Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2:4-13 is called a “prophetic lawsuit.” In this lawsuit, God’s people are the accused; God is both prosecutor and judge, and heaven makes an appearance as star witness! Please beware: this reading may be disturbing to some listeners.
Jeremiah 2:4-13 New International Version (NIV)
4 Hear the word of the LORD, you descendants of Jacob,
all you clans of Israel.
5 This is what the LORD says:
“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.
9 “Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the LORD.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar[a] and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the LORD.
13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
I began to work with the Scripture passages for today a few weeks after serving on the U.S/Mexico border as a human rights accompanier. My memories & emotions of Mexico were a big jumbled mess. I was having trouble finding words to describe the experience. In that stuck place, I welcomed Jeremiah’s stinging rebuke of a nation that had strayed so far off its path that it had become “worthless;”
I especially welcomed Jeremiah’s accusation of the powerbrokers: the priests and prophets, the rulers and those who “deal with the law.”
Identifying my anger with divine anger is tantalizingly tempting; and make no mistake, I do believe that our nation’s sins deserve indictment. But anger is a suspiciously comfortable emotion. I believe that Scripture draws us to a deeper place.
Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor begins her scholarly work on Jeremiah with fictional stories of families living in Jerusalem during the Babylonian invasion of 587 B.C.E. The stories depict chaos, cruelty, hunger, displacement, family separation, deportation and death. O’Conner does this because she believes we need to feel our way into the traumatic reality of Jeremiah’s audience in order to understand his outrageous rhetoric. “Fiction,” she writes, “can be a mode of truth-telling”
We do not need to resort to fiction to access current stories of chaos, cruelty, hunger, displacement, family separation, deportation and death. They show up daily in print and online. Even so, truth-telling is a tricky business — especially when trauma is involved.
Trauma disturbs what one thinks, feels and believes. It distorts perceptions and fragments memories. Those traumatized by violence struggle to find words to describe their experiences. So perhaps it is not surprising that the migrants I worked with rarely talked about what led them to leave their homes. I did, of course, hear bits and pieces: torture of political dissidents in Russia; cartel violence in southern Mexico; chaos in Venezuela. There were very few Central Americans. I did spend time with a diminutive indigenous woman and he infant daughter; but since I did not speak her Mayan language and she did not speak Spanish, we just smiled at each other. There was gregarious Honduran man, but he talked about nothing but his 10-year-old daughter who was traveling with him – particularly his concern for her safety. Then there was a Salvadoran family I did not meet. The family was kidnapped by organized crime when they arrived at the bus station near the border. Fortunately, they managed to escape and make their way to the local migrant shelter. Betto, the shelter director, knew they needed to get away quickly and arranged for them to cross the border ahead of those who had been waiting for weeks.
Organized crime is the tip-of-the-iceberg issue that led folks in Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona to ask for human rights accompaniment. The request came from three agencies that have been working together for years: Frontera de Cristo, is a bi-national Presbyterian border ministry with a robust presence in both Douglas and Agua Prieta; the migrant shelter and a related respite center are in Agua Prieta. They are used to occasional harassment from the local cartel. Extorting money from vulnerable people is big business and humanitarian work can get in the way. But as hundreds of asylum seekers began showing up in Agua Prieta over the past year, incidents of harassment became more serious. Then, Betto, the migrant shelter director, began to receive direct personal threats. Making things worse, Mexican National Guard troops showed up in town, adding to the vulnerability of migrants and those who assist them. Before March of this year, there was no such thing as a Mexican National Guard. It was created in response to US threats to impose tariffs on Mexico unless Mexico acted to stop Central American migrants from making their way to the US border.
Accompaniment is a ministry of presence. Month after month, teams of two gringo-looking strangers in bright yellow safety vests show up in town. We are seen escorting groups of migrants back and forth between a tent near the border and a respite center a few blocks away. We are seen driving migrants from a shelter to the tent in a clunky old car with a huge sign on the hood that says, “Presbyterian Church Workers.” We are seen by the Mexican National Guard officers who argue with Betto, insisting that they be admitted to the shelter. While on the ground in Mexico, our role is to be seen. Our presence sends a message: “No, you cannot act with impunity. Not now. Not here. Not this time.”
We are also there to see; to be witnesses; to carry the images with us as we return home. This leads to another tricky aspect of truth-telling. What I saw convinced me that so much of what we hear about the border misses huge chunks of the story – on-going realities that people who live and work along the border know all too well. A former police chief in Douglas points to the counterintuitive impact of the ever-expanding border security apparatus during his decades of service: “As with Prohibition in the 1920s, massive increase in border security made the business of lawbreaking more dangerous but also more lucrative.” The director of a clinic in Douglas has seen an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault. Women have become more vulnerable, she says, and “the increased vulnerability is, in part, the unexamined collateral damage of a border war.” And collateral damage to what end? There has been a massive military build-up along the border over the last several decades, but it has done little to accomplish the stated goal: to deter unauthorized border crossings.
It is common to hear that our immigration system is not working. But I have to agree with those who say border policies are “working just fine for many people, and that is the problem. . .. People, corporations, and agencies benefit directly from the current arrangement: polarizing politicians, nativist social movements, private prison companies, ordinary people in search of decent jobs, local governments struggling to increase revenue, employers seeking exploitable undocumented workers, massive federal law enforcement bureaucracies, and countless private security contractors. All these actors have a stake in maintaining perpetual crisis at the border.”
It is said, somewhat jokingly, that when it comes to our joint history, “Mexicans never forget, and Americans never remember.” I’m not sure about Mexicans but I do know that US discourse about borders is woefully lacking in historical perspective. We forget that in order to establish borders, our ancestors had to first destroy the cultures of indigenous peoples who viewed “land as a resource to be used by all and owned by none.” We forget that the southern border shifted numerous times during the nineteenth century as “much of U.S. growth flowed directly from the Anglo conquest of Spanish-speaking America.” We forget that US border policy has conveniently shifted every few decades in order to ensure the availability of cheap labor.
In Jeremiah’s prophetic lawsuit, God’s central complaint against the people is their failure to remember: to remember that it was God who created the nation by bringing them up out slavery in Egypt, leading through the wilderness and into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. The failure to remember the story of God’s saving actions is, in the words of Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, a “voiding of memory.” Telling the story – as was done so wonderfully by the re-enactment during last Sunday’s worship service – is “a protest against every illusion of self-sufficiency.” Brueggemann says that “Without the redefining voice of the old memory, the present historical process deteriorates into an enterprise of brute power and intimidation, a juggling of interests, an ideological manipulation of symbols.”
Kathleen O’Connor calls this prophetic passage an act of verbal art: a creative, imaginative, symbolic construction of reality. Looking at Jeremiah through the lens of trauma studies, she understands the work of the prophet as “lifting violent destruction into the world of poetry and symbol where horrible pain and loss can be seen, taken in and acknowledged with overwhelming its victims anew.”
Now that’s my kind of prophet! One that delivers creative, imaginative, symbolic assaults on the illusionary certainties of our day, without overwhelming me with despair. They do exist, I believe. Poets, artists, musicians; rarely found in the mainstream; often subversive.
I want to close by sharing a medley of songs by the Mexican musician Lila Downs; using lyrics of the late great Woody Guthrie. On the 4th of July I experienced a taste of “border culture.” The host family in Agua Prieta invited friends, old and new, residents of both Douglas and Agua Prieta for a meal and to watch the fireworks. That evening I learned that I was in “DouglaPrieta,” a name used to signify the reality that it is one community. Music, laughter, stories and food all expressed the joy of shared histories and common hopes for the future. Woody Guthrie died the year before Lila Downs was born. They never had the joy of sitting down to eat together, but their spirits have come together in song. Let us listen for God’s word in the expansive human story told in the song , as we prepare to partake of the holy meal that connects us to god’s eternal story.