A civilization in denial and heading for disaster. That was the story 2,600 years ago, and that is our story today.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God judges a society by how it treats the poor, the elderly, the outcasts, and the land. This conveniently has been forgotten in America and in other wealthy nations. I gave a talk about this a couple of weeks ago, and want to use it to kick off this new blog. It relates to all seven of the categories I have created for this site: religion, spirituality, politics, culture, science, nature and justice. My topic was about the Prophet Jeremiah and the lessons we can learn from his failure to break through the denial of his times. Only when we face reality and weep will we find genuine hope again. Here is what I said:
Today I’m going to tell you about the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the most devastating period in Old Testament history. I’ll tell you about his calling, how he warned his people for years about a gathering storm of destruction. I’ll tell you how the leaders responded. We, too, are in a Jeremiah moment, only the gathering storm we face is far worse. I’ll say more later but will tell you now that there IS hope. It is the hope that Jeremiah spoke of. But this kind of hope, rooted in the covenant with God, may seem like despair to anyone who clings to our typical American lifestyles and perspectives. And the reason for THAT gets to the heart of our crisis.
Jeremiah was born about 650 years before Jesus, and lived in the small Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem its capital. To the north of Judah was Babylon, its eyes set on empire. To the south of Judah was Egypt, determined to keep its own. Jerusalem was a magnificent city with a glorious history, a vibrant economy, and of course its sacred temple built during King Solomon’s reign. But little Judah found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
This was the situation when Jeremiah, about 22 years old, heard God say to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born, I dedicated you; a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” Jeremiah tried to get out of it, saying he was too young and a terrible speaker, but God said, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you,” which of course is God’s most repeated command and most repeated promise in scripture. Then Jeremiah reported that God touched his lips and gave him his mission: “to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.”So take Jeremiah, around 22 years old, experiencing God in a powerful way. We don’t know how long he wondered about the meaning of that first experience before the second one came. Days, months, a year or two. In Scripture it comes in the next paragraph, but God comes when the time is ready. And this second time God told him that evil was going to pour over Judah out of the north. That meant Babylon. And God called Jeremiah to go to the palace and tell the political and religious leaders what was coming, and whatever else God was going to reveal to him. And God promised to make Jeremiah into a pillar of iron, a tower of strength, because, as God said, the political and religious leaders would refuse to listen to him and would fight him.
At this point Jeremiah had to be shaking, because he was a gentle, sensitive young man, and now he saw whatever he had imagined for himself in life slipping away. Instead, he was to go to the big city and, as Pope Francis would say, make a mess.
He did not want to do it, but the haunting voice of God drew him in, not only because of its deep love, but because Jeremiah, in his great empathy, sensed a terrible, inconsolable grief. And Jeremiah could hardly stand to feel the suffering of God. He HAD to say yes, HAD to go to Jerusalem and do as God said.
Over the next 40 years he would wish many times that he had said no. In his darkest hours he may well have wished God never had contacted him in the first place.
What Jeremiah saw during these prayer experiences were scenes of destruction, of fire and sword, Jerusalem reduced to rubble, the small towns of Judah abandoned and ruined and the countryside an ecological wasteland. In one terrible experience, Jeremiah heard a gasping cry of a pregnant woman in labor being murdered along with her unborn child.
God was showing him this because Judah had lost its way. The old stories of the Torah that reminded them of who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and how, and why, no longer seemed so real or important. And that meant the claims and promises in those stories were also forgotten. After all, hadn’t they built this fantastic temple to God, and weren’t their rich economy and strong civilization obvious signs of God’s favor? Weren’t they a beacon of light and freedom to the nations? A shining city on a hill? And hadn’t God promised that Jerusalem and its temple would NEVER be destroyed?
No. That isn’t what God saw at all. This was a society that had stopped trusting in God and forgotten God’s holiness and utter freedom. This society had put God into a little box of pious practices and dogmas, a God that just happened to support whatever the ruling religious and political leaders and civic elites wanted. Over time, that led to widespread idolatry—not simply worshiping other gods, but putting more value in money, power, status, popularity, political and economic systems and parties and ideologies than in living according to the covenant—the only way of life that is both just and truly fulfilling, for us and for God.
