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Politics of Scripture

Finding Hope in a New Planting

How does one turn away from a Lenten desert, so profoundly illustrated in the wastelands of plastic filled beaches, and walk towards the resurrection hope of Easter? Perhaps by remembering that Easter is coming, but its only the middle of the story.

Six weeks ago, we began a series here on the blog. A first for us, our team had already spent several months conceiving the idea, soliciting contributors, and curating images in preparation for what became six essays on the theme, “Considering Climate Change in the Lenten Season.” That week, Ash Wednesday was observed and Lent began.

We chose our topic because of the deep resonances between the Christian season of Lent—especially its extended reflection on human finitude, death, and self-denunciation—and the ecological crisis brought on by the rapidly changing global climate and its corresponding mass extinctions. Never has Ash Wednesday’s refrain echoed so loudly, reminding us that we too are but human-animals, vulnerable and dependent on a complex and delicate ecological community for our own lives. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Our contributors dug into the ancient texts so-long held sacred by Jewish and Christian communities, offering up new reflections on old traditions and hoping to enliven our moral imaginations both to humanity’s deep ties to non-human life in a shared web of life-enabling systems and to the substantial harms already inflicted. They reminded us that many already consider mass ecological collapse and widespread death inevitable, and yet simultaneously urged us to take responsibility for our destructive habits, at a time when even “ethics seems imperiled by unprecedented problems.” The barrenness of Lent proved fertile ground for considering the Bible as a dialogue partner in a climate crisis.

This week, however, our forty-day sojourn in the wilderness of Lent comes to an end as Christian communities around the globe journey toward the Cross of Christ and the empty tomb of Resurrection Sunday. And so, here I sit writing an essay for a new season—an essay for Easter.

Yet, I can’t help but ponder how one turns away from a Lenten desert, so profoundly illustrated in the wastelands of plastic-filled beaches, and walks sure-footedly towards the resurrection hope of Easter. New creation. Life after death. Call me pessimistic, but the promises of Easter Sunday ring hollow when confronted with the raging flames of Australia’s bushfires.

Perhaps the Judahite community that received this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah found themselves similarly reflecting on hope when despair seemed a much better alternative.

Jeremiah 31:1–6 is a rare oracle of hope in a book most famous for its weeping prophet. Brimming with wrath, punishment, and woe, Jeremiah confronted its early listeners with the destruction and death wrought on Judah by Babylon as its leaders sought political allegiance and imperial expansion through military conquest. Construed as the punishment of Yhwh for Judah’s covenant unfaithfulness, the decimation of the temple and the forced migrations of 597, 586, and 582 BCE are recounted in each chapter of the book; the trauma of these events is personified in the prophet, Jeremiah, who describes his suffering as “unceasing” and “incurable” (Jeremiah 15:18).

Amid this bricolage of pain and loss, chapters 30 and 31 stand out. Frequently called the “Book of Consolation,” they present a vision of restoration and new creation, or what we might even call resurrection. By this point, those reading the book might imagine these chapters as a turning point, a reorientation, that encourages movement away from death and into life, away from despair and into hope. Yet, this portrait of resurrection hope does not occur at the end of Jeremiah’s prophesies, but in the middle.

31:1 At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3 the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
   on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
   and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
   in the hill country of Ephraim:
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
   to the Lord our God.’

Jeremiah 31:1–6

After nearly thirty chapters of prophetic denunciation, these verses speak of renewal for the Judahites, a return to covenant relationship with Yhwh and a resettlement of the land of Israel—perhaps even a radical vision of a restoration of the Twelve Tribes in a united kingdom, as is suggested by the mention of Samaria and Ephraim in verses 5 and 6. Indeed, these verses pick up two themes from the preceding chapters that are of particular import: wilderness and cultivation.

Wilderness in the book of Jeremiah is a place unsown. Wild and dangerous, deserted and drought-stricken, this is a place where death is as likely as life, and only God is able to provide sustenance (see, for example, Jeremiah 2:2, 6). The wilderness is the place where Yhwh proved Yhwh’s faithfulness in the beginning, bringing the newly formed people of Israel out from Egypt and into a land of plenty, a land rich for cultivation and ripe for harvest.

