It Can’t Happen Here – Tom Mundahl reflects on prophetic voice and lament.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year A (2020, 2023)
Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15) 16-18
When I read Camus’ novel The Plague during my freshman year in college, it never occurred to me that I would live to see a global pandemic. Nor did I expect that this novel would describe so accurately our reaction to this “new plague.” Here is Camus providing a picture of how the residents of the Algerian city of Oran first met this brewing disaster.
“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have thought of anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences” (Modern Library, 1948, pp. 34-35).
Perhaps no culture has been trapped by the illusions of freedom from necessity and exceptionalism as ours. This has not been helped by the ineptness of current political leadership in understanding that the federal government has leadership responsibilities in responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has been a naive assumption of special American “immunity” — it can’t happen here.
But there is a corollary to this magical thinking as we move from political culture to personal life: “it can’t happen here” becomes “it can’t happen to me.” As a parish pastor working with hospice programs, I have witnessed first-hand just how powerful the fear and denial of death can be. From the preference for terms like “passed away,” which now has been shortened to “passed,” to the medical establishment’s preference for jargon like “expired,” it is clear how very frightening it is to say, “she died.” After organizing several discussion groups on “Death and Dying” and “Grieving Together,” it has even become evident that one of the ulterior motives for being involved with these topics may even be “finding a way out.” It is “one out of one except me.” And, as all who work for ecojustice know, everything we have concluded about the magical thinking surrounding Covid-19 and personal mortality applies to the threat of the climate crisis. It even applies to systemic racism, where despite no racist bones ever admitted personally, people of color die as a result of government action or inaction at a shockingly higher rate.
Jeremiah also struggled against living in illusion. Only for him, illusion had a royal imprimatur and even the appearance of divine sanction. Beginning with Solomon, kings had ignored the Exodus tradition, replacing the “manna” sense of “just enough” (Exodus 16:18) with the economics of affluence and a temple-based religion even Egyptians would be proud of (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, pp. 31-32). Building projects, military defeats, the rise first of Assyria, then Babylon, led to religious syncretism which King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms couldn’t quell. It was a time that required prophets.
That living out the prophetic vocation was no easy task is made clear from reading Jeremiah. In fact, making sense of the lament which constitutes our First Lesson requires that the lector do some storytelling, summarizing the human slaughter that went on in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), the instructions to break an earthenware jug to show the fate of Judah, and Jeremiah’s arrest by Pashhur, the head of the Temple’s secret police (Jeremiah 19:1-20:6). Only then can this lament make sense.
It is ironic that as part of his call to be a prophet Jeremiah is promised that he will be an “overseer of the nations” (Jeremiah 1:10, Hebrew text). Being arrested by a mere “overseer” of the temple police must have been the last straw (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, 1965, p. 132). No wonder his lament is filled with anger at the One who called him with generous promises, most of which now appear empty. Jeremiah complains that he was both seduced and overpowered, and the results of his work are nowhere to be seen (Jeremiah 20:7). “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20: 8).
Still there is power in his call. Even when he has had enough, he cannot keep from prophesying. Deep down, far beyond any possible level of comfort, there is a barely-conscious confidence that “the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (Jeremiah 20:11).
Yet, there is also power in a royal theology so confident of its unique possession of divine support that it can no longer hear a prophetic voice. Since the regime possesses an “eternal” institutional truth through the monarch, real change is not necessary; it is only a matter of problem-solving and management. It is no surprise that Jeremiah’s “street theater,” using pottery to depict Judah’s future, is unthinkable and cannot be tolerated. It violates an “official religion of optimism” (Brueggemann, p. 37). There is not even a momentary question whether this message might be the word of the LORD. The real problem is Jeremiah, who must be dealt with by a beating and humiliating time in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2).
That Judah with its royal theology is unable to hear or see the truth Jeremiah brings cannot help but feel eerily familiar to us. While we claim to have outgrown royalty, the current form of American exceptionalism, mixed with a form of patriotism that claims a perverse form of Christian nationalism as a foundational element, functions similarly to block discussion and action to bring real change. “Change,” isn’t that what the freighted biblical term, “repentance,” really means?
What stiffens Jeremiah’s audience to reject this turn-around and embrace magical thinking, preventing them from seeing the way things really are? Put simply, it is fear of death, the death of the religio-political system they rely on for meaning, economic security, and physical safety. Like all prophets, because he tells an inconvenient truth, he is dangerous. To them, what Jeremiah’s words and street theater point to can’t happen here.
In the U.S. the results of the global pandemic, the reality of the climate crisis, and the seemingly endless level of racist police brutality threaten a culture based on endless economic growth requiring the exploitation of natural resources and inequality. Despite claiming to be a culture honoring science, the warnings of epidemiologists (whose work has been underfunded) and even fine science writers like Laurie Garret (The Coming Plague, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995) and David Quammen (Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Norton, 2012) have too often been ignored. While acceptance of climate science has grown in the past five years — especially on local and state levels — implementation of policy on the national level has been undermined by the current administration which embraces the “royal theology” of growth at any cost. Similarly, the racial inequality so obvious in the U.S. has been exploited as politically advantageous. As I write, sections of the Twin Cities, my home, are burning.
Like Jeremiah, we ask: why this resistance to truth? Much of the answer lies in our bondage to finding security and identity through possession (cf. Arthur McGill, Death and Life — An American Theology, Fortress, 1987, p. 54). Whether it is property, wealth, glamour, or intellectual achievement, what we control gives us the illusion of safety and integrity. That is equally the case on the societal level where Gross Domestic Product, a Defense Department budget larger than the next ten countries and necessary to support 800 military bases worldwide, and a massive advertising industry to keep the “consumer faith,” all serve to promote what we have been led to believe is our “well-being.” The results are anything but that — a climate crisis, community and family disintegration, and always the search for scapegoats to bear the blame for the inevitable failure of life lived this way.
So we join Jeremiah in his lament, especially as we consider Psalm 69. Unfortunately, the committee responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary has cut the heart out of this powerful lament. During this time of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial upheaval, we need also to hear the beginning cry:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69: 1-3).
Why this need? By sharing in lament, our grief, pain, and the threat of chaos are transformed into language. And as we are reminded by the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), just as God spoke all into existence, so something new and creative occurs when we join our speech and song (Current hymnals may feature a section of “hymns of lament,” e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 697-704). This communal voice assures us we are never cut off from holy presence. As poet Gregory Orr contends, “words make worlds” (On Being, American Public Radio, May 31, 2020).
It is also important to honor Psalm 69 because traditionally it has been associated with Jeremiah (James L. Mays, Psalms, John Knox, 1994, p. 232). Not only does the lament echo Jeremiah’s language, but the details resonate with his experience of being thrown into the “deep mire” (Psalm 69:2) at the bottom of a Judean cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). Cut off from the support of family (Psalm 69:8) and the larger community, he can only look to God’s steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 69:16).
The freedom to grieve and lament together is a gift of shared faith. Without that, humankind is reduced to living by possession as a hedge against anxiety and fear of death. Paul writes to make it crystal clear that “God is the enemy of all life by possession” (McGill, 54). Of course, what is meant here is the power of sin that is washed away by word and water in baptism. In baptism, death, the very reason we surround ourselves with what we convince ourselves that we control, is central. Paul’s rhetoric shows his sensitivity to just how shocking this is: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) It is the end of allegiance to empires, whether Roman or the tottering system of contemporary consumer capitalism that seems bent on destroying this green earth. Baptismal faith removes the scales from our eyes to see, yes, it is happening here.
But out of this death comes a share of resurrection that launches “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). As Ernst Kasemann claims, baptism actualizes the cross-resurrection event so that “walking in newness of life” becomes “participation in the reign of Christ” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 168). This changes our fundamental identity and “pledges” our first allegiance to another “community.” Instead of living by possession, we are freed together to live by gift, especially as we are continually recharged by what Kasemann calls “a constant return to baptism” (Kasemann, p. 163).
Wendell Berry describes this more simply in one of his “Mad Farmer” poems, where he suggests “practice resurrection” (The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 87). Our Gospel Reading reminds us just how costly this can be. Living by gift, nourishing the earth, and practicing resurrection are guaranteed to bring opposition. It will happen here. This text makes it clear that those who “practice resurrection”will be maligned (Matthew 10:25), will know the division of families (10:34-37), and, as they endure, will know the cross intimately. Yet the promise persists: “Those who find their life (live by possession) will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). During this time of pandemic, racial oppression, and climate crisis, lament offers a path to this discovery.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.