Updated: May 20, 2022
Jeremiah has been my favorite prophet since my graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary. I think I was influenced more by Abraham J. Heschel’s lectures about him than by the Book of Jeremiah in the Bible. Several months ago, we visited Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Exhibition at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, which included a photo of his Jeremiah.
The killing and suffering of civilians in Ukraine led me to imagine Jeremiah in Ukraine. What might we learn by imagining this prophet who lived in the seventh century BC as our contemporary? After reading the Book of Jeremiah again, as well as Heschel’s book on the prophets, my assignment was not as easy as I had thought.
In A Climate of Justice, I engaged in a theological inquiry about the empowerment of civilians in Chapter 8, and there I argued that the study of the gods can be understood as a study of power. Jeremiah appears to interpret this “power” in a particular way.
Heschel writes about the prophets, “The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in the sympathy with divine pathos.” Jeremiah’s prophecy of the demise of the Southern Kingdom or Judah by the Babylonians, in other words, was not some abstract prediction, but rather an expression of a caring and emotional God. This is the quality I see in Michelangelo’s painting of Jeremiah.
My soul will weep in secret for your pride
My eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears
Because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive.
Jeremiah 13: 15-117
If that were the whole of Jeremiah’s prophecy, I would not have had such a problem in imagining him in Ukraine. Another part of Jeremiah’s message, however, is not so easy. Jeremiah focuses on “the Lord’s flock,” as he says above. His focus is not on the empirical ambitions of the Assyrians, Babylonians, or Egyptians, who were the major political forces then, but on the Hebrews. If we were to simply apply what Jeremiah said to the tribes of Israel to the Ukrainian civilians, we would probably be accused of “blaming the victim.”
It seems to me the best way out of this conundrum is to separate the pathos from the logos: the emotions from the argument. The Ukrainian civilians are not to blame for their plight. That does not mean that Jeremiah could not be there for them. He could even help us take in the emotional meaning of what is happening to all of us in our time.
When we witness the bombing of hospitals and maternity wards, our “pathos” of sorrow, grief, anger and rage is not lightened by some power above us, but rather deepened by the power among us.