The experience of the Old Testament figure Jeremiah with God and his people makes this prophet a fitting model for unity in a divided world. Much like the world we live in today, Jeremiah’s time was one of extreme uncertainty, complacency, and factionalism. The way Jeremiah worked for and embodied the spirit of unity in his culture can be instructive for our response to the difficulties of our present time.
Jeremiah is one of the most disturbing characters in Scripture. Job-like, his life was one of almost unremitting sorrow and abandonment. Some see a close connection between him and Isaiah’s suffering servant; for example, Jeremiah describes himself as a “gentle lamb, led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19). Regardless of whether this parallel is intentional or not, the intensity of exterior and interior anguish that the suffering servant undergoes is very similar to Jeremiah’s. Both figures will serve as a prophetic and interpretive grid for understanding Christ in the New Testament.
Jeremiah’s anguish was born from being deeply wounded, both in his relationship with the Lord and with his fellow Israelites. As to his calling from the Lord, much like Jesus, Jeremiah had ‘hidden years,’ living in obscurity before the Lord formally called him to be a prophet. Yet when the Lord calls him, he tells Jeremiah that he was chosen before He knit him together in his mother’s womb (Jer 1:5). This message distinguishes Jeremiah from every other prophet. While they also received their missions from God later in life, Jeremiah does not so much receive his mission as he is the mission. His mission is knit into the fabric of his existence, impossible to ‘unstitch’ without pulling apart Jeremiah himself. This is an explanation why, when at one point Jeremiah refuses to prophesy, he says the withheld word almost consumed him (Jer 20:9). The Lord’s word is so intimately bound up with Jeremiah’s being that to withhold it when it seeks expression is like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water. And Jeremiah is both the fire and the water. This sense of violation, of suffering divine things, and of not having full control over himself or his mission, leads Jeremiah, in one of the ‘dark passages’ of Scripture, to accuse the Lord not only of deceiving him, but of prevailing over him by force (Jer 20:7). Jeremiah clearly believes himself to be wounded by God.
Jeremiah is also deeply wounded by his fellow Israelites who utterly scorn him and eventually throw him into a pit and leave him to die (Jer 38-40). He continuously laments over his countrymen’s treatment of him. They seem to be waiting for him to fail in his prophecy like a lion waiting for his prey. They want revenge against him for his prophetic denunciation of their complacent lives (Jer 20). His suffering is so severe that at one point Jeremiah says that he wishes his mother’s womb had been his grave and he had never been born. (Jer 20:14-18).
Jeremiah’s woundedness, in fact, is pervasive. This wound is not Jeremiah’s alone to bear. He also sees his people as deeply wounded—as suffering from a putrid, incurable, and festering wound that they refuse to care for. It is incurable because they inflict it upon themselves through unfaithfulness: when they rely on the Temple as a precinct of safety when it has been consigned to destruction (Jer 7:4); when they refuse to go into exile (Jer 29:15-19); when they rely upon the salve of false prophets (Jer 28).
Based on all this, it may seem odd that I am proposing Jeremiah as a prophet of unity. He was wounded, both by the Lord and by his fellow countrymen. It seems as though he stands more as a sign of division than unity. So, why Jeremiah? Because Jeremiah sees the woundedness of his people as his own wound. What becomes clear in the Book of Jeremiah is that while he suffers a wound himself, he also deeply identifies with the wounds of his people. Just as their wounds are incurable, when he says, “My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me” (Jer 15:18), he indicates that his wounds are incurable as well.
Their wound wounds him. Their wound is his own wound. He says, “For the wound… of my people is my heart wounded, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer 8:21-22). He does not distance himself from their sinful wounds in order to care for his own pain and suffering (Jer 15). The judgment he pronounces against them terrifies him and causes him to weep over them (Jer 13:17). It is as if in their apostasy or obstinacy or false prophecy, Jeremiah himself—in a way that seems almost Marian—was mysteriously present. Rather than allowing his woundedness and theirs to cause division, it instead inspires him to enter into communion with them in an ever-deepening way, to the point of identifying himself with them. Here we come to see a profound and essential aspect of his mission: just as the Lord commissioned him to prophesy to the nations, the Lord also commissioned him to have a deep solidarity with his people.
This is a key element of Jeremiah’s terrible mission. When the Lord called him before birth, he also called him to be an Israelite and one with his people. As Pope Francis might say, it is precisely in his identifying with his people that Jeremiah’s mission becomes more deeply incarnate in God’s people. Speaking geometrically, while he may have been placed “above” the Lord’s people and the nations as a prophet, he was also pushed below them in his identification with them and their woundedness. We might say he was “baptized” into them. He therefore becomes a “suffering servant” who takes up the sins of his people in a way that is nearly absolute and without remainder. The prophet Jeremiah is, we can say, spread across a chasm of rebellion and covenantal-love that transcends all division. In Pope Francis’s terminology, he is both center and periphery.
