I first met Jeremiah, the Biblical prophet, when I was a college student studying abroad. I didn’t literally meet him, of course, since he lived 2,700 years ago, but I had an encounter with him on a field trip to the ancient abbey at Moissac in the south of France.
Captivated there by Jeremiah’s penetrating eyes embedded in a sinuous carving of stone, I brought him home in the form of a poster purchased from the abbey gift shop. Though I wasn’t a church goer and didn’t know who Jeremiah was, I carried that poster with me, wrinkled and crumpled by age, for 35 years. In all that time, Jeremiah remained as silent as the stone he was carved from.
Until three years ago. By then, I was a student at Yale Divinity School, having left family, friends, community, and 25-year career in conservation to learn about my new-found Christian faith. I wondered how it was relevant to climate change and why I’d been called to become an Episcopal priest in order to be a more effective advocate for Earth and her people.
In my first biblical studies class, I finally read the book of Jeremiah and knew why I had been carrying him with me for all those years. Jeremiah spoke to me, as he had spoken to so many over the centuries, about human greed and foolishness, about failure to help the poor, about laying waste to the land, and about orienting our lives toward the wrong things. In my worries about our world, and especially about the coming disaster of climate change, I heard Jeremiah speaking as profoundly today as he did nearly 3,000 years ago.
Jeremiah was not a popular man and the message he carried to ancient Israel was not a popular message. In brief, Jeremiah prophesied that destruction was coming in the form of the great army of Babylon because Israel no longer adhered to the central ethical command to love God and neighbor. As the book of Jeremiah says, “But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart…they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.”
Telling of the destruction to come, Jeremiah gives voice to his grief: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent… Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste… I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void… I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert…”
Oh, how my own heart pounded in resonance as I read this! Jeremiah was speaking of an entirely different culture and time and, at the same time, is speaking profound truth for our own times. We, too, in our quest to be fat and sleek, have caused a great scourge to sweep down. Not the army of Babylon but that of climate change – a transformation of the atmosphere and oceans that hold and support all life – and whose coming will harm the poor most of all.As this summer’s drought throughout so much of the fruited plains of America may have foreshadowed, we, too, fear that the fruitful land may become a desert.
As in Jeremiah’s time, it is easier to ignore the threat, to go about our lives pretending it doesn’t exist. Certainly this is what is happening in current political and economic debates. But Jeremiah voices the cost of such willful ignorance: Anguish! Woe! Destruction! And the only response: Repent! Yes, repent! To repent means to reorient one’s life toward the source of creation, love, and hope rather than toward self-interest, greed, and power. This, in the end, is what Jeremiah tells us. That even as we do stupid things, even as through our greed and short-sightedness we harm others and ourselves and cause destruction to Earth, even as we suffer, there is hope, in God – by whatever name, form, and faith – and within the human heart.
For me as an environmentalist concerned about Earth and her people, amidst anxieties about human failings, this is the final message that Jeremiah, ensconced in that poster still pinned to my wall, came to deliver: The world is in trouble. People have caused it.Yet, there is hope.
This was first published in the Concord (NH) Monitor.