Friday, May 27, 2011

Earthy discipleship and peacebuilding in Jeremiah

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
Photo by snowmentality (via Flickr)
Today ended a three-week intensive class at seminary, studying the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. It's great to have those classes where the primary textbook is the Bible, which doesn't happen as often as some might think at a seminary. For one of my papers, I chose the topic of "to pluck up and to pull down, to build and to plant," which is a theme that is established in the very first chapter and runs throughout Jeremiah, giving it somewhat of an organizing principle.

In the paper, I do a literary and narrative-theological analysis of that theme with special attention paid to historical and sociopolitical events that drive the narrative forward in Jeremiah. In an academic paper, you have to do all the hard and boring work first before you get to say the interesting and relevant stuff at the end. Since this is a blog, I'll skip most of the boring stuff and say up front why I think this theme and Jeremiah in general is an excellent source of inspiration for faithful Christian peacebuilding. If you really want to see the academic treatment, the paper will be embedded at the end. If you read both, you will see me repeating myself, because I'm lifting material from the paper for the post...

"To build and to plant"
The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the final years of Israel's four-century experiment with monarchy, ending in 587 BCE when the king of Babylon overthrew the Jerusalem and carried many off to exile, joining a community that had already been there for 11 years. Before Greece and before Rome in Jesus' time, Babylon was the major world power in the ancient Near East of this era, and the southern kingdom of Judah was caught in the currents of geopolitics and power grabs, but also caught in a cycle of rebellion to their Lord and idolatrous worship practices. (The northern kingdom, Israel/Samaria, had already been swept away by the previous empire, Assyria, over two-hundred years before this the events in Jeremiah.)

The weight of God's message to Judah, spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, was that of judgment. In the thematic statement which I studied, these would be represented by "plucking up" (uprooting), "tearing down," destruction, and overthrow language. But God also made sure to communicate through Jeremiah that all this destruction for unfaithfulness wasn't for its own sake. There was also the hopeful promise of redemption that quietly creeps into Jeremiah's oracles from the Lord at times. These are symbolized by the positive metaphors in the theme: "to build and to plant."

What one of my sources helped me see is that these are nice, down-to-earth metaphors; one architectural, the other horticultural. And rather than keep these metaphors abstract, my author insists that the book of Jeremiah itself, indeed found in a word from the Lord, insists that this must not be so. God knew that shalom, holistic well-being or "peace," follows from faithful discipleship in the here-and-now (though the world will not often react peacefully to this). For instance, in ch. 29, Jeremiah - located in Jerusalem - writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon. The word of the Lord for these exiles is surprising:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (shalom/peace) of the city where I have sent you into exile (Babylon), and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (29:5-7, NRSV)
Community peacebuilding as faithful, missional witness
From my study of this theme in Jeremiah, it seems clearer to me more than ever that Christians today must not interiorize/individualize and cast out into some far-off abstract future the notion of either judgment or salvation. Western Christians have a propensity to do just that, to our peril, and unfortunately we've exported that incomplete picture of the Christian faith all around the world. Such a move waters down our discipleship and faithfulness in the work-a-day life of a Christian. If we ignore present judgment, we resist correction and become brazen and arrogant as Judah was. If we ignore present salvation, we resist being realistic about serving our neighbors and loving our enemies, and “peace” becomes a cute word or symbol you can print on t-shirts to sell while cries of injustice fall on deaf Christian ears, just as they fell on deaf Judean kings' ears. This must not be so, and the word of the Lord through Jeremiah and its theopolitical read of history shows us this in vivid narrative-theological detail.

One of my sources in the paper, Wittenberg, takes this theme of building and planting and relates it to post-Apartheid South Africa. His interlocutors in Old Testament biblical studies go the all-too-common route of Western Christianity and cast these earthy metaphors into an abstract eschatological future (see last week's rapture episode), and he's resisting that move for good reason. Though Apartheid ended in 1994 and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in the late 90s, a nation cannot heal in a few short years. When assessing the problem of “informal settlements around our cities,” Wittenberg observed a fundamental, present-day disconnect between what the Lord's prophetic metaphors hold together: building and planting, saying that "(i)n all projects dealing with the essential need for housing the close link between building and planting, which was an essential element of the future hope of the exilic community, is seldom considered."

Wittenberg then goes on to describe a community building project that started out as a Bible study group for women that also offered organic gardening classes, but took off from there to address the more systemic problems that were creating the conditions for the poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse that were rife in the community they were serving in South Africa. I have similar dreams for congregation-centered community peacebuilding initiatives that flow theologically from engagement with Scripture such as we find in Jeremiah, especially ch. 29. For a Christian, this is no far-off dream to savor in the imagination while your neighbor starves and is crushed by a system fundamentally geared toward something other than God's glory. Jeremiah's theme of of building and planting, plucking up and pulling down, is a call to repentance and faithfulness in earthy, concrete ways that build up the body of Christ and actively seek the peace of the cities (or countrysides) to which we've been sent as disciples. Seeds planted in faithfulness are nourished by that “spring of living water” (2:13), the Lord of life abundant. May we have ears to hear and eyes to see such discipleship enacted.

The paper...
Earthy Disicpleship and Peacebuilding in Jeremiah

No comments:

Post a Comment