Yes, God felt, and feels, anger—righteous anger at the terrible injustices in these lands of the broken covenant—but far greater than the anger is God’s grief. And Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet, because more than anyone else he immersed himself in God’s grief, until God’s tears became his own tears. And Jeremiah described a God heartbroken to the point of dreaming about running away. “They refuse to know me,” God says. God feels like a stranger in the land, homeless, incapable of preventing disaster because the ruling religious and political leaders seek only conventional wisdom, deny the reality of their situation, and want only a small god who fits in their boxes and approves of their power and privilege and actions.
God weeps over the disaster to come, not only to the people but to all of creation. Jeremiah learned that God weeps over the birds and animals that will flee the region or be destroyed; God weeps over the ruined pastures; God weeps over the fate of the mountains and other wild places.
Jeremiah, experiencing God’s own grief over the coming storm of destruction, was overwhelmed. “My breast!” he shouted. “My breast! How I suffer!…My heart beats wildly, I cannot be still.” As the great scholar Abraham Heschel put it, “Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain….The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed. He screamed, he wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul.”Not only did he fail, but the people in power hated him, once laughing at him proved ineffective. He was rejected by several successive kings of Judah. Political leaders saw him as a traitor for insisting that Babylon was going to overrun them. They said he was so insistent, he must wish it to be so. The religious leaders pronounced him worthy of death, and indeed at one point he discovered a conspiracy to kill him. At various times he was beaten, jailed, thrown into a cistern, taken to Egypt against his will. And he was rejected by his family, friends and neighbors.
He took this for FORTY years. To be fair, Jeremiah was full of joy—meaning, he fully experienced the LIFE in and around him, and his greatest desire was to draw close to God, the source of all life and love. Sometimes he powerfully experienced that closeness. But that joy also meant full openness to tears and suffering, and it was more than hard. He hated his prophetic calling.
At one point he got so angry with God for drawing him in and then setting him up for such pain that he said, “You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced. You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.” Jeremiah felt raped by God! And he would say That’s it! I’m not doing this anymore for you! He said that multiple times, maybe many times. But then, as always, he would hear God’s haunting voice, he would feel God’s suffering, he would get these terrible images of the growing storm of destruction in his head, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t hold back the words he felt called to publicly say. “It is as if fire is burning in my heart,” he said, “imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot!”
Cultural denial can only be broken by grief. In the end, Jeremiah’s heart-breaking public grief was not enough to break through the strong denial of the times. In 587 BC the storm broke. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, tired of years of fickleness from the kings of Judah, sent his army to seize power. They leveled and pillaged Jerusalem; desecrated, looted and destroyed the temple; and sent the king and all the still-living political and religious leaders and several thousand leading citizens into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar freed the imprisoned Jeremiah and allowed him to go wherever he wished. Eventually, though, a band of conspirators forced Jeremiah into exile in Egypt where, according to tradition, he was murdered by his own people.
The fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC is the hinge of the Old Testament and a powerful metaphor for other times in which nations that imagine themselves close to God in fact practice what God sees as gross injustice steeped in idolatrous desire for materialistic lifestyles, power, and approval. The religious and political leaders denied the claims of Jeremiah because they had persuaded themselves for a long time that the throne of David would never be broken, that Jerusalem would never be taken over by foreigners, and that the temple would never be destroyed. They were certain that in their understanding of scripture God had promised that these things would NEVER happen. When it all DID happen, their entire worldview was shattered, and they were utterly lost.
Many were finally prepared to grieve not only over the death and destruction, but for their failure to recognize that they had abandoned living according to the covenant. But their long denial led many to great despair, and it is here that once again Jeremiah was so important, because he also was a prophet of tremendous hope. His calling, remember, wasn’t simply about those words “tear down” and “destroy,” but also “to build” and “to plant.” Despite all his suffering, Jeremiah was perhaps the most joyful, most free person in all of Judah. Most joyful because he was fully alive to ALL life with ALL its emotions, and most free because he had a strong relationship with the living God, who, unlike the God of rubrics and catechisms, is utterly, uncontrollably free, and deeply in love with all living things.
