By Greg Jarrell
The author, who leads an intentional Christian community in Charlotte, N.C., attended the recent annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to wholistic restoration for communities spiritually, emotionally, physically, economically and socially. This is the first of several reflections by him on the event.
Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping prophet.” During his ministry, Jerusalem lived through its most pressing crisis. Jeremiah was there to cry out the agony of the people, and to cry out the agony of their God who so desperately wanted them back.
Jeremiah took their pain and embodied it through prophetic acts. He saw their despair and prophesied hope, but it was never an easy hope. God’s way of provision was not really what God’s people thought they wanted — they desired a quick return out of Babylon. Instead, the way to their flourishing was through their suffering. Hope can come no other way.
Jeremiah’s famous letter to the exiles is a clear example of this way of hope through suffering. The letter takes up most of chapter 29. It contains some well-known passages about prosperity, the kind of stuff that TV preachers decontextualize and turn into half-truths. “Jesus wants you to prosper,” they say, but their imaginations are dulled by McMansions and Rolexes. Jeremiah has a different type of “best life now” in mind. The Shalom of Exile won’t be the “peace” of Babylon. God is far more creative than that.
When Jeremiah writes the letter on behalf of God, he is writing to some very specific people. If you start in the first verse of the chapter, you’ll have to struggle through some of their names before you get to the exciting part about prospering. But don’t rush through those names to get to the good stuff. The names and addresses on the letter are as important as the content itself. The recipients include President Jeconiah, and Queen Mother, and Mrs. Potter and Mr. Smith. They have setup temporary residence by the rivers of Babylon, weeping. They have former addresses that they long to return to. They need a Weeping Prophet to name the pain of their exile before flourishes of hope will be anything other than just wishful thinking, a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
A true prophet cannot proclaim a new peace without first naming the current pain. For Jeremiah, that meant diving into all of the complexities of the Babylonian Captivity. It included deep lament and persistent calls for repentance. It meant embodying the pain of his people, as well as announcing the condition that led to their suffering.
In 21st-century America, we have different, though not dissimilar, pain that has to be named. We know it is always there, but lately it seems to be bubbling over. Though the many want to deny it, playing the part of modern-day Hananiah from Jeremiah 28, race still divides us deeply. Ferguson has made this plain as day. Ignoring the deep wounds of the racial divide in every facet of American life will never expose the infection to light and air.
We see the pain of thousands upon thousands of children fleeing violence in Latin America, only to be stored in warehouses at the Texas border. We see the pain of violence in our cities taking the lives of our children. We see that same violent impulse given terrifying form in an endless War on Terror against an ever-morphing set of enemies. We see the pain of a populace driven to arms dealers by fear of neighbor and to shopping malls by fear of scarcity in the richest land in the world. The world quakes for Good News but settles for cheap stuff.
In the midst of such overwhelming grief, naming the pain is the first prophetic task. Addressing it, giving it context, making it personal, sitting in sackcloth on ash heaps with the suffering and despised: this is the prophetic vocation. One day the prophet may preach a fiery sermon or offer a word of hope. First she weeps.
This is a courageous task. The wages of the prophetic vocation are clear: “O Jerusalem, city that stones the prophets …,” Jesus cries. The prophet is not welcome in his hometown. Naming the suffering of the people will challenge the order of empire. There will be blood. Far easier it is to join the Roman circus and stay willfully distracted than to describe the reality of the broken world. Those with the most to gain from the freedom of the uncaged prophetic word will often be the ones on the front lines of upholding the power systems that keep injustice in place.
Rightly lamenting the state of our neighborhoods and our world is the first step towards flourishing. It will be a costly step. During his sermon at the Christian Community Development Association’s national conference in Raleigh, Leroy Barber asked, “You think you’ll get justice and it won’t cost anything?” It will cost deeply. First and foremost, it will cost us our illusions of ourselves. Beyond that, there will be sleepless nights. There will be much weeping. There may be jails and hunger and uprooting ourselves in order to be closer to those who suffer. The pain of those who are most vulnerable to the principalities and powers will begin to hurt us as well.
Jeremiah knew all of those things. So did Jesus. Our lives will be shaken to their foundations.
Laments and weeping like Jeremiah’s are powerful acts of trust. Not only do they name the reality of the world, but they also assert a deep faith that God can and will act. Our suffering world is crying out for deep change. Both the practice of lament and the faith that God will listen are necessary for the exercise of our prophetic role in the world.