A Truth-Teller for Dangerous Times

Walter Brueggemann

We are learning—so slowly—from postcolonial readers that imperialistic ideological power imposes itself on our reading of reality and our reading of texts. Such domineering imposition skews our reading, and therefore our living. It imposes silence on all impulses that fall outside its domain.

It precludes hope for anything beyond its control. It reduces to sadness all those silenced and flattened by loss of hope.

Such a hegemonic imposition was intense in ancient Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE when Jeremiah appeared. The preferred explanatory narrative of Jerusalem elites was rooted in an unconditional divine promise to the Davidic house (2 Sam. 7:12-16) and in an unconditional promise of divine presence in the Solomonic temple (1 Kgs. 8:12-13). It was substantiated in the miraculous deliverance of the city of Jerusalem from the threat of Assyria in 701 BCE (2 Kgs. 19:35-37), from which it was concluded that the theopolitical establishment of Jerusalem had a perpetual guarantee. It turned out to be a guarantee, some judged, that authorized foolish and lethal policies, both economic and military.

It is inescapable, in my judgment, that contemporary readers of Jeremiah in the United States will come at this complex literature aware of our own national ideological power that generates and sanctions foolish and lethal policies, both economic and military.

One need not press parallels very far to see the ways in which the United States, as God’s most “recently chosen people,” imagines that it enjoys an immunity from the rules and norms of raw history. Consequently, we in our society are free to practice rapacious economics and heavy-handed anti-neighborliness, as did Jerusalem’s ancient enterprise in cynical self-deception.

That ancient ideology—which functioned as a cover for economic self-indulgence—created a double disability in that ancient city and in its economic sphere. On the one hand, it generated wholesale denial, a social practice that managed to disguise the facts on the ground (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). On the other hand, if or when one penetrated the denial, there arose wholesale despair, for those with eyes to see could discern that the Jerusalem enterprise was indeed headed for a dead end, a refusal to come to terms with the new realities that some said were the work of the holy God (Jer. 8:19-20).

Into that dangerous bubble of imagined reality, perpetuated by king and authorized by temple, came this Jeremiah! What we have are his words… “The words of Jeremiah…” (1:1). What is given us in the scroll is the unauthorized utterance of an uncredentialed nobody. He is an outsider from Anathoth, likely a descendant from that ancient priest Abiathar—also from Anathoth—who was banished from the capital city by Solomon (1 Kgs. 2:26-27). That family of priests had brooded and seethed for four hundred years until its burst of conviction erupted “in the days of Josiah” (1:2).

Public Lies and Poetic Vision

These are “the words of Jeremiah;” but, so the editors tell us, Jeremiah is the one “to whom the word of the Lord came”(1:2). The scroll that follows is not “the word of the Lord.” It consists in the words of Jeremiah. But this Jeremiah, this poet, this agitator, this brooder, this defiant maker of images and phrases, is propelled by a hidden divine impetus to which we have no direct access. He had to say what he said, for it was like fire in his mouth (5:14), like a burning fire in his bones (20:9)—inflammatory indeed. He speaks an unauthorized word for which he claims a counter-authorization that is beyond the reach of the managers of the dominant ideology. Right in the middle of the city where reside king and temple, he utters a counter-word (as in Jer. 7:1-15). Much of what follows in the scroll is a contest between this poet and those whom he exposes.

That is why the hegemonic enterprise of Jerusalem—and every empire and every frightened nation-state—tries to silence its poets and its artists (and even some of its preachers) from their odd voice that offers an alternative read of reality, that functions inevitably to de-legitimate the carefully constructed claims of hegemony. Jeremiah offers a counterword of reality that manifestly is not his own. He utters a word that comes from beyond himself.

Jeremiah’s mandate, given in his “call,” is to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow” (1:10). His only instruments for this negating task are words and “acted words”—that is, the conduct of theater. We see him, through the poetry and narrative of the scroll, impinge upon the imagination of Jerusalem by image and metaphor, poem and oracle. The purpose of his utterance is to draw Jerusalem out of the imposed ideology of immunity in order to discern the world in all of its stark reality. The hunch of such poetic imagination is that when reality is imagined differently, new initiatives of action and policy will break forth. Thus his imaginative utterance is designed to penetrate the shield of denial that was promulgated by the voices of officialdom that constantly declared “peace and prosperity,” and anticipated a quick return to normalcy after catastrophe (see Jer. 6:14; 8:11; 28:3-4).

CNN and Sin

Against that systemic denial, Jeremiah is a truth- teller who works sometimes by direct utterance and sometimes by poetic inference. He describes a society of fickleness wherein all practices of faithfulness have been violated in wholesale ways, a fickleness that leads to abandonment (Jer. 3:1-3). He offers anticipatory scenarios of invading armies that will come upon the city that thought itself protected from such onslaught. Like the early CNN commentary that described in excited detail the first bombardments of the so-called Gulf War (1990-91), Jeremiah details the coming of a savage army that will “devour” and show “no mercy” (5:15-17; 6:22-23). We know retrospectively that the poetic reference is to Babylon; but the poet withholds specificity for as long as possible and lets us imagine invaded bedrooms and raped women in the streets (4:19-20, 31). The poet weeps with YHWH over terminally ill “daughter people” for whom no medicine (balm) will suffice; the divine weeper is reduced to unimaginable tears (8:18-9:3):

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 poor people!

