O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. (Ps 79:1-2)
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? (Jer 8: 21-22)
The book of the Prophet Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are texts of conquest and exile.
Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus. The days of the great united Kingdom of Israel under King David were long past. The Assyrian Empire had conquered the northern region in 720. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, remained nominally free, but fell under Assyria’s authority in 700, as part of their empire, forced to pay tribute and obey their rulers. When Assyria fell and Babylon arose, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won. And after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. The city walls were torn down, the great Temple burned. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or exiled. Those exiles, the survivors, struggling to build new lives in Babylon, had endured a decade of active military threat, and over a century of domination by external powers.
The book of Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are texts of trauma.
Trauma here refers both to shocking negative events that overwhelm one’s immediate capacity to cope, but also to the ways such events affect us for the short, medium and long term. These Biblical texts bear the marks of traumatizing violence, loss and displacement, as they tell the story of an event so pivotal in Jewish history that it is described in at least five different places in the Old Testament.
The book of Jeremiah largely dates to the years before the conquest – the prophet is warning Judah and its leaders of their approaching doom, and begging them to change course. But Jeremiah’s prophetic mission extends into exile – and as his prophetic texts were gathered into a book during and after the exile, those ancient editors may have added their memories of devastation to the prophet’s oracles of warning. As for Psalm 79 – we think of the Psalms as coming from the time of David’s court, and some of them do; but others were written centuries later, like this one, which clearly describes the fall of Jerusalem – with a vividness that makes it hard to read.
What does it mean to call these texts of trauma? What can we read from them, through that lens? First, it helps us understand this sometimes horrific imagery. One common after-effect of trauma is intense and intrusive memories, that may overwhelm the survivor at times. When our psalm speaks of blood poured out like water, or when Jeremiah speaks again and again about dead bodies scattered in the fields, food for carrion birds and wild animals, with no one left to bury them – I think that we are hearing the memories that haunt these survivors and shatter their sleep, even years afterwards.
Understanding these as texts of trauma also helps make sense of the strong themes of guilt and shame. Excessive guilt is a common response to trauma. It’s actually a way to try and make sense of what happened, and why it happened, by assuming responsibility. As horrible as it is to think that a tragedy was my fault, it may be easier than thinking it was nobody’s fault. The book of Jeremiah spends a lot of time explaining the violence that has fallen upon Judah by describing their collective misdeeds and failures. The word “shame” appears 34 times in the book of Jeremiah, and the word “guilt” another 13 times. Just a few verses before today’s passage, the text says, “I will give their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall. (Jeremiah 8, selected verses)
Not only the idea of Judah’s guilt, but the idea of God’s punishment, are cognitive tools for making sense of disaster. Scholar Kathleen O’Connor has written about trauma in the book of Jeremiah. She argues that making God the agent in the devastation of Judah means that neither the gods of Babylon – nor random, cruel Fate – have triumphed. Even in conquest, even in exile, Judah remains, as always, under the authority of its God.
Holding onto a sense of God’s presence and power was important because trauma can shake or shatter your worldview and sense of who you are. Clinical psychology and trauma scholar Amy Mezulis says that violent loss “breaks past that… barrier that most of us have that says ‘This isn’t how the world works’ or that life is sacred.” After trauma, the world may feel unpredictable and unsafe. It may feel impossible to engage with normal life events, or imagine a future. Life may feel hopeless and overwhelming, long after the actual traumatic events are over. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician who can heal my people?
And yet… Trauma does not get the last word. With support, and love, and time, and luck, people can heal. People can grow. They will always carry the mark of what they have been through. But they may be able to integrate it into a new sense of self and world. I’m in tender territory here, which some of you know far more intimately than I do, and I’m speaking with humility. But the literature suggests there can be good outcomes for people who come through significant traumas, whether individually or as a group. They may arrive – with support, love, time, and luck – at a stronger sense of connection with loved ones and community; and at a new sense of meaning and purpose. We can see this happening late in the Book of Jeremiah, and other books of the post-Exile period. Watch for that in the weeks ahead!
