Jeremiah as War Resister
I am beginning a new investigation of the prophetic books of the Bible, beginning with the so-called major prophets, Isaiah (the book of Hebrew Scripture Jesus quoted most often, according to the Gospels), Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (reserving Daniel as an apocalyptic, not prophetic, book) before examining the Scroll of the 12 in detail. I’ll be reading in English and Hebrew, dealing primarily with the finished, canonical, form of the text, but referring to commentaries as necessary. I’m looking for major recurring themes as well as divergent views, especially on issues of justice, wealth, poverty, violence, peacemaking, idolatry, covenant fidelity, etc. When I am done, I plan on re-reading the New Testament looking for how often these themes and passages are quoted, what changes in perspective the Christ Event brings, etc. This is a major stock-taking study in which I plan on questioning all I think I know about the Scriptures on these matters. The results will be published, although I do not yet know in what form.
As a marker of where I am now, before beginning this study, I am reprinting an old (and very brief!) article I did for The Baptist Peacemaker on Jeremiah as a war resister. Enjoy–or not. Discuss. 🙂
JEREMIAH THE WAR RESISTER
By Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker, pp. 6-7.
Was the prophet Jeremiah a pacifist? If we mean to ask if Jeremiah was absolutely opposed to all uses of violence, then I don’t think the Scripture gives us enough information to settle the debate. Jeremiah makes no sweeping statements against all war and violence. What we can know for certain is that Jeremiah was a war resister. He resisted all the wars of his day and he inspires us to resist the wars of our day.
Consider Jeremiah’s resounding denunciation of Judah’s war plans in chapter 21. Zedekiah, God’s anointed King of Judah, wanted Jeremiah’s counsel in order to make sure that God was on the king’s side in the coming war. Did Jeremiah give such assurance? NO! In fact, Jeremiah sounded positively treasonous to Judah’s pro-war party. The prophet claimed that their proposed war was an offense to God and that, if they went to war, God would fight against them and punish them!
Behold,[God says] I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands with which you fight against the King of Babylon. . . . And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger and in fury and in great wrath! (21:3-5)
This language is all the more startling when we realize that King Zedekiah’s war aims were so much more justifiable than those of contemporary imperial USA. Zedekiah had no doctrine of “preemptive war,” nor “preventive war,” nor any ambitions for “regime change” in Babylonia. He only wanted the prophet to assure him of God’s approval of Judah’s military resistance to the Babylonian Empire’s plans to annex Judah. King Zedekiah’s war aims were purely defensive and would probably have met the criteria of the later “Just War” tradition—something the “preventive war” doctrine of U.S. Pres. Bush definitely does not.
Yet, even if Zedekiah’s war aims would have passed muster with the Just War criteria of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and Luther, Calvin, and most contemporary Protestant theologians), they could not pass Jeremiah’s criteria for divine approval. Using terms as harsh as those Jesus used against the disciples’ attempted defensive violence in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26), Jeremiah thundered against Zedekiah’s plans to resist Babylon with military might.
Why was Jeremiah so sure that God was against the planned violent defense of Judah (including defense of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH)? Why was Jeremiah so sure that God wanted no military resistance to the cruel invasion of the Babylonians? Jeremiah understood that foreigners and people of other religions could still be the agents of the very will of God. Like other pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah saw the coming loss of Judean national sovereignty as the instrument of God’s corrective discipline for an unfaithful people.
Therefore, Jeremiah accepted the Babylonian king as a new overlord, under whom Judah would be safe from other would-be invaders and able to learn a better way to be God’s covenant people. Violent resistance would not succeed in saving Judah’s national sovereignty, Jeremiah knew, but it would result in a much harsher invasion, occupation, and deportation into a long exile. And thus it came to pass.
Jeremiah’s attitude was light-years away from that of contemporary nationalism or patriotism. By the standards of contemporary U.S. Christians, Jeremiah would be a traitor who shamelessly cooperates with the enemy. People of other religions justified in conquering the would-be People of God while God’s prophet consorts with those pagans? Strong stuff. Any Christian wishing to justify a current crusade against Muslims had better leave Jeremiah off the reading list.
Jeremiah insists in chapters 12 and 18 that God is free to make or unmake any nation of people as God’s own—with no exceptions for Judah—or for the U.S. or the modern state of Israel for that matter. To Jeremiah, God is universal and the moral rules of Torah are universal in application. The Way of God cannot be made the exclusive claim of any single nationality, culture, or ethnic group. A people can only demonstrate that they are God’s people by abiding in God’s will.
Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with Israel/Judah is broken and nullified. He looks for a new covenant that God will write on the hearts of God’s people (31:31-33). Jeremiah anticipates and informs Jesus’ own revolutionary extension of the divine covenant to the Gentiles.
Jeremiah’s call for the men of Judah to “circumcise their hearts” instead of their foreskins will inform the Apostle Paul’s judgment that Gentile Christians do not need physical circumcision to be part of God’s covenant people. (See especially the argument Paul makes to the Galatians.) Women and eunuchs cannot be physically circumcised, but they can “circumcise their hearts” through baptism. Here is a universal invitation to be included in the People of God, but also a universal challenge to faithfulness.