O that I had in the desert

a traveler’s lodging place,

that I might leave my people

and go away from them!

For they are all adulterers,

a band of traitors. (Jer. 9:1-2)

Eventually, in poetic vision, we are left with the unbearable sight of dead bodies stacked up and abandoned (Jer. 9:22). This is only poetry! But what poetry, like a silent film of catastrophic burning and killing, while below the news images there crawls across screen in Jerusalem the assurances that “the surge is working,” “the enemy is retreating,” “the economy is strong.” The statement of poetic subversion lets the viewer know that the stuff that is being sent out from the big house is a lie, a lie that carries with it the lethal future.

Faith after the Babylonian Invasion

Jeremiah’s mandate is to “plant and build” (1:10). Alongside the devastating truth-telling that was judged necessary to penetrate the denial of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is a hope-teller. His work, most especially in chapters 30-33, is to tell hope that will cut through the despair of the displaced and sustain them until there is homecoming. Those deported imagined that they would remain in the grasp of the alien empire. Those who remained behind could not get the smoldering smell of the ruins out of their nostrils. But Jeremiah knows otherwise and says otherwise. As is characteristic in this text of ancient crisis, hope arises precisely in the zero hour. (In Christian parlance, Easter arrives on Saturday night.) Jeremiah constructs “a scroll” named by modern interpreters as “The Book of Comfort” or “The Book of Consolation,” a collage of promissory utterances that came from the very lips of YHWH (Jer. 30-31). The sum of these utterances is to say that departure and disaster are “for a moment” (see Isa. 54:7-8). The displacement will not last. There will be newness! There will be newness because, “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” (Jer. 31:2)

The transformative grace of God, since the gift of manna in the ancient memory, has always emerged in the crisis-of-life threat. There will be newness because YHWH is able to confess, albeit belatedly: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jer. 31:3)”

Counterintuitive Grace

The claim is counterintuitive. It had seemed exactly that divine fidelity had failed. But the hope-teller says otherwise. The hope-teller refuses the signs of abandonment just as the truth-teller had refused the signs of well-being. The settled practice of denial or the ready portrayal of despair are deconstructed by this unauthorized utterer of hope.

The result of this divine passion at the null point is a covenant grounded in forgiveness (31:31-34; 33:8), a new city rebuilt in well-being (30:18-22), a new land of safe houses, fertile fields, fruitful vineyards (32:15), and much dancing in well-being (33:11), all because the Holy One wills an overriding shalom (29:11).

By the time this truth-telling, hope-telling poet finishes, listeners who engage him are ready for life outside the system of denial and outside the practice of despair. His listeners are invited into the contest with imperialistic ideology, to decide if his words are sufficient ground for new life in the world. The ones who trusted his utterance found, yet again, that life comes “fresh from the word.”

We are faithful to the scroll of Jeremiah if we take time to reflect on the one who utters, for the scroll itself pays great attention to the utterer. Jeremiah did not act to call attention to himself. Indeed he tells the court where he is on trial, “But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you.” (Jer. 26:14)

But our attention turns to him anyway, because his public presence is so contested and because his vocation is so unbearable. He himself recognized it as unbearable from the outset when he resisted the call (1:6). He finds himself facing hostility from his local companions (11:21). Eventually, perhaps a bit paranoid, he knows about “terror on every side” (20:10). Having no visible support, he casts himself on YHWH, but YHWH turns out to be hard-nosed with him, reassuring but not very consoling (15:19-21; see 20:7-13).

There is, however, another reading of his personal life made possible by hints in the texts. He had powerful allies in the government, for Shaphan and his family are ready at hand to protect him (see 26:24; 36:20). He was connected with what appears to be the influential scribal family of Neriah and his sons Baruch (36:1) and Seriah (51:59). Even the most frightened king, Zedekiah, came to see him secretly counting on his council (37:17; see 38:14-28). Within the royal household, moreover, he is cared for by a functionary of the court, Ebed Melech (38:7-13; 39:15-18). Even so he is regarded by the advocates of hegemony to be a deserter (37:13), and a traitor (38:4), eventually taken where he did not want to go by those who had power over him (43:1-7).

In my judgment, contemporary reading of Jeremiah requires almost no interpretation. It reads like a scroll written yesterday:

It invites beyond the denial of the ideology of U.S. exceptionalism—an ideology so prized by some conservatives—to face the facts on the ground concerning practices of feudal and self-destructive brutalization in domestic and foreign policy.

It invites beyond the despair of self-sufficiency and self-securing—so powerful for some liberals— to reach bodily into the future for an alternative grounded in forgiveness.

And if plucking up and tearing down, building and planting—by word and by image—are the order of the day, I anticipate that the scroll is a tool for contemporary enactment.

The book of Jeremiah reaches out for new renditions of a counterstory. It reaches out for new utterers who, in a fresh time and place, can tell truth and can tell hope. It was because the truth is unbearable and the hope is impossible that the urban elites shredded the scroll (36:23); but the scroll persisted. The scroll is beyond shredding and will finally not be eliminated or silenced by any self-deceiving ideology, even that of the last superpower. There always appears yet again, by the mercy of God, a fresh scroll, new readers, and even new utterers who have not succumbed (Jer. 36:32).

Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, is the author of many books, including, most recently, Prayers for a Privileged People (Abingdon Press, 2008).