The wilderness of Israel’s formation, however, is not the only wilderness of Jeremiah. A second wilderness emerges precisely where the people of Judah first found Yhwh’s promise: in the land itself. Thus Jeremiah 12:10–11 describes the transformation of the land that flowed with milk and honey into a land of desolation:

“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They made it a desolation; desolate it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart.”

Yhwh speaks of the covenant unfaithfulness of Judah, and especially of Judah’s leadership (i.e., the shepherds), as creating a new wilderness, where once the soil was fecund and bursting with life. Note, too, that Yhwh laments the destruction of precisely what Jeremiah 31:5 promises will be replanted—the vineyards. Ultimately, the cultivated soil has been transformed into a desolate wasteland. And the land mourns.

When Jeremiah 31:2 speaks of the wilderness, then, there emerges a double meaning. While Exodus themes no doubt form a backdrop for the promise of restored relationship, one might also understand that those who fled the sword of Babylon found grace in a wilderness of their own making. Indeed, the next line, which is challenging in the Hebrew, might also read something like, “Israel went out to make peace / his peace,” suggesting a reconciling impulse on the part of the remnant and not only on the part of God.

It is within the wilderness, this place where death is as likely as life, that Yhwh is said to confess an unfailing love, a love that will lead to a resurrection in the land: the rebuilding of a people, restoring of celebrations, and replanting of vineyards (verses 4–5). This return is highlighted by the repetition of “again” in these verses, a feature of the translation that mimics the Hebrew. Once more, claims Jeremiah, life will be found in Judah. Once more, claims Yhwh, the wilderness will give way to fecundity. After a sojourn in a new wilderness, the people will find themselves once again in the land of promise.

Still, what the text speaks of as a return ought not be construed as a reversal. The Book of Jeremiah, and the Hebrew Bible broadly, know that no such reversal is possible. The descendants of those who went into exile do return, but they cannot reverse the impact of Babylon’s imperial project. Israel is never again an autonomous, united kingdom. Nor does a Davidic king ever sit on the throne. The temple is rebuilt, but cannot compare to its predecessor. Reversal remains impossible.

Even the structure of the book quiets the hope suggested in these verses. Remember, this is the middle—only an interlude of hope in the middle of Jeremiah’s prophesies concerning the downfall of Jerusalem. On the other side of this chapter, and for the remainder of the book, are oracles of political domination, divine wrath, and death.

Perhaps, then, the communities who first received these oracles heard the hollow echo of promises of hope in the face of economic and social collapse. How does one receive hope in the middle of a desolate wilderness? How does one hope for resurrection while knowing that reversal is impossible? How do we turn away from our sojourn in a Lenten desert and walk towards the hope of Resurrection Sunday?

Carolyn Sharp suggests that the “Book of Consolation” is an interlude of sustaining hope providing the reader with the fortitude to press on “as the grim memory of Judah’s destruction continues to unfold.” Indeed, even though we may have expected such visions of hope at the end of a journey in despair, we find them in the middle. Collapse may be imminent, yet hope may carry the community beyond death and into a new kind of life. For the people of Judah, this life meant the interconnected flourishing of land and people; it was the hope of fecund and rich soil, full of life and bursting with promise. It was the hope of a new planting on the other side of a wilderness sojourn.

The Christian sojourn in the wilderness of Lent, and with it our series on Climate Change, is drawing to a close—after all, this is an essay for Easter. But like Jeremiah 31:1–6, we don’t find ourselves at the end of a story. Rather, we too are in the middle. Humanity is creating a new kind of desolate wilderness out of a formerly fecund planet, rich in biodiversity. So for those of us for whom the promise of Easter hope rings empty, I would like to suggest that a glimpse of resurrection in the middle of a story of death might be just enough to offer us the fortitude to press on. Indeed, we too might find hope in a new planting—one undertaken not for human gain but for the benefit of our non-human, earth community.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

From: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Use here inspired by abby mohaupt

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