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Politics of Scripture

Seeking the Peace and Prosperity of the City: The Politics of Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

The policy of accommodation, cooperative political activities and praying to God for the well-being of a foreign city as suggested by Jeremiah was both innovative and a great challenge to the exilic community. It also has lessons for us as we seek a public, politically and socially relevant theology.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

The policy of accommodation, cooperative political activities, and praying to God for the well-being of a foreign city as suggested by Jeremiah was both innovative and a great challenge to the exilic community. The letter contradicts other prophets, who supported patriotic actions and an anti-Babylonian policy, prophets who relied on the faith traditions of Israel and championed a short stay in Babylon and a speedy return to Jerusalem. They drew on the compassion and the promise of God to the house of David, and the temple of Jerusalem, and believed very much in the inviolability of both the Davidic dynasty and Zion.

As the prophet of critique and hope, Jeremiah rejects their optimism, and was certain that a return to the past is no longer possible. He suggests strategies to survive the suffering and devastation of war and a shattered world, albeit without the old support systems, namely monarchy, temple and land. Jeremiah envisioned a beginning to the healing needed, both communal and individual, in the openness and the courage to give up unrealizable hopes and other harmful practices that seemed to offer a false sense of security. “The prophet of hope insists that the refugee community must surrender its old identity in the land and accept its marginal status in diaspora in order to survive and eventually flourish”.[1]

He encourages the exiles to begin establishing roots and work towards building a possible life in community, a ‘home away from home’—in a distant place, yes! For the time being, they needed to accept that the places where they were settled within Babylon were home; they needed to stop living out of their suitcases, begin establishing roots, affirm, maintain and continue ties of family, and work towards peace and community building in their own neighborhoods. For Jeremiah, the key to survival and hope lay in joining God in the “creation of a just and compassionate counterculture, a place of new shapes and social alternatives where violence, exploitation and idolatry do not reign.”[2]

The letter outlines the contours of God’s fresh initiative, which are both spiritual (faith, love and hope)[3] and political (to abandon violent action against the new political authority).[4]

Faith in God becomes faith in the universality of God. When Jeremiah says, “Pray to Yahweh,” he is affirming the fact that Yahweh can be found even in this distant and foreign land. You can call on Yahweh even without temple and sacrifice and Yahweh will answer. It is vital for you to ask for God with all your heart—then God will be found in a foreign land, in exile, in an unclean land. For God is present everywhere, even at the margins among the broken, the dejected, and the subjugated. This viewpoint is revolutionary, for Jeremiah shows that their religion does not depend on access to power, to the existence of the temple or the offering of sacrifices.

Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered, vengeful and dream of an imminent return. Jeremiah writes, seek the good of the land to which God has banished you. Seek the well being of the land of your enemies. For their well being is also your well being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land. It is an illustration of the political significance of love of one’s enemies. It applies not only to private enemies but also to collective, national enemies. It requires us to think of their well being, their peace, their shalom, and to be concerned for it.

Embedded within expressions of faith and love is hope. The entire letter is therefore a testament of hope, although not an easy hope. Jeremiah requests them to accept their situation in exile, but not regard it as unchangeable. It will change. Even if impulsive hopes for change will continually be frustrated, the promise holds as mentioned in a later verse: I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Hence Jeremiah advises them to build, to plant and to pray for these were the beginning of all sound religious practice.[5] The world will change but perhaps not in your lifetime; build houses and make yourself useful in it. Have children and bring them up, for every child is a confession of the hope that this world is inhabitable and will remain so. Could these truths being communicated through this letter hold any meaning for the exilic community? Perhaps not immediately, but in due course they did. Jeremiah clearly advocates a pro-Babylonian political stance.

The socio-political dimension of the biblical text can only be recognized when we acknowledge that the conventional ways of understanding or behaving, advocated by the other prophets did not provide any help in coping with the new circumstances. Hence, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, offering a new perspective and interpretation!

What can we take away from this text? I think we are first of all called to perhaps move away from any “doctrinal narcissism” and find ways to make our theology politically and socially relevant. This is possible if our theological insights evolve out of our cultural heritages and social resources, as well as our various Christian traditions to address the contemporary social realities.

Second, the text calls for a movement away from the privateness of the church and into the world, into the public space to address issues affecting people, especially those on the margins, those that suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination. Margins are the space of God’s visitation, for God is discernible and present in the margins. We are called to journey from the centers of power to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms, because God is present in the disturbing and unsettling questions raised by experiences at the margins. Our theology needs therefore to be transformed into a public theology if it seeks legitimation from and by the wider society. Social concerns, political polity, economic involvement, religious and cultural pluralism, symbolic and liturgical life, and the moral and ethical values of our people are some of the realms that concern our theological discourses.

Third, it calls for commitment to seeking shalom (life in all its fullness) and well being for our cities and our neighborhoods. It is what I have recently heard being defined as “progressive localism”—an approach that is outward and expansive. Staying together to work for and praying to God for the well being of our cities and countries are our imperatives. Our well-being and the well-being of our churches are bound up with that of our cities and our immediate locales.

[1] Stulman, Louis and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, You are my People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Gerd Theissen, The Open Door: Variations on Biblical Themes (London: SCM, 1991) 25 -26.
[4] Daniel L. Smith, Jeremiah as Prophet of Non-violent Resistance, JSOT 43, (1989): 102.
[5] James P. Hyatt, “Jeremiah”, IB, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956) 1017.

Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, church worker, theological educator, and a student of the Bible comes from India and teaches Old Testament at the United Faculty of TheologyMCD University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia.

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