Anarchy in the Pulpit: Anti-Propagandistic Preaching
in a Post-Constantinian Age
Duke Divinity School
Presented to the Annual Gathering of
Young Scholars in the Baptist Academy
July 16-20, 2013
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must coöperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. —Edward Bernays1
This is a study of how the practice of preaching may nurture and sustain Christian communities by counteracting the effects of propaganda. After considering Jacques Ellul’s work, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, and the ways in which his analysis of propaganda dovetails with Walter Brueggemann’s concept of “the royal consciousness” in The Prophetic Imagination, I will attempt to combine their respective approaches in preparation for a theological analysis of propaganda’s relationship to the church. I will examine selected passages from the Book of Jeremiah in order to suggest three prophetic features of Jeremiah’s ministry—prodigal truth, lament, and reconciliation—that proffer him as a prototype for anti-propagandistic preaching. I conclude by drawing on the work of Stanley Hauerwas to suggest that propaganda is an enemy that Christian communities must attack, primarily through an approach to Christian preaching that will sound anarchistic to the secular order.
Propaganda According to Jacques Ellul
We assume at our own peril that propaganda was merely a tool of 20th Century totalitarian regimes, and that its threat extends no further than the faded images the nightly newscasts dramatically burned into the collective memory of the masses for more than half a century: locals pulling down a statue of a dictator; a poster filled with nationalistic rhetoric hanging from an overpass; grainy videos of soldiers marching lockstep in the capital square; or Hitler gesturing furiously from a podium. As Ellul’s enduring treatise on the subject reveals, propaganda remains a prolific phenomenon that saturates nearly everyone living within the boundaries of any modern nation-state. His analysis sounds a warning to those who assume they are immune to the persuasion of primitivist or incendiary slogans, the rallying cries of an excitable crowd, or conscription into direct or indirect acts of violence. In fact, Ellul describes modern propaganda as a perennial necessity for “modern man,” and a mostly covert activity, a clandestine technique that is critical to the function of the modern nation-state and the preservation of its sovereignty.
Ellul distinguishes between direct (overt) and indirect (covert, or sociological) propaganda. Indirect, covert, or sociological propaganda, which he also calls “pre-propaganda,” is indispensible for direct propaganda’s success. The public is always aware of direct propaganda. “There is a Ministry of Propaganda; one admits that propaganda is being made; its source is known; its aims and intentions are identified.”2 In these situations, the propagandist makes himself available to the people and directly engages them. He,
acts, becomes involved, demonstrates his conviction, his belief, his good faith. He commits himself to the course of action that he proposes and supports, and in order to obtain a similar action, he solicits a corresponding response from the propagandee. Democratic propaganda—in which the politician extends a hand to the citizen—is of this type.3
Direct propaganda is utterly useless without indirect or pre-propaganda. “Sociological propaganda can be compared to plowing, direct propaganda to sowing; you cannot do one without doing the other first.”4 Such covert propaganda “is sociological in character, slow, general, seeking to create a climate, an atmosphere of favorable preliminary attitudes, [and] is limited to creating ambiguities, reducing prejudices, and spreading images, apparently without purpose.”5 Propagandees obliviously consume this pre-propaganda while the propagandist discerns—by scientific means—when the public is ready to receive more direct engagement. Both covert and overt propaganda always employ the latest and most complex technologies and psychological techniques to achieve their aims. But a distinguishing mark of covert propaganda is its incorporation of mystery and silence into extended periods of cultivation. “The people are not aware that someone is trying to influence them, and do not feel that they are being pushed in a certain direction.”6
For example, Ellul refers to the Motion Picture Association’s7 code, “which requires films to promote ‘the highest types of social life,’ ‘the proper conception of society,’ ‘the proper standards of life,’ and to avoid ‘any ridicule of the law (natural or human) or sympathy for those who violate the law.’”8 The contemporary situation requires that propaganda be disseminated through all types of media, and films are a significant means of connecting with the widest possible unsuspecting audience. “The movies and human contacts,” Ellul states, “are the best media for sociological propaganda in terms of social climate, slow infiltration, progressive inroads, and over-all integration.”9 Films, which may also be used to present overt propaganda, are an especially reliable form of covert propaganda in democratic societies precisely because the public does not generally suspect theater of assisting the aims of the state. Films help create the conditions for direct propaganda’s potency through the inconspicuous repetition of the myths propaganda is tasked with establishing and maintaining. We cannot really overestimate their sociological power to prepare the ground for overt propaganda’s flourishing.