For Jeremiah, therefore, the loss and emptiness that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile would bring were not the final word. God has the power to bring life out of death and can be trusted to do so. And Jeremiah, amid his many warnings, also included beautiful words of hope, such as these from our first reading today:
“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”
There can’t be a new beginning, however, without an ending, and a great trap of wealthy civilizations and especially their leaders is denial when the world as they know it faces its end. It’s not so much that they can’t see the end coming as that they won’t see it, because deep down they know it means the beginning of something OTHER than the current system that has given so many of them so much privilege.
It’s not that they are bad people, but they don’t WANT something new. Their denial may be angry and strident at times, but when this denial is widespread the entire society grows numb, unable to find hope because hope requires facing reality and weeping at the suffering and all the losses that are part of endings. It is impossible to view a new beginning as anything other than a disaster, until one grieves over what was lost and is able to let go.
This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Weeping prepares the mind and heart to receive the God who makes all things new. But today our culture is like that of Jeremiah’s, afraid to face the gathering storm of our time, clinging to denial, and therefore without hope. As Pope Francis has said, “Humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”
There are far too many signs of what is coming than I can share this morning. I can only give a brief sketch. We face the collapse not only of the United States, but of industrial civilization, because of the combined effects of multiple issues that are all connected to one basic fact: We refuse to accept that we live on a finite planet. A relative handful of nations have built an industrial civilization of immense wealth, and they did it by burning through half a billion years’ worth of accumulated fossil sunlight in just a couple of centuries, and at the same time stripped the earth of large amounts of its other finite resources. The fossil fuels provided the cheap, powerful energy that allowed us to go on a binge of reckless resource extraction that is now bumping up against planetary limits as well as human toleration.
But there’s nothing that better illustrates the broken covenant of our time, that better illustrates our denial and our sinful recklessness, than our refusal to rapidly phase out use of fossil fuels in the face of overwhelming evidence confirmed by every national academy of science in the world, and also by our Pentagon, which has issued a number of reports over the last 15 years that have grown more urgent in their depiction of future shortages of food and fresh water, economic devastation in low-lying coastal regions of the U.S. and around the world, the largest human migrations the world has ever seen, and the resulting civil and economic upheavals and war. For each of these, and other calamities as well, the Pentagon calls climate change a “threat multiplier.”My first grandchild will turn my age—60—in the year 2074. By then the devastation will be well underway, although still picking up speed. Her generation and those that follow will look back at those of us alive today with disgust. Half of all the greenhouse gases that humanity has produced were added to the atmosphere since 1990. That was the year Pope John Paul II issued his first stern warning about what we were doing to Mother Earth. Even then, he said some of it might already be irreversible. He condemned corporations and governments for their callousness in pursuit of power and profit.
Pope Benedict XVI, seeing the situation worsen, spoke even more clearly: “Our earth speaks to us,” he said, “and we must listen if we want to survive.” He said the church MUST defend creation and protect humanity from self-destruction. But where are the American bishops? When have you seen them organize fortnights for the future of civilization? How often have they told Catholics that politicians who defend fossil fuels are ensuring death on a scale vastly larger than abortion? How many times have they spoken in fierce opposition to pipelines, to opening new areas to mining and drilling, with at least as much vehemence as they reserve for condoms? They will have much to answer for.
“Humanity needs to weep,” says Francis, “and this is the time to weep.” God is weeping right now, inconsolable over the suffering that is already underway, and inconsolable over the growing storm that will devastate humans as well as the rest of God’s creation.
We like to think of America as a Christian nation, but in reality, it is Babylon, the empire. We make up 4 percent of the world’s population but use more than 25 percent of the fossil fuel, and usually 30 percent or more of the other major nonrenewable resources. That’s a hallmark of empire. As Christians we should be seeing ourselves as strangers in the land, as exiles, like the people of Jeremiah’s time who were forced to live in Babylon, or those left in Judah living under the heel of Babylonian occupation. Somewhere along the way we forgot the life-giving nature of our stories and saved them for Sundays and other occasions and put our hearts and life energies into living the story of America. We were colonized, in other words, and so smoothly that we came to think that Americanism is perfectly compatible with Christianity.
But of course, it’s not. Each of us is affected—INfected—by the anti-Gospel culture that is the very air we breathe. Perhaps most pernicious of all is our extreme individualism. It is true that Jesus comes to us as individuals, and that there is a deeply personal core in our relationship with God. But if that personal encounter is genuine, the love and mercy and kindness of God will inevitably transform us to live not simply for ourselves, but for others. Jesus knows that we cannot find true fulfillment or joy as individuals. Like the Trinity, we are made for relationship. In the Old Testament, God made covenant with an entire people, not simply individuals, and the New Covenant of Jesus is also grounded in a reality that is the opposite of individualism. Everything is connected, as Pope Francis says.
Individualism, materialism, America First nationalism and all economic and political ideologies are idolatrous dead ends in themselves. A growing trend of wealth inequality; of expanding military spending and cutting taxes for the rich while also cutting programs for the poor, the sick and the elderly; of harshness toward foreigners and people of other religions and faiths; of building walls rather than bridges; and of growing environmental destruction are always signs in our scriptures of a society that has forgotten this. That society WILL change its ways: either by facing reality, grieving over the suffering, and opening up in empathy and hope for a new beginning; or, by continuing in denial and numbness until its own actions bring about the inevitable destruction that will force the ending that it refused to admit possible.Realistically, we needed to face reality and start changing thirty years ago to have a good chance of keeping the damage from climate change within limits our grandchildren would accept as tolerable. When I first brought climate change into my classes as a brand-new professor in 1988 I was optimistic. The science was already sound. I never thought in a million years that our politicians would not only deny the science, but attack the scientists, and that as more major scientific bodies and three successive popes all backed the science the attacks would only strengthen.
If I had studied Jeremiah back then, I would not have been shocked. He faced the same thing. Their version of the American Dream was so strong and certain in their minds, and so connected to their idea of God, and they were so invested in all the system had given them, that they could only face alternative facts, not real ones.
In those final years of Jerusalem and Judah, they knew that Babylon had already taken over the city once and installed a puppet king. Still, they believed—even the puppet king—that God would help them Make Jerusalem Great Again. They believed that right up until the murdering and burning and pillaging of 587 BC.
A civilization in denial is living in slavery to unhealthy and unjust ideologies and systems. It is a lifeless civilization of stale wine in old wine skins, trying to pretend it is new and trying to hold back anxiety by chanting slogans of success. Today that is no longer enough, and we have skyrocketing rates of depression, psychotropic drug use and alcoholism. Like Judah, we are a civilization that has lost hope. And as Jeremiah knew, that is because hope is possible only after people face reality and allow themselves to grieve all the losses.
Yes, when we face reality we also will experience anger. SO MUCH SUFFERING that didn’t have to be—a direct result of denial and sinful recklessness. This is righteous anger, and God feels it, too. But grieving allows us—and God!—to not stay stuck in anger, because it opens our hearts to relationship and to forgiveness.
Jeremiah experienced the terrible suffering of God, and he was heartbroken at what the gathering storm would do to his people—the same people who ridiculed and despised him. But that grief opened wide his great empathetic heart, and God, in God’s own grief, reached out and embraced him, and Jeremiah knew the hope that we are all invited and implored to rediscover in our time: That the destruction we are participating in is hideously awful, but denial eats away at us, and once we face the truth and open our hearts to Jesus, we realize that the shameful, terrible destruction to come is an ending of many things, but not of all things.Pray—pray hard! Ask Jesus to open your mind to the fullness of our reality, and your heart to the fullness of God’s own grief. If you desire this and keep doing this, you will be transformed. Jesus will reach out and embrace you and show you how your own calling is connected to this critical time for humanity and all creation. If enough of us are transformed soon enough, we may even lessen the strength of the gathering storm.
But even if it is too late for that, we will have discovered genuine hope. And it was the hope that Jeremiah spoke that was so crucial to his people after the storm broke and they were in exile for 70 years. It was a hope that they neither understood nor wanted until after they were immersed in grief, but after that they understood it and needed it, and it is because of his profound hope most of all that Jeremiah is still remembered 2,600 years later. “Humanity needs to weep,” says Francis, “and this is the time to weep.” And that will open us to genuine hope, rooted in covenant with the God who makes all things new.