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Ellen F. Davis: A future of hope

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, writes the professor of Bible and practical theology.

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May 15, 2012

Editor's note: This reflection originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Divinity magazine.

Just at the start of the sixth century B.C., the Judean exiles in Babylon received a letter from Jerusalem from the prophet Jeremiah. This must have generated tremendous excitement and anticipation within that desperate group, and we can imagine how eagerly they gathered to hear the messenger read aloud the letter that had traveled for some months over hundreds of miles to bring them the Word of the Lord.

Here is some of what Jeremiah wrote:

“Thus says the LORD of Hosts, God of Israel, to the whole exiled community that I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down, and plant gardens, and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. And seek the well-being, the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray for it to the LORD, for with its shalom lies your own shalom. ... For thus says the LORD: When 70 years have passed in Babylon, I will take note of you and fulfill for you my promise to bring you back to this place. For I myself know the thoughts that I am thinking concerning you -- an utterance of the LORD -- thoughts of shalom, well-being, and not of evil, to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, 10-11; translation by the author).

Surely this is not the message the exiles were hoping for. Look again: “Settle down in Babylon; make yourselves content. You will live and die in that place. So seek the welfare of the Babylonians, pray for them, because your welfare is linked inextricably with theirs.”

We can imagine what the exiles must have said after hearing that letter from home: “This is prophetic encouragement? What kind of phony hope is this? Jeremiah has sold out to the Babylonians.”

“We always knew he was a Babylonian collaborator,” some would have said. “We exiles are the true Judeans. We may be stuck in Babylon, but we’ll make no peace with our captivity. We may be here a long time -- God forbid -- but if so, then we will live by our seething hatred for every living Babylonian.”

“Happy are those who take their little ones and dash them against the rocks!” someone shouted, and it became a chant, a spiritual of sorts; we know that enraged song as Psalm 137.

Abiding hatred for Judah’s Babylonian captors is well represented in the Bible and even within the book of Jeremiah. True, Jeremiah speaks a reconciling word in his letter to the exiles; he envisions Babylonians and Judeans prospering together. But reconciliation is not the final word in the book of Jeremiah, which concludes with two long chapters (50 and 51) of rage against Babylon, prophetic poetry declaring that Babylon is doomed by God, utterly damned and marked for destruction.

So in the book of Jeremiah as we have it, the commitment to abiding hatred of Judah’s worst enemy trumps the great vision of reconciliation in chapter 29. And just in case that book is not enough, the book of Revelation celebrates Babylon’s fall all over again, although this time “Babylon” is a stand-in for Judah’s new great enemy, Rome: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Revelation 18:2).

What we see in the Bible is what we see in every religious community, in every place in the church, and also in our own hearts: a profound tension between a vision of reconciliation on the one hand, and committed hatred on the other. This is the crucial thing for us to see: folks have good reasons for both reconciliation and hatred, even good religious reasons for both. That is why the tension is so deep and often seems impossible to resolve.

The religious imperative for reconciliation is obvious enough to us, I suppose: “Love your neighbor.” But hatred of the neighbor near or far may be equally a matter of religious principle; the operative principle is divine justice.

From a sixth-century Judean perspective, the strong denunciation of Babylon is an appeal for God’s just judgment on those who wreaked havoc on the holy city of Jerusalem, toppled the eternal throne of David, and exiled the king, along with thousands of skilled workers, teachers, musicians, poets, prophets, priests and community organizers.

Why would Judeans not believe that God hated the powerful and vicious enemy who had inflicted on them a forced march across the top of the burning Syrian 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 what God imagines. “For I myself know the thoughts that I am thinking concerning you -- an utterance of the LORD -- thoughts of shalom and not of evil, to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Just this is the beginning of the church’s ministry of reconciliation, and thus our task for this day and this lifetime: to stand together in a listening place, an envisioning place, strengthening each other to share God’s thoughts of shalom and move together into a future of hope.