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Politics of Scripture

This Present Absence

This Christmas season, what might it mean to live into the promise of hope fulfilled, when our pandemic experience means that hope strains against lost lives and lost livelihoods? Perhaps it involves visioning a redemption—one built on the social and economic implications of Jeremiah’s vision of those redeemed.

I don’t know whose side you’re on,
But I am here for the people
Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning
And close down for deep cleaning at night
Right up the street and in cities I mispronounce,
In towns too tiny for my big black
Car to quit, and in every wide corner
Of Kansas where going to school means
At least one field trip
To a slaughterhouse.
I want so little: another leather bound
Book, a gimlet with a lavender gin, bread
So good when I taste it I can tell you
How it’s made. I’d like us to rethink
What it is to be a nation. I’m in a mood about America
Today. I have PTSD
About the Lord. God save the people who work
In grocery stores. They know a bit of glamour
Is a lot of glamour. They know how much
It costs for the eldest of us to eat. Save
My loves and not my sentences. Before I see them,
I draw a mole near my left dimple,
Add flair to the smile they can’t see
Behind my mask. I grin or lie or maybe
I wear the mouth of a beast. I eat wild animals
While some of us grow up knowing
What gnocchi is. The people who work at the grocery store don’t care.
They say, Thank you. They say, Sorry.
We don’t sell motor oil anymore with a grief so thick
You could touch it. Go on. Touch it.
It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands.
They have washed their hands for you.
And they take the bus home.

Say Thank you Say I’m Sorry
Jericho Brown
The New York Times
June 2020

The last time I wrote for the Politics of Scripture it was late March 2020. Eight months ago. Here in Georgia, we had only recently entered a “lockdown.” Instructed to stay at home—for what we thought would only be a few short weeks—I sat at my kitchen table and wrote a blog post for Easter Sunday. Already, much of our collective attention was turning to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that quiet afternoon my mind was on environmental collapse as I considered how to wrap up our Lenten series on Climate Change with a word about Easter hope.

I confess, at the time I didn’t know what to say about Covid-19. I still don’t. I was relieved to have something else to comment on.

Just a few days ago, I opened up the lectionary to begin contemplating the texts for the second Sunday after Christmas and was tossed back to that moment in March by the first reading: Jeremiah 31:7–14. The two moments, past and present, collided as I remembered writing on the verses just preceding them last spring, when the first reading for Easter was Jeremiah 31:1–6.

Then, hope eluded me. I asked, how does one move out of Lent toward the resurrection hope of Easter—when all evidence points to collective, ecological collapse?

Today, as I write, it’s not yet Christmas but Advent, the Christian season of waiting, of anticipating the presence of God even in God’s apparent absence. I can understand Advent. The spirituality of scarcity. But I’m not writing for Advent. I’m writing for Christmas and its message of hope fulfilled: Christ come as flesh and living among us (John 1:14, this Sunday’s gospel reading).

Yet, the promise of Christmas presence is eclipsed by a present, pandemic absence. So I’m asking, how does one live into hope fulfilled—when hope strains against lost lives and lost livelihood?

And, again, I’m reading Jeremiah.

14:7 For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
   and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
   ‘Save, O Lord, your people,
   the remnant of Israel.’
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
   and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
   those with child and those in labour, together;
   a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
   and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
   in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
   and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
   and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
   and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
   and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
   and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
   and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
   and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
   and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
   and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.

Jeremiah 31:7–14

Oddly, almost any other passage in the book of Jeremiah would more adequately fit the spirit of grief that is most prevalent this pandemic Christmas. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, is not well known for his oracles of hope. Instead, the fifty-two chapters of the book are predominantly filled with oracles of woe and chaos. Strung together in a manner that eludes scholarly attempts to impose order, even the structure of the book seems to reflect the prophet’s descent into despair. Here we find reflected the social and political chaos brought upon the people of Judah by the Neo-Babylonian army’s occupation, siege warfare, and forced migrations.

Still, in the middle of the disordered dissolution of a people, we find chapters 30–31, Jeremiah’s so-called Book of Consolation.

This rare oracle of salvation begins with the five-fold imperative: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel” (verse 7). The proclamation of good news is predicated on a return: God is gathering the people in and bringing them back to Judah.

What Jeremiah describes as a “great company” (verse 8), is made up of generations: the unborn child nestled in the mother’s womb, the young people, and the elderly are said to be redeemed by God and set to dancing as they eat their fill in the land of their ancestors (verses 8 and 14). These are the ones who have known the devastation of ancient warfare and who have served the imperial projects in Babylon—they are not those who run without wearying (Isaiah 40:31), but are the blind and the lame (verse 8). They come back weeping and mourning (verse 9 and 13).

Whatever song they might sing, it is one suffering informs.

What is it that is said to bring about this great turning from despair to gladness? On first reading, it is the return itself that seems to bring about the praises of the people—after all, it is from the heights of Zion that the people sing. Still, if we look closer, we might notice that the prophet’s vision presses further. These are the ones who have been redeemed.

The Hebrew verb, “to redeem,” is perhaps most commonly associated with the book of Ruth, where the protagonist, Boaz, is called a redeemer (for example, in Ruth 3:9, where the NRSV reads “you are next-of-kin” the Hebrew root is the same as in Jeremiah and would be better translated “you are a redeemer”). While English speakers are prone to equate “redeeming” with “saving,” “redeemer” with “savior,” the connotations for a speaker of ancient Hebrew do not overlap exactly.

Rather, a closer reading of Ruth’s story reveals how the activity of redeeming is closely tied to the social structures of the ancient community—Boaz redeems Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) by marrying Ruth and acquiring Naomi’s late husband’s landholdings. This action restores Naomi socially and economically, providing her with renewed social supports and financial security by ensuring that her ancestral land will be cultivated.

This concept is also operative in the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25. In the radical priestly vision, the land is held in perpetuity by families in Israel so that, in the Jubilee year, any person or family that has had to sell or forfeit their land due to financial loss or debt will have the right of redemption. Such a person is then restored, both socially and economically, to their place in community. Indeed, even in the time between Jubilees, the right of redemption is provided for within the family structure—as is performed by Boaz in the book of Ruth.

This verb, “to redeem,” is not common in Jeremiah. But where it does occur there is significance for the present passage. The next time the concept of redemption emerges in Jeremiah’s writings is in chapter 32, where Jeremiah is instructed in a divine vision to purchase a field in Anathoth, a field that Jeremiah has the right to redeem (Jeremiah 32:6–15). The purchase is explained as a prophetic sign-act. Jeremiah purchases the field as a testament to a promise from God: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15).

Even as Judah’s social, political, and economic structures are collapsing, Jeremiah’s action demonstrates the promise of security in the future.

So, when Jeremiah 31:11 claims that “the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him,” we ought rightly understand the text as claiming more than salvation from oppressors and safe passage to a homeland. Rather, here Jeremiah is claiming that the people rejoice because they have been redeemed socially and economically by being restored to the land. Thus, the assembly is radiant because of “the grain, the wine, and the oil, and the young of the flock and the herd” (verse 12). They have brightness of face that comes from good work and full bellies.

The assembly rejoices because they experience the economic stability that brings food security and wellbeing.

God save the people who work in grocery stores.

This line from Jericho Brown’s pandemic poem has echoed in my mind since I first read it back in June. Every time I’ve gone out to restock my pantry, to fill the gas tank, to pick up a medication, I hear it: “God save the people who work in grocery stores.” I hear it because I don’t. I don’t work at a grocery store or a gas station. My work has not been deemed “essential” and so I’ve been staying home. Safe. Despite this, my paycheck has been secure—since I can write at my kitchen table and, of late, teach classes on Zoom. As a result, my pantry has stayed full. My pandemic experience has been marked by privilege.

This is not the case for many. Hundreds of thousands have not been safe. Millions have empty cupboards and empty bank accounts. Lost life and lost livelihood.

Save, O Lord, your people.

I don’t know what to say about Covid-19; I didn’t in March, and I don’t now. As the pandemic rages, it seems that every good decision ripples with unforeseen and unintended consequences. But I do know that I’m hearing more and more people talk about a return. A return to “normal,” to the way things were before March 2020. This month, vaccine distribution began here in the United States and in some countries abroad. With it, hopes are on the rise for an end to the pandemic. Even as many of us spent Christmas absent our loved ones, we are also looking forward to being returned to their presence.

This hope is good. The vaccine is good, and more than welcome. But I’m cautious, because there is no return, no going back to before. Some absences are permanent, and some losses cannot be so easily restored.

I have PTSD about the Lord.

I think Jeremiah felt similarly. What the NRSV translates “consolations,” might better be rendered “pleadings” or “supplications,” so that the line might read “with weeping they will come, and with pleadings I will lead them back” (verse 9). With Rachel in the verse directly following this passage, it seems that the assembly “refuses to be comforted” (verse 15) and, instead of eagerly embracing God’s promised return, must be persuaded by God to go back home. Their experiences have changed their relationship to the divine.

In this pandemic Christmas season, where the promise of presence is eclipsed by absence, I’m asking how to live into hope fulfilled, even when hope strains against loss: lost time, lost work, lost security,  and lost life. Our relationships—to each other, and maybe even to the divine—have changed. If hope is possible, I think it must come with a dreaming like that of Jericho Brown, one where we “rethink what it means to be a nation.”

We might even borrow just a bit of Jeremiah’s wisdom, speaking carefully about returns and, instead, looking to a redeeming in the sense of Ruth and Leviticus. In so doing, we would be speaking in political terms, envisioning social and economic security for our neighbor, both the one who works at the grocery store and the one who’s out of work.

I don’t know for sure, but I think this would require us to be the kind of presence promised at Christmas, dwelling among each other in the flesh—and when we so know each other, I suspect we will be careful not to give up our mourning in the temptation of “normal.” Rather, we might find that we are not truly at an end, but in the middle, just like Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, glimpsing hope while knowing there is much work still to be done. 

2 thoughts on “This Present Absence

  1. I am a elderly woman who is nearing the end of my life. I have seen and personally experienced too many tragedies, too much evil – and I have worked to help other people survive these horrors throughout years of “professional” employment as well as in my daily living.
    I have rarely seen redemption or “saving”, however I have seen heroic struggles to survive what humankind has perpetrated on the vulnerable, the poor and the aged.
    I certainly ask “where is God?”.
    I’ve heard the stories such as “God was with his/her people at Auschwitz, present with the abused child and the battered woman”, but I see no redemption possible within (the embedded values) of this culture that demeans the laborer, the grocery worker, the poor – the list goes on.
    Is this my despair? I don’t know. Do I have hope? I don’t think that I do.
    There’s a saying “the rich get rich off the backs of the poor” and I have learned too much about the reality in which I live. As in ancient Israel, we don’t need pity – we need justice.
    There are so many questions…

  2. Beautifully written; both deeply poignant and provocative towards how we might be being called to live out the pandemic. Where is redemption?
    Thank you!

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