During my process of converting to Catholicism, I took a class on the Old Testament prophets. Coming to understand this transcendent unity was very influential in pushing me toward Catholicism, because in Protestantantism I found a refusal to identify one’s self with the Church’s wounds. We need not look further than the onslaught of division after Luther (something that would have horrified him), to see how this approach only leads to greater division.
For many Protestants—even if this is not formally a part of Protestant theology—the practical effect is to attempt repeatedly to seek a more pure Church. Often this means to break away from one’s current congregation and attempt to establish a purer, more holy community. To claim another’s wound as one’s own would be anathema. This approach essentially places purity ahead of unity. I have found that trying to do this results in losing both. Again, however, that was not something so much explicitly taught as it is a prevailing tendency.
Jeremiah showed me that a Christian cannot do that. Christians must bind themselves ever more deeply to the wounds of the Church. Catholics—rather than attempting to remove themselves from the festerings wound in the Church—must recognize and claim those wounds, to the point of even becoming sacrificial victims if necessary. In other words, I recognized that when the Lord commissions his people, it is always into a deepening, sacrificial identity with his people. God does not commission us to break away and attempt to achieve some kind of purity.
When we work our way through scripture, we see this prophetic call for unity slowly begin to emerge and then it progressively grows in intensity. This call is certainly not clearly evident when Noah was commanded by God to enter the ark, leaving the rest of creation to the chaos of the floodwaters. Noah offered no protest to this command (Gen 6:22; 7:5). He stood on one side of the divide with God and his family and the (few) beasts that were given to his Adamic protection. Something disturbingly similar happens to Moses when Israel rebels. Then, too, the Lord tells Moses that he will destroy Israel and build up a new generation from Moses alone. Unlike Noah, however, Moses does not remain silent. He objects. Instead of being like Noah, who did not question this straightforward command, Moses stands on both sides: on the Lord’s side and on the side of Israel. He speaks the Lord’s words of promise back to the Lord and, in so doing, unleashes the Lord’s mercy and saves his fellow Israelites (Ex 32:9-14).
This cry for unity intensifies with Isaiah’s prophecy that in the Day of the Lord, his house “shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Is 2:2). And of course, this mission towards unity begins reaching a crescendo first in Jesus’ baptism, and then in his prayer for us at the Last Supper, “That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17:21). It is finally, and irrevocably, incarnate in Jesus’ final words from the cross, “Forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And, because this is spoken by the horribly disfigured and wounded and wound-bearing Christ, the incarnate Logos of the Father, it cannot be refused.
Unity is what the Lord wants from us. Or, to speak more personally, I believe that what God wants from me is to be like Moses as I wrestle with the so-called “conservative” faction within the Church. Even as they do so much harm to the witness of the Church, the Lord will not allow me to desire those who divide the Church to simply be destroyed. He will not allow me to want them to break off from us. While a formal division might in some ways protect us and those we love and care for from their calumnies and falsehoods, this is not what God wants.
There is a temptation to quarantine ourselves, like Noah, from our friends who are deeply wounded and think we have gone off the reservation. It seems easy to relegate them to their own camps. Those of us who are parents might fear that our children will be devoured by this fear-mongering and apocalypticism, and try to keep them separated from the ideas of these people. But remember, those who hated Jeremiah’s message threw him into a pit and left him for dead. They wanted to remove the disease from their midst. That is not what the Lord wants us to do.
At times, in my weaker moments, I simply want the proto-schismatics to go join the SSPX and be done with it. Isn’t there so (so, so) much in our culture—people and ideologies—that we wish would simply disappear? Don’t I, Noah-like, often want to run to the ark/barque and allow God’s wrath to cleanse the world? Would I say a word in protest if that was offered? Is this just a divine cancel-culture that I desire? Admittedly or not, is that what I’m saying when I pray, “Thy kingdom come…”?
But we are called to a deeper, much more painful love. We are called, like Jeremiah, to say that the wounds inflicted on the Church are our very own wounds and, like Moses, to speak the Lord’s words back to Him in an appeal for mercy and unity. I often wonder if the divisions we are experiencing in the Catholic Church come not from what we are praying for, but what we aren’t praying for. Perhaps we should make a point of repeating, inspired by those words of Christ, “That we may all be one; as you, Father, are in you Son, and he in you.” That is our prophetic task. And it is one that I believe Pope Francis desperately wants for us. Because while the peripheries exist communally, each of us is also the center of a circle with its own peripheries. Jeremiah teaches us that our peripheries are still a part of who we are. Like Jeremiah, we cannot deny them because their wounds are our own.
Image: Jeremiah, by Michelangelo. Public domain. Wikimedia commons.
Brad Henry is an attorney in North Carolina. He converted to Catholicism in his senior year of college and then went on to obtain a Masters in Theology from Duke, graduating in 2002. His focus was on Hans Urs von Balthasar. He is married with five children. In his spare time, he enjoys reading books on biblical studies, theology, and literature.