So what is God’s will for any people that would call themselves the People of God? According to Jeremiah, God’s people make justice and not war. In chapter 5, Jeremiah denounces the way the rich people of Judah exploit their poor neighbors. Jeremiah describes the rich of his day as “setting traps” for their fellow human beings and accuses them of having no respect for the rights of other people. He accuses the religious leaders of his day of exploiting their positions and then he declares that the majority of the people enjoy this abominable situation.
All this sounds horrifyingly contemporary and applicable to U.S. Christians. The rich steal from the poor with the help of government. Government tax giveaways to the rich hurt the poor and the common good. The rich convince the government to repeal usury laws that once limited how much interest credit card companies could charge. Then the rich convince the government to make it harder for the poor to declare bankruptcy but easier for wealthy corporations to do the same. In the name of “tort reform,” the rich convince the government to limit the amount of damages that courts can award people who have been harmed by corporations. In the ultimate insult, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that government can use “eminent domain” to take private homes and businesses NOT for highways, parks and other public use, but to sell them to big corporations to “develop.”
Meanwhile far too many church leaders support all this “reverse Robin Hood” action. Nationally famous church leaders glorify violence, promote war, call for assassination of some foreign leaders while defending other dictators with whom they are in big business, engage in the pederastic exploitation of the young and then scapegoat vulnerable populations such as minority ethnic groups, minority religions, single mothers, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups.
Yet opinion polls continue to show that U.S. Americans love their politicians and their big-name religious leaders and follow them blindly into war, dishonesty, and moral corruption. [Note: This may be changing since I wrote this in June 2005.] It is not hard to guess what Jeremiah would say to us.
Jeremiah also had much to say about exploited laborers and the unfair treatment of resident aliens. In chapters 7 and 22, Jeremiah rails against the exploitation of poor workers and resident aliens. One of King Zedekiah’s predecessors, King Jehoiakim, is denounced for exploitation of the poor by building large palaces and employing the poor at low wages to build them. No doubt Jehoiakim defended his “jobs program” by explaining that living wages would hurt competition and small businesses.
Ever since 1980, U.S. labor law has become increasingly weaker and workers’ rights ignored or undermined, along with the ability to engage in collective bargaining through labor unions. Global trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, subordinate national labor laws to these treaties, along with using these treaties to override local environmental and workplace safety rules. In the wake of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Pres. Bush used his power of Executive Order to suspend the law which requires that federal contracts in emergency reconstruction pay laborers the prevailing wage. Now, the government is free to give rich no-bid contracts for rebuilding to corporate cronies and exploit the workers they hire for this necessary work! Further, millions of resident aliens in the U.S. labor in slave-like conditions in U.S. fields and sweatshops (intimidated by the lack of “green cards” into keeping quiet about their abuse).
Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. forces the sweatshop system and agribusiness on the rest of the world as ‘economic reform.’ Rich U.S. Americans, like the rich of ancient Judah, are building mansions at a breathtaking rate while the poor have no homes or shacks and the standard of living for the poorest people in the nation and the planet continues to decline. Now, the U.S. calls itself the “ownership society” not meaning that all will own enough to live and have a stake in the common good, but that those who own the most will have the most power, get to make all the rules, and the devil take the hindmost.
Like all true prophets, Jeremiah constantly announced that economic exploitation and war were fundamental offenses to God and no amount of “prosperity doctrine” or “health and wealth” gospel by the false prophets of his day or ours can efface that reality.
A prophetic war resister like Jeremiah will not only be unpopular with the rich and powerful, but often with the common folk as well. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah we see him hounded as a traitor and a troublemaker. He was accused of destroying the people’s morale during wartime.
Early in his career as a prophet, the people of his hometown threw Jeremiah into the stocks. Later, he was thrown in prison. Still later, he was thrown into a partially dry cistern where he sank into the mud and experienced continual physical pain.
God wasn’t easy on Jeremiah, either. God forced Jeremiah to prophesy doom and destruction on the people he loved and when Jeremiah tried to be silent, the Word of God burned in his bones like fire! God refused to let Jeremiah marry or have children—a huge curse in his culture. Jeremiah was a priest who was forbidden to serve at Temple!
Having been forced to watch most of the people of Judah taken into Exile by the Babylonians, near the end of Jeremiah’s life, he was abducted and forced to go to Egypt by a group of Judah’s “freedom fighters” who had assassinated the Babylonian governor of their region. The group which kidnapped Jeremiah pressured him into prophesying things that would favor their actions, but he steadfastly refused. He died in Egypt.
Violent, terrorist “patriots” holding war resisters captive sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? Yet, if we too will become “circumcised of the heart” (ch. 4), Jeremiah is an excellent example for us of how to be faithful to God, resist injustice, war, and violence in our day as he did in his.
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