The exiles lost SO much – but they survived, and their faith survived. They discovered that God was not left behind in the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple. They began to see that God’s presence and promise and plan were bigger than any one nation or people. Kathleen O’Connor calls the book of Jeremiah a “survival manual” for how to maintain life, faith, and hope, after profound loss.
What will you do when the end comes? The prophet Jeremiah asks that chilling question in chapter 5. What are the gifts of these texts of trauma? What will you do when the end comes?
We live in a time of impending crisis. It has a name: the Anthropocene. The epoch in which human activity is massively altering the conditions of life on earth. It’s characterized by dramatic, short-term, localized crises; and the slow, stealthy global crisis of climate change we all share. We have always had hurricanes, floods, droughts, blizzards. But climate change makes those systems more intense and destructive, and less predictable – like the intense hurricane drowning Houston this week, or the deadly flooding in Wisconsin last August.
At the same time, the long-term, large-scale impacts are becoming more visible, bit by bit, if we pause to notice. Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post, “There is no crisis, just an accumulation of curiosities and irritants. Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that once made its home closer to the equator is now boring through trees on Long Island… We freak out, but go about our business. The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us.”
I recently read a journalist who covers climate change, David Roberts, reflecting on how our nation might respond to future mass traumas. He reflects on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and concludes that in that case, in hindsight, we did not respond terribly well. We let our rage and need for revenge – our shared trauma – lead us into endless and senseless wars; into tolerating surveillance that chipped away at our privacy and civil rights; into a demagogic and scapegoating mode of political discourse. Roberts writes, “Climate change is, above all, going to manifest as a series of traumas — storms, heat waves, food shortages, mass migrations, [and so on.] …Our only hope is to react to trauma with grace, compassion, and solidarity. That’s what I would like to tell the [teenagers] of the world: you are going to be tested, again and again. Don’t be like your parents. Don’t be small; don’t retreat behind tribal walls; don’t wallow in rage and self-righteousness. Be better. You have to be, or we’re all [screwed].”
Today’s Gospel parable is one of the more perplexing of its kind. But it does show us one thing to do when the end is coming, when you’re about to lose everything – job, status, income, way of life all at once. The dishonest manager doesn’t despair, and he doesn’t run. Instead, he tries to build relationships, so that he isn’t facing an insecure and diminished future alone. What will you do when the end comes?
Being a church-going Christian means a lot of things. One is that we’re in a living relationship with an ancient text. If you’ve been coming for even a few weeks and paying even some attention, you carry around inside you stories and songs and laments and advice and poetry that range from 2 to 4000 years old. That gives us a somewhat unusual historical perspective. As I told a friend this week: if NOTHING else, the Bible shows you that God’s people have been through some stuff. Our faith ancestors survived traumatic loss and epochal change. They had to come through struggle to new understandings of God and world and self. Maybe we can, too. Maybe the poetry of grief and perseverance that they left for us can give us courage to face this season in the life of the world.
Because, writes Kate Marvel for On Being, courage is what we need for the days and years ahead. “I have no hope,” she says, “that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere. We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending…. [Because] here we are, together on a planet radiating ever more into space where there is no darkness, only light we cannot see.”
An overview of trauma: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
Walter Brueggemann review Kathleen O’Connor’s book on Jeremiah: https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-04/jeremiah-kathleen-m-o-connor
Dan Zak on climate change: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/everything-is-not-going-to-be-okay-how-to-live-with-constant-reminders-that-the-earth-is-in-trouble/2019/01/24/9dd9d6e6-1e53-11e9-8b59-0a28f2191131_story.html
David Roberts’ thread on 9/11 and climate crises: https://twitter.com/drvox/status/1171915448088256512
Kate Marvel for On Being: https://onbeing.org/blog/kate-marvel-we-need-courage-not-hope-to-face-climate-change/