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Politics of Scripture

Wilderness Kingdom

There can be no coherent concept of home, it would appear, apart from borders and boundaries that at once enclose and exclude. This suggests that those without a home … somehow exist beyond the insider–outsider binary that the rhetoric of “home” delineates.

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
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.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
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

Over the past two decades, the concept of “home” has been a topic of serious theological and ethical reflection in Anglophone literature. Fueled by attention to American-style unwelcome and hostility to “foreigners”; furtive acts of ethnic cleansing in places like China and Ethiopia; the large-scale dispossession of people from their lands due to ecological disruption, war, and military occupation, as with Russia’s assault on Ukraine; and renewed Western European antagonisms towards displaced peoples, theologians like Jan Holton, biologists such as Drew Lanham and ethicists like Jonathan Lear have wrestled with the moral implications of what it means to inhabit a home and thus belong to a people and a place.

On the one hand, there is lament over ruined homes, whether stationary or moveable, and the cultural decay and death that often accompanies such loss. On the other hand, there are moral critiques of the impulse to shutter or purge a “homeland” in the name of cultural or identitarian purity.

There can be no coherent concept of home, it would appear, apart from borders and boundaries that at once enclose and exclude. This suggests that those without a home—the political exile, the refugee in flight, or those displaced by unjust economies—somehow exist beyond the insider–outsider binary that the rhetoric of “home” delineates.

The Israelite exiles to whom Jeremiah reveals this oracle in Chapter 31 are one such community. And yet their exilic status is not to be celebrated. To exist as a people without a homeland is not a political good. It is a situation that must be eclipsed by God’s ingathering “of all the families of Israel” who have been scattered (Jeremiah 31:1). As Simone Weil put it, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is therefore one of the hardest to define” (40).

Indeed, Jeremiah’s word expresses hope for the return of the exiles to a homeland. And while undercurrents of longing for re-rooting in a particular place surge within Jeremiah’s prophecy, he grounds this hope for return in a peculiar fragment of Israel’s story: grace experienced in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:3)—that place of wandering that is itself a particular place.

The wilderness (or “barren land”) is thus a terrain of ambiguity. It is an uncircumscribed expanse stretched between past oppression and future thriving. As the Old English wilēornes suggests, this place is mysterious, a region “inhabited only by the wild animals.” What if we were to imagine the wilderness as a kind of home where the highest need of the human soul, to be planted in a particular place, is met?

Jeremiah entertains this possibility. Speaking to political refugees “who survived the sword,” the prophet tells his audience that the wilderness is an asylum for rest wherein God appears (Jeremiah 31:2). In the wilderness, the people have no chief, no monarchy, no political parties, no structure for representation, no juridical system, and no law enforcement. There are only the people, the wild animals, and God.

While they lack what we might consider the typical marks of a recognizable politics, the exilic community is not homeless. Grace and love as signs of divine faithfulness form the borders of this home in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:2-3). To borrow James Scott’s memorable phrase, the wilderness is a “shatter zone,” where the Lord collects the human shards scattered by empire’s sword (7).

As citizens of the “shatter zone,” the exiled wanderers live eccentrically. In this wilderness kingdom, with God at the center, the people live “out of center,” relating to God as God relates to all other things, human and non-human alike, in love.

I therefore want to characterize Jeremiah’s vision of an eccentric political existence—wandering between state oppression and land possession—as an anarchic one. The heart of this anarchic politics of the wilderness is collective dependence on God as opposed to rugged self-reliance, as it is God who guides the people from suffering to flourishing in due course.

There is, we might say, a radical theocentricity inherent in Jeremiah’s oracle. While the divine purposes certainly challenge and disrupt human welfare at times, the divine purposes also afford prosperity and growth, such as that which culminates in a people gathering (and thriving) in yet another wilderness locale, holy Mt. Zion, a place structured around the nucleus of divine presence. What are the theological implications of such a prophetic vision, where the eccentric and anarchic stand in complementary relation to one another?

For good reasons, anarchism has come to be equated with a destructive, anti-communal and libertarian politic. As an anti-state movement, which is often interpreted to mean an anti-liberal movement, anarchism is said to privilege self-interested individualism, fueled by a might-makes-right social ethic that trumps communal care and social solidarity. In its most perverse expressions, this is true.

Be this as it may, Jeremiah’s anarchic vision of “grace in the wilderness” nevertheless offers a profound theopolitical picture of the life-giving power of a politics organized on the margins, a politics that confronts violence, abandonment, and privatization.

Violence. If inimical state power relies on “the sword” to ensure equity and to enforce compliance with its conception of justice, then those who flee the sword are seeking another way of being. In Jeremiah’s vision, this alternative way of being takes the form of communities of peace who share the wealth and wellbeing that emerges from land and labor (Jeremiah 31:4-5). The grace, love, and devotion found in the divine center is mirrored in the displaced community itself, where, in Jeremiah’s idealized portrait, violence propagated by greed is muted.

Abandonment. The collapse of voluntaristic institutions under the conditions of world-dominating finance capitalism have led to profound forms of displacement among both financial elites and economic losers. Because market induced dis-ease is no respecter of persons, a widespread malaise has taken hold, that of loneliness formed by a yearning to be re-rooted in places where Mammon is not sovereign. Jeremiah reminds us that the fugitive and marooned communities of the margins can become sites of complex care and fidelity that defy the meniality and spiritual immobility of the imperial subject.

Privatization. With the tremendous privatization of government assets and services over the past four decades in Western and North Atlantic societies, we have witnessed the slow collapse of a shared commons. (The public library, as some have pointed out, is one of the last institutions in the US where you do not have to purchase something to be welcomed in.) Jeremiah’s anarchic picture of life in the wilderness shows another way: the planters will plant and together enjoy the fruit of their labor on the foothills of the mountain of the Lord (Jeremiah 31:5b). The land’s abundance is shared among the members of the community in the commons.

The realities of violence, abandonment, and privatization define our moribund institutions and go unquestioned as the basic terms of daily life as we become further mired in hopelessness. (It is no wonder, for instance, that Case and Denton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, 2022) was one of the most prominent titles on recent bestseller lists.) Into this, Jeremiah’s vision injects a disjunction. It invites those who would hear the word of God to seek a different type of life together, one where peace-making, companionship, and a renewed commons are found at the center.

Put differently, the present challenge, among many, is to reimagine congregational life as a kind of “shatter zone.” We see possibilities for new forms of Christian life in communities on the banks of Lake Chad who “do not think twice” as they give from what is theirs to some of nearly 2.6 million neighbors displaced by violence in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. We also see it among people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a fragile and fraught political entity whose thick kinship ties were born of the experience of “being hunted” by state authorities.

For the people of God who live as exiles in the world, Jeremiah says there is grace in the wilderness. This is the zone where—despite whatever partisan loyalties we may have—we seek to join the marooned and dispossessed to live “outside ourselves,” and thus towards God and towards one another in devoted love.

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