Sometime in every election cycle I feel a need to stop by with an old friend named Jeremiah for a reality check.
He has some experience with the challenges inherent in the complexities of religious faith and political life.
We had a good visit. He listened patiently to some of my frustrations with the level to which our current political theater has descended, especially some of the religious dynamics of it.
He reflected a bit on the situation of his day in the waning years of Judah.
Jeremiah had begun his 40-year career as a spokesman for the covenant faith early in the career of King Josiah, described by the historians as the best of the few “good” kings of the divided monarchy (2 Kings 23:25).
He was a “reformer” king – attempting to pull Judah back from generations of neglect of the core values of the covenant.
Jeremiah had supported Josiah’s efforts, and there had been limited success. But the injustice and idolatry that had reinforced the wealth and privilege of the few was deeply ingrained in Judah’s life.
Following Josiah’s early death, his successors abandoned his reform efforts and reverted to the previous pattern of trying to preserve at least an outer shell of their former “greatness.”
Jeremiah reminisced that his call was to speak the Word of the Lord to a people:
- Who had lost their moorings by abandoning their founding principles in favor of other values whose appeal had drawn them away from their primary identity as a people (see Jeremiah 5).
- Who had resisted persistent efforts to get them back on track and who had rejected the prophetic voices that could have helped them (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:13-21).
- Whose leaders had been more concerned with preserving their wealth and station than with applying the principles of the covenant (Jeremiah 23:1-4).
- Whose religion had become a superficial trapping rather than a defining core of their lives (Jeremiah 7-9).
- Who had ignored the poor, the widow and the orphan in their need (Jeremiah 2:33-34; 7:5-6).
- Who would soon reap what they had sown, as an invading force would be able to destroy the props (city, Temple, Davidic dynasty, national spirit) that had supported their lifestyle (Jeremiah 5:14-19).
He was particularly critical of the religious leaders of his day who attempted to put a sacred overlay on the injustice and idolatry that had become prevalent.
The alliances of religious influence and political power around the unholy trinity of power, prestige and privilege had learned how to appeal to the very victims of their exploitation to keep support for their perspective.
Jeremiah sounded as though he had been watching our news, but I think he was actually setting me up to see that such patterns are not limited to his time or to ours.
It was clear that he didn’t see any shortcut to a solution in Judah, and that any hope for finding a healthy future in a reconstituted past was an exercise in futility.
“So what can we expect,” I asked, “as a consequence of the situation we find ourselves in?”
“Well,” he replied, “there is a certain truth to the saying, ‘We reap what we sow,’ when we build and worship at altars to gods of power and privilege that are foreign to the God who created us in community. When we lose our commitment to the good in our pursuit of greatness, the mortar that holds our bricks together deteriorates; and the walls of our houses begin to crumble.”
He continued, “You probably won’t be able to escape the consequences of some of the choices that have brought you to this place – Judah had gone too far to avoid the losses of the Exile. In fact, you probably already see, just as we did, the dysfunction that results from that loss of a common vision and commitment to who you are as a people.”
Not a very pleasant picture, this reality check.
But, as I got up to leave, he said, “There’s one more thing – losing some things that have become unconscious substitutes and obstacles to faithful community can open the way to a rediscovery of what a faithful community is in the first place (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Maybe it will help to remember that.”
I think I’ll come back, maybe frequently, for more conversation on that last point.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.