sure other media have also connected us all with the great loss, the great tragedy. It was not difficult for Kathleen and I to imagine how we would have felt if her brother Paul had been delivering mail a few miles south of his mid-Manhattan route or if Paul’s wife Mary had been visiting the World Trade Center as she has several times in the past couple of years. Or think of the people on the ground who received desperate cell-phone calls from loved ones on the hijacked planes.
This grief is linked with the heart of God. And there can be no question that the acts that caused such suffering were pure evil. There can be no question that the devil was laughing in delight as the planes plowed into their targets.
And yet, I believe that the prophets would have us do more than grieve. I need to qualify my following comments strongly . The United States does not have, and never has had, a special role to play in God’s plan. The United States is, as always, simply one of the nations. So, we must be careful in drawing applications from the prophets. Jeremiah wasn’t speaking to just one of the nations. He was speaking to God’s elect people.
Yet, I believe that the basic values that God called ancient Israel to embody, with the threat of judgment should they not – those are the values all peoples of all times and places, and all nations of all times and places, are meant to follow. And when they don’t – when we don’t – we will face consequences.
Questioning the “American way of life”?
What is sadly and dramatically missing in the god-talk of people such as our president and most prominent evangelist is any sense that these acts of violence – evil as they certainly all – should challenge us to consider repenting of the “American way of life.” Jeremiah was very clear – the “way of life of his fellows” – the images, the foreign idols, the lies, the denial of justice and righteousness were at the root of their suffering.
Certainly we must tread carefully here. I think we need to remember, though, that the prophets understood the events of their day with some subtlety. They saw God’s finger in the very human (and very evil) acts of the Babylonians in attacking ancient Israel. They portrayed these events as having two levels of meaning – they were acts of bloodthirsty aggression by human beings sold out to evil, but they were also expressions of God’s judgment against God’s people and their institutions for the injustice and violence of those people. The prophets understood the occurrence of the evil acts of the Babylonians as time to look inward with a critical eye.
This is what scattered voices are challenging us to do today, as well. I have been enlightened in my classes by international students. One African student said he watched TV and felt a sense of internal division. He grieved for the loss of life and condemned those who committed the terrible acts. But, he said he couldn’t help but think of these acts as retaliation against symbols of American oppression, as violent people responding violently to the violence of the United States.
A British journalist, John Pilger, in an on-line commentary, mentions a few of these past acts of violence. On Sunday, September 9 – that’s right, just one week ago – American and British bombers killed eight people in bombing raids over civilian areas of Iraq. About 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the so-called Gulf War ten years ago (compared to, what, around 90 Americans?). At least 500,000 more Iraqis, half of them children, have died since then due to the embargo. How many Americans know that Osama bin Laden began his “terrorist” work in Afghanistan as a client of the CIA fighting the Russians and that his terrorist training camps were originally built with American money and backing?
Political scientist Chalmers Johnson wrote a prophetic book that came out last year called, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire. He details how time after time the United States has supported violence around the world in ways that have in time turned on us with unintended consequences.
Blowback. As one of my favorite rock singers, Lou Reed, wrote, “If you spit in the wind, it comes back at you twice as hard.”
Combining grief with critique
The prophetic vocation for people of faith during times such as ours requires combining grief with critique. Doing so requires that we be attentive to our biblical heritage. The prophets made it clear that God’s will about these things is not mysterious or ambiguous. God wants healing not brokenness. God wants people to live peaceably and justly, not vengefully. God is not an American. God is an internationalist. For people who believe that God’s will is always healing – these next several months and years could be challenging times. The prophets may give us guidance.
My seminary Old Testament teacher Millard Lind devoted his career to understanding and helping his students to understand the prophetic way. I received an email the other day from a friend of mine in Goshen who had done a dialogue sermon with Millard in his church just last Sunday on the prophet Isaiah. Millard is in his eighties now, but as my friend says, he still can get “wound up.” One of Millard’s points about prophets is that they challenged the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the power politics of their day. As a result, they were called naive and impractical and even irresponsible.
Are we willing to be naïve and impractical and even irresponsible? We may be facing a season such as pacifists faced sixty years ago the last time United States territory was “attacked,” at Pearl Harbor. They spoke out when they could, but to some degree they had to wait the war out.
But let’s think about the prophets. They spoke out when they could; they wrote what they could. And they were ignored. We probably don’t realize how irrelevant they were in their own time because the main records we have are their own writings, not transcripts from the CNN broadcasts of their day. But the words of the prophets were, if you will pardon the image, time bombs. That is, these were the words that enabled the community of faith to survive.
Working now for the sake of future generations
Maybe I am being over dramatic, but I have been thinking this week that it may be most hopeful and sustaining to think of our work being done for, say, two generations from now. That is, pacifists may not be listened to in our society right now. But we must not despair. We believe that we have words of enduring value (love your enemies; beat your swords into plowshares; let justice and peace embrace; there is no way to peace, peace is the way) – let’s still think them and speak them and write them – and have hope that they will not return void.
In her book, Powers of the Weak, Elizabeth Janeway writes that people without obvious power have two main strategies to follow, strategies that will empower us. The first is to disbelieve the story we get from the powers that be. Disbelief. Redemptive violence is a myth, a lie of the devil. We may choose for ourselves how to think of our so-called enemies. Our nature does not require taking an eye for an eye until all are blind.
The second strategy is to band together. Let us find communities that will sustain us. I can’t put into words how grateful I have been this past week to have the friends and family, colleagues and e-mail correspondents I have. I know I will not be alone. Let us join with other Christians, with Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and humanists, who share our conviction that justice and peace are what matters most, not nationality.
Sixty-two years ago this month Europe entered a long, dark tunnel of unprecedented violence. Recognizing what was ahead, W.H. Auden wrote one of his great poems, “September 1, 1939.” These are the final two stanzas:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
– – –
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages;
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.