Propagandists must carefully monitor their use of indirect propaganda in order to avoid wasting opportunities ripe for direct propaganda. When the time comes for implementing the latter, they must be careful not to overdose the public with direct propaganda. In this sense of balancing its uses, we may imagine propaganda to be something like a toxin. Ellul says propagandees succumb to both “mithridatization” and “sensibilization.” Mithridatization is the development of a peculiar form of tolerance for the objective and intellectual content of propaganda, whereby the subject becomes so suffused with it that he no longer feel its effects. That “does not mean that he has become insensitive to propaganda, that he turns from it, that he is immune. It means exactly the opposite, for not only does he keep buying his newspaper, but he also continues to follow the trend and obey the rules.”10 Sensibilization describes the state of heightened susceptibility to propaganda for the mithridatized subject. Like an alcoholic who becomes drunk on one glass of wine, “the smallest dose [of propaganda] suffices.”11 Mithridatization merely affects a propagandee’s domain of opinion, reducing propaganda’s shock value. But in the “domain of action he is actually mobilized. He responds to the changing propaganda inputs; he acts with vigor and certainty, indeed with precipitation. He is a ready activist, but his action is purely irrational.”12
The combination of overt and covert propaganda, with the results of mithridatization and sensibilization, help illustrate propaganda’s totalizing effect on its subjects. Naming this dynamic is in fact one of Ellul’s seminal contributions to the study of propaganda, and one of the main reasons he reluctantly defines propaganda. Ellul’s definition, which he tentatively calls “a partial one,” is as follows:
Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization.13
More recent scholars have criticized Ellul’s depiction of the vastness and pervasiveness of propaganda as too indefinite for the kinds of precise investigations needed to unmask it.14 But what one finds in Ellul’s work that is largely missing in these more recent analyses is a careful respect for propaganda’s sheer size, its unremitting proliferation, and its spiritual dimensions. In a later work, he describes propaganda in biblical and apocalyptic terms, unapologetically identifying it as the contemporary form of the “beast that rose out of the earth” in Revelation 13.15 This second beast, which follows the beast from the sea, “makes speeches which induce people to obey the state, to worship it. It gives them the mark that enables them to live in society.”16
By this association, Ellul expands our capacity to recognize propaganda’s ability to overwhelm human beings. This realization is not a vaccine against its effects, but an exposé of propaganda as a kind of leviathan. Readers familiar with Ellul will hear echoes of his analysis of the technological society in his statement that propaganda must utilize all media—“the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing.”17 Propaganda must be total. It cannot continue in a sporadic mode. “Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes, in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private and his public life.”18 Additionally, contemporary technology (television, internet, mobile devices) and scientific understanding have combined to produce forms of propaganda previous societies could not have imagined. For example, propaganda is now so omnipresent and pervasive that countries like the United States, where the common citizen sees propaganda as a kind of evil, is nevertheless steeped in it, and even happily dependent upon it. In societies like ours, propaganda surrounds us so completely that we might even say it has an unassuming quality. Left unchecked, it suffuses our consciousness with its own brand of imagination, and stamps each of us with its unique trademark.19
Propaganda Vis-á-vis the Royal Consciousness
Ellul’s analysis of propaganda complements Walter Brueggemann’s description of the “royal consciousness,” for which the central criteria are the maintenance of affluence, the politics of oppression, and the subordination of the sovereignty of God to the sovereignty of the king. There are three corresponding elements of the royal consciousness that serve as the distinguishing marks of what Brueggemann calls “the royal program of achievable satiation.” This program has to do with a saturation of the governed with a particular kind of imagination. In particular, the royal program:
• Is fed by a management mentality that believes there are no mysteries to honor, only problems to be solved […]
• Is legitimated by an ‘official religion of optimism,’ which believes God has no business other than to maintain our standard of living, ensuring his own place in his palace.
• Requires the annulment of the neighbor as life-giver in our history; it imagines that we can live outside history as self-made men and women.20
I will attempt to weave these three qualities with some essential components of propaganda in order to establish a conceptual framework for considering the prophet Jeremiah as a prototypical anti-propagandist.
First, the “management mentality” to which Brueggemann refers is precisely what sustains modern bureaucracies. Modern propaganda could not exist without bureaucratic managers. There must be an institutional, administrative organization, with a defined hierarchy of leadership. The higher one traces the hierarchical pyramid, the more concealed the administrators are from the general public. An intentional result of this organization is that “[t]he propagandist is always separated from the propagandee, he remains a stranger to him.”21 Propagandees are, by definition, “underneath” the propagandist:
Classic propaganda, as one usually thinks of it, is a vertical propaganda—in the sense that it is made by a leader, a technician, a political or religious head who acts from the superior position of his authority and seeks to influence the crowd below. Such propaganda comes from above. It is conceived in the secret recesses of political enclaves; it uses all technical methods of centralized mass communication; it envelops a mass of individuals; but those who practice it are on the outside.22
Such separation between propagandist and propagandee mirrors the atomization of the public mass into individuals that appear to the propagandist to be little more than commodities.23 This corresponds with Ellul’s contention that modern propaganda can flourish only in certain sociological conditions. For propaganda to succeed, the society must be both an individualist and a mass society.24 These may sound like contradictory terms, but Ellul insists they are not. In truth, “an individualist society must be a mass society, because the first move toward liberation of the individual is to break up the small groups that are an organic fact of the entire society.”25 The consequence is an epidemic of loneliness and isolation that makes individuals even more susceptible to propaganda. “Precisely because the individual claims to be equal to all other individuals, he becomes an abstraction and is in effect reduced to a cipher.”26
Thus, there will be “no mysteries to honor” within the bureaucratic royal consciousness, since one of the intended results of achievable satiation is the people’s disenchantment with the legends that once constituted and animated their communal life. Propagandists derive much of their power in a parasitical way from the fact/value dichotomy. “Modern man worships ‘facts’—that is, he accepts ‘facts’ as the ultimate reality. He is convinced that what is, is good. He believes that facts in themselves provide evidence and proof, and he willingly subordinates values to them.”27 In this context of a simultaneously individualist and mass society, everything is carefully weighed and measured, and reality can only be that which the technicians, politicians, and managers seem to empirically and objectively construct or verify. These are the conditions in which the royal consciousness redefines our notions of humanness, and denies “the legitimacy of tradition that requires us to remember, of authority that expects us to answer, and of community that calls us to care.”28
A second principle of the royal program is its “official religion of optimism.” This element functions to maintain the status quo of affluence, especially for the ruling classes. The official narrative also domesticates religion by handing what is really God’s jurisdiction over to the king. It perpetuates myths that hijack God’s sovereignty and gives the king “a monopoly so that no marginal person may approach this God except on the king’s terms.”29 Those who challenge authorized accounts of reality are ignored as traitors and fools. Lamentations are mocked. The official religion of optimism suffers no interruptions. “There will be no disturbing cry against the king here.”30
Likewise, propagandists must advance an etiological myth, one that enables the organization to offer a foundational, all-embracing system of belief and explanation for the way things are. The myth must be a complete answer to all questions occurring in the citizens’ conscience.31 In this sense, democratic states are required to become religious. “The content of this religion is of little importance; what matters is to satisfy the religious feelings of the masses; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective.”32 In the United States, the etiological myth is synonymous with “the American Way of Life.” A democracy needs its citizens to believe in this myth (“of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on” 33) in order to preserve itself. If the state ceased to promulgate its reason for being, its effectiveness in nourishing citizenry’s need for religious content would diminish. The state,
would become the laughing stock of the citizenry, and its information would lose its effect, together with its propaganda. For the information it dispenses is believed only to the extent that its propaganda is believed.34
The third distinguishing characteristic of the royal program is “the annulment of the neighbor as life-giver in our history.” The king or ruling class tries to preserve the idea that their citizens are not really dependent upon or accountable to one another, but ultimately dependent upon and accountable to the royal program. The ruling classes establish “barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense,” convince us we have denied no one their basic needs by hoarding wealth for ourselves, and expect us to remain blind to the human cost in terms of poverty and exploitation.35 In this imagination, the king becomes the agent of God’s providential care. And as this imagination gains momentum, and as the king increasingly becomes an historical agent with enduring, ontological significance, the primary vision eventually becomes the well-being of the king rather than the marginal.36
Here again the etiological myth arises to displace any idea that the individual is not utterly dependent on the state. The propagandist employs the myth to isolate the individual from his neighbor, to convince him he does not really need anyone else but the state. One of the effects of propaganda is that it diminishes a person, usurping his capacity for imagination until “he can no longer decide for himself, or alone assume the burden of his life; he needs a guardian, a director of conscience, and feels ill when he does not have them.”37 By positioning it as the sole benefactor and provider of comfort and security, propaganda enables the state to become the people’s true shepherd and neighbor. The state,
neutralizes the masses, forces them into passivity, throws them back on their private life and personal happiness (actually according them some necessary satisfactions on this level), in order to leave a free hand to those who are in power, to the active, to the militant.38
With this free hand, the state creates enemies for itself, and quite easily mobilizes the citizenry against them. “Man always has a certain need to hate, just as he hides in his heart the urge to kill. Propaganda offers him an object of hatred, for all propaganda is aimed at an enemy.”39 There is no possibility for considering enemies as potential neighbors. In democratic states this would confuse the etiological myth—i.e., the “American Way of Life”—as being merely one among other valid options. In other words, the state’s pursuit of enemies involves the perpetuation of the illusion that it alone determines the truth. The state uses covert propaganda to establish the public’s expectations for who their enemies are, and utilizes overt propaganda to agitate the public by attacking those enemies directly.
It is extremely easy to launch a revolutionary movement based on hatred of a particular enemy. Hatred is probably the most spontaneous and common sentiment; it consists of attributing one’s misfortunes and sins to ‘another,’ who must be killed in order to assure the disappearance of those misfortunes and sins.40
With its management mentality, status quo optimism, and manufactured enemies, the royal consciousness clearly corresponds with key components of modern propaganda. A fuller understanding of propaganda may therefore offer the church ways to steer the practice of preaching toward engagements with the royal consciousness that embolden the church as it becomes increasingly “surrounded” by the secular order. Brueggemann calls preaching the “summoning and nurturing of an alternative community with an alternative identity, vision, and vocation, preoccupied with praise and obedience toward the God we Christians know fully in Jesus of Nazareth.”41 It has the power to counter the royal consciousness, to expose propaganda, and to “summon and nurture” an alternative community capable of living by truth, lament, and reconciliation. Going forward, preaching will increasingly need to retrieve the contributions of prophets like Jeremiah. For the royal consciousness counters the “counter-consciousness” of the prophets, whose work is “nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.”42
Jeremiah as Anti-Propagandist
Why focus on Jeremiah? Because he epