Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jeremiah 17:5-10) transports me back 50 years ago to the Vietnam of May, 1961, where Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was visiting South Vietnamese President Diem, hailing him as the Winston Churchill of Asia. Later that same month, President Kennedy would authorize 400 Green Beret troops to go to Vietnam to teach counter-insurgency techniques to South Vietnamese military and Montegnard civilian fighters. The rest, as they say, is history, and as Jonathan Schell pointed out in his book The Unconquerable World, part of the lesson of that history is how violence has become dysfunctional as a political instrument. In other words, war ain’t what it used to be. But the Hebrew prophets might quarrel with this statement; they might argue that violence never functioned well as the means to a good end. For one thing, relying on human weapons to solve problems erodes trust in God, and for another, it literally erodes the earth (the “conflict” in Vietnam certainly illustrated the latter, with its widespread use of chemical defoliants). The Roman historian Tacitus understood this consequence well, when he wrote of Rome’s military expansionism: They made a wasteland and called it peace.
The prophet Jeremiah foreshadowed the wisdom of Jonathan Schell and Tacitus when he wrote of a parched land filled with a passel of cussed people blown like tumbleweed. He illustrated the flip side as well, though: right down the road from the cursed wasteland was a blessed bottom land filled with folks drinking deep from the watering hole of a sacred stream. What did the blessed folks to do deserve the fertility of flowing waters? When confronted by the heat of hostile forces they maintained a resilient trust in God to take care of them. They refused the call to arms. What did the dry as dust folks do to deserve their curse? When confronted by hostile forces, they abandoned faith in God and hedged their bets by placing trust in human strength, taking up arms and building up armies to do what they feared the Lord would not do for them. Jeremiah said that this misplaced trust in human power was a sign of a heart turned away from the Lord. These might makes right folks would find themselves no better than what the NIV calls a bush in the wastelands (no political jab intended). They would be consigned to dead deserts, singing along with Woody Guthrie, so long, it’s been good to know ya; this dusty old dust is gettin’ my home.
The prophet’s use of environmental symbolism for the blessing and cursing of God’s people has an even sharper edge today. The idea that the arrogance of human power can create deserts has become a literal as well as symbolic truth. Desertification is a current catastrophe that we don’t hear much about, but it is taking away fertile land the size of Nebraska each year, due to over-development, deforestation, war, and other mindless human attempts to literally conquer the world we live in. It is happening in Africa, in Asia, and right here at home in the southwest United States. Let us maintain a vigilant trust in God and refuse complicity in this crazy conquest, lest we come to experience more of Woody G’s prophetic verses: The churches was jammed, the churches was packed, and that dusty old storm blew so black, so the Preacher could not read a word of the Text, and he folded his specs, and he took up collection, so long, it’s been good to know ya. Until that dread day, I’ll keep walkin’ my ribbon of highway in search of those sacred watering holes of genuine grace and peace.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.