Ferguson & Forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
By Walter Brueggemann
Lent is our season of honesty. It is a time when we may break out of our illusions to face the reality of our life in preparation for Easter, a radical new beginning.
When, through this illusion breaking homework, we connect with reality we see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken and one glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri. That tension is rooted in very old racism; it also reflects the deep and growing gap between "the ownership class" that employs the police and those who have no serious access to ownership who become victims of legalized violence. This is one frontal manifestation of "the covenant that they broke," as referred to in the Jeremiah text for this week: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences.
Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in US society. The brokenness consists not so much in the actual street violence perpetrated in that unequal contest. The brokenness is that such brutalizing force is accepted as conventional, necessary, and routine. It is a policy and a practice of violence acted out as "ordinary" that indicates a complete failure of neighborly imagination.
Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible.
As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced-in this case the reality of a failed covenant between legal power and vulnerable citizens-new possibility becomes imaginable.
This prophetic oracle in Jeremiah 31 is exactly a text for such honesty that strips away ideological denial and prepares us for this radical new beginning of Easter. In this poem, the admission of brokenness permits the poet to anticipate "new covenant," new historical possibility, new beginning again that will happen outside the sphere of ideological denial. Lent is preparation for Easter, homework for a radial, inexplicable new beginning.
This text is situated in a season of failure in ancient Israel. The city of Jerusalem has been conquered and burned, the temple has been destroyed, the monarchy has been terminated, and the leading citizens deported into exile. This all came about, says the poet, because Israel broke the old covenant of Mt. Sinai. Over a long period of time Israel refused the commandments of Sinai. Israel did not take justice seriously, and did not ground its life in the God of the Exodus. And so, in covenantal perspective, came the judgment of God.
This poet Jeremiah anticipates and imagines three facets of new beginning that may be given by God outside the zone of self-indulgent, self-sufficient illusion. First, the new covenant granted by God will permit the "inhaling" of "my Torah." I say "inhaling" because the Torah will be actualized and accepted as one's own, not imposed by external authority. This "Torah" is a tradition of obedience to the expectations of God. The Torah consists in part in justice, a life lived toward the neighbor. The racist policies and practices in Ferguson make clear that we have forgotten all about being neighbors. Jeremiah can imagine a new beginning for Israel in the midst of its failure because, free of denial and illusion, there will be a new embrace of the non-negotiable requirements for what makes a viable life available. We have, like ancient Israel, been on a binge of narcissistic self-indulgence. In our realism, however, we know that a sustainable social life requires attentiveness to neighbor. Torah obedience is not a narrow moralism. It is rather realism and readiness about what is required for society to work in life-flourishing ways.
The poet anticipates that in time to come all will "know God." The phrase does not bespeak technical theological information. Nor does it just mean emotional intimacy with God. It means, rather, a readiness to treasure this relationship with God that is defining for attitudes, actions, and policies. A recognition that our life pivots on this defining relationship is a drastic alternative to a life lived in pursuit of commodities. The failure of ancient Jerusalem (and our own social failure in the current economy) is because we have thought that enough control would make us safe and happy. We have tried to reduce life to commodity (more medical drugs or more beer or more cosmetics or more power or more armaments). Such a commoditization, whereby even our neighbors are treated as disposable commodities, is an act of idolatry. In the current crisis Blacks are regarded as throw-away items in the interest of a top-down coercive order. Lent may be among us a pause from the idolatry of commodity, and a return back to relationships that are the truth of our life, both with God and with neighbor. Thus in Jeremiah 22:15-16, the poet can declare that attentiveness to the poor and needy constitutes genuine "knowledge of God." To care for the neighbor is to live toward God.
The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness:
For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34).
A world of commodity is a world in which scores are kept, books are balanced, and nothing is ever forgotten. It is a world of despair, because we are locked in forever to old behavior. New possibility, however, can happen in that world only when there is forgiveness, when in an act of inexplicable generosity the vicious cycles of resentment and revenge are broken. Jeremiah can imagine that this great God of covenant, the one who has judged Jerusalem in its perfidy, will forgive this people when it is honest, when it inhales Torah, and when it lets this relationship redefine reality. It is not easy to imagine, in our context pervaded by violence, how forgiveness and reconciliation can come about. Forgiveness clearly depends upon the more powerful taking initiatives of restoration that will assure the dignity and security of the less powerful. Such costly human initiative may take place, says the poet, because God, the ultimately powerful agent, takes initiatives right in the middle of societal brokenness. Imagine that in Ferguson even cops and recalcitrant street citizens might fall back into the forgiveness of God, a forgiveness that overrides fear.
Thus our Lenten reflection might focus on forgiveness?
-What it would be like to be forgiven?
-What it would be like to forgive.
It is to forego old hates and old fears, the old hates of racism, the old fears that propel greed, the old resentments against the poor, and the old hostile dismissals of those "left behind." Forgiveness is not simply a generous attitude; it concerns public policy toward "offenders" and the "unproductive" in society. This wondrous text is a look beyond. It has its rigors that must be honored. Those rigors, however, anticipate new well-being for us all together by the God of new covenant who forgives and restores, and summons to a new life with the neighbors.
We asked people what they think about racism in America
Bible Study Questions
1. What are some illusions you are holding on to that are preventing you from facing your own reality?
2. Do you see evidence of broken covenants in your community? What are 3 examples?
3. Facing the brokenness of reality, what are 3 things you could do to help move your community to Easter?
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