A Future of Hope
desert to labor camps in Babylon? So we have two alternative messages about the Babylonians, both of which seemed to come from God: on the one hand, seek shalom for Babylon; on the other, wicked, godless Babylon will be destroyed. It seems that even the prophet Jeremiah was torn between those two messages.
The problem for people of faith has not changed in the 2,600 years since Jeremiah spoke and wrote. We are still torn, in our churches and in our hearts, between the impulse toward reconciliation with our enemies and the conviction that God’s justice must be upheld. American Christians are still torn between the two in the long wake of 9/11; Christians are torn between the two every time we fight a war. I dare say that many of us feel that tension also in intimate situations: how do we relate to someone who is profoundly destructive, in our family, in the church, in the neighborhood? Do we keep reaching out, keep trying to work with her, or at a certain point do we cut our losses and treat her as “a Gentile and a tax-collector” (Matthew 18:17)?
It should be clear by now that Scripture does not settle our dilemma once and for all. It does not suggest that we can in every case make community with the Babylonian oppressor so we may prosper together. But if the Bible does not deliver us from tension, nonetheless it does offer guidance for living in tension, a kind of guidance that was not available even to the prophet Jeremiah. In calling the exiles to seek God’s peace for Babylon, Jeremiah was writing something completely unprecedented. No one in recorded history had ever said, as Jeremiah did to the exiles: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Obviously many in his time thought that was absurd, and maybe the prophet himself wondered if he had gone off the deep end.
But six centuries later, the last and greatest of the prophets said that very same thing: “Love your enemies, and pray for them”–and when Jesus said it a second time, something changed forever. What changed is not that Christians are now disposed to love our enemies and pray for them assiduously, simply because Jesus said we should. With few exceptions, we feel just the same about our enemies as the Judeans felt about the Babylonians. What has changed is that we can no longer call it absurd to seek their shalom; we cannot dismiss the prophet of reconciliation as possessed of an overheated imagination or having sold out to the oppressor. Because now Jesus has spoken, and we know for sure that seeking shalom for our enemies is what God expects of us. That is what a “future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) looks like in God’s own white-hot imagination: people praying without ceasing for their enemies, appealing to God for the godless, putting all their hope in God’s ability to craft shalom–well-being, peace, true prosperity–to make shalom in places where the only raw materials visible are human misery, the suffering of the planet, and profound spiritual poverty.
We dare not say that God cannot turn enmity and present misery to shalom, because often enough God has done it. There is hard historical evidence of this, including from the Judean community in Babylon. In time Babylonian Jews lived in relative peace alongside their former captors; the archaeological data suggests that Jews intermarried with Babylonians and did business with them. The Jewish community survived and even thrived in Babylon for more than 2,500 years, until the last century. A thousand years after Jeremiah, it produced the Talmud, to this day the greatest written expression of Jewish faith and culture apart from the Bible itself. The prophet’s vision for the exiles, “a future of hope,” was fulfilled, perhaps far beyond his own imagining.
As I understand it, our work is to attend seriously to God’s heated imagination. It takes courage to let that shape your life. What wild visions–extravagant, demanding, yet not absurd–occupy God this day concerning each of us and our communities? If any one of us is able to pose that question, and stand still long enough to hear an answer, that will be because we have managed to encourage each other to do something bold and otherwise unimaginable. It will be because we have sought to strengthen each other, as Jeremiah tried to strengthen the exiles, in order to stand and hear