Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jeremiah 31:15-17) transports me to 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC, where the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI maintains its files and analyzes violent crime in our country. People who staff this office are the ones who have crunched the numbers and can tell us that over the past thirty years there have been over 20,000 multiple homicide cases (at least two victims), and over a thousand cases of mass murder (at least four victims). No matter how much empathy a nation can generate, it would be impossible for us a society to feel any depth of compassion for all the families and individuals affected, when the mass murder rate averages over 30 a year. Occasionally some of these crimes do rise to the level of national tragedy, eliciting a nation-wide sense of grief and compassion. Some victims get their names etched in the collective soul of the culture’s psyche – Jonbenet Ramsey, Trayvon Martin, and the latest, Martin Richard – while thousands of others, such as Jiya and Piya Patel from the neighborhood where I grew up, remain anonymous to all but their family and friends. How this selective etching happens remains a mystery to me, but I think I understand why. There is such a tremendous amount of tragic suffering and loss in our world, the body politic needs to grieve, to experience empathy, to feel compassion. While we can’t begin to contain the sorrow commensurate to the massive scale that suffering exists on, we can and do find cathartic expressions for empathy through these occasional outpourings. So we find a shared image, like Martin Richard’s poster calling for an end to violence, No more hurting people. Peace, an image that represents more than one eight-year old’s dream. It is the dream tragically deferred for thousands of children, not only within our borders, but across the world, for all who have seen their lights extinguished far too soon.
The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time when this kind of suffering existed on a grand scale, deeper and wider than the nation could contain. The promised land had been conquered, with virtually every family affected. The brightest and best of the survivors had been carried off into exile and slavery. Jeremiah gives a name to one grieving mother, matriarch Rachel, and pictures her grieving for her children, refusing to be comforted. By lifting up an image of an individual mother grieving, the prophet is creating a catharsis, a way for the culture to pour out its own grief, a way for thousands of unnamed mothers to grieve over tens of thousands of lost children during this time of national lamentation.
The prophet doesn’t stop with unconsolable grief, though. The catharsis allows for a movement toward collective hope. There is a reward for your grief work, the Lord promises. There is hope for your future; your children will come back. Our time of national grieving also includes a defiant hope, expressed by the President this week when he gave voice to our collective soul at an interfaith memorial service in Boston: Our fidelity to our way of life, to a free and open society, will only grow stronger — for God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity but one of power and love and self discipline. . . This doesn’t stop us. And that’s what you’ve taught us, Boston. That’s what you’ve reminded us — to push, to not grow weary, to not get faint, even when it hurts. We finish the race. And we do that because of who we are and we do that because we know that somewhere around the bend, a stranger has a cup of water. Around the bend, somebody’s there to boost our spirits. On that toughest mile, just when we think we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick up. . . Our prayers are with the injured – so many wounded, some gravely. From their beds, some are surely watching us gather here today. And if you are, know this: As you begin this long journey of recovery, your city is with you. Your commonwealth is with you. Your country is with you. We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again. Of that I have no doubt. You will run again. You will run again. Such is the defiant hope expressed by the weeping prophet Jeremiah, who promised that the covenant community would experience resurrection life, with generations of children to come. These generations would eventually include a child born in Bethlehem amidst another season of horrific violence and victimization of children and unconsolable grief. That child would grow up to preach the same simple but prophetic message we saw on an eight-year-old’s poster this week: No more hurting people. Peace.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.