Fellow Passengers: Today’s Prophetic Passage (Jeremiah 11:9-23) transports me to Athens, Greece (as opposed to Athens, West Virginia), 200 years after the prophet Jeremiah lamented the fate of his hometown of Anathoth and was abused for his prophecies. Here, in an Athenian courtroom, another prophet of sorts is lamenting the fate of his city as he is on trial for allegedly “corrupting the youth.” This seer spoke truth using the socratic method, catching his accusers in contradiction after contradiction. Of course I’m talking about the inventor of the socratic method, Socrates himself, whose staunch defense of truth and reason was not enough to win the day, as the jury condemned him to death. What he admitted to in his defense was not being a corrupter of youth, but an irritant to the complacent culture. The image he used was a social gadfly, given to the state by God, and the state is a noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.
Socrates’ analogy of the horse and fly was almost complete. It is true that a large city-state, like a horse, does not easily turn around, and needs constant prodding. What he left out was a built-in mechanism every horse has, enabling it to deal with the pesky gadfly – the swatting tail. It’s the built-in mechanism every human culture uses to deal with the irritating prophetic voices that pester people to change their way of thinking or acting. The human version of tail swatting is strategic plotting. This is what Jeremiah was dealing with in our passage today. God revealed to him the thick plot of the people to swat him, to erase his name from their memory. He, like Socrates in Athens, had been a gadfly to the leadership of Anathoth, constantly prodding and poking and prophesying against their idolatry, their lust for power, their shallow reliance on ritual without the integrity of the covenant relationship. And the leaders of his time didn’t react any better to his pestering than the leaders of Athens reacted to Socrates. They plotted.
I think if we’re honest most of us can identify with the strategy-plotting reaction of the people in Athens and Anathoth. I don’t think many of us enjoy engaging constructively with those who push our buttons and stir our sacred cows to life. Our general reaction is to plot ways to silence these pesky voices, to refute them, to erase them. In the marketplace of ideas, we really don’t believe in the free-market virtue of competition; we’d just as soon not have those pesky competitors snapping at us. So we spend a lot of time plotting and swatting. It happen all across the cultural and ideological spectrum. Liberals don’t really want to hear about the importance of personal responsibility, any more than conservatives want to hear about the importance of social justice. So instead of letting the viewpoints of the prophetic voices who differ from us stir us into a more whole life, we plot ways to make clever Youtube videos spliced from all the stupid comments someone on the other side has made. We do all we can to demonize or lampoon the opposition.
I’ve learned from experience the other truth that Jeremiah reveals in this scenario. Plotting to silence the pestering prophets has disastrous consequences. The broken community is the vengeance of God on the idolatry of power that is at the heart of all this plotting and swatting. When we’re engaged in this, there’s no use praying. God turns a deaf ear. So maybe it’s time we started using our horse hair for stringing violins instead of stringing up our opponents, and find the kernel of truth in what they’re saying that can stir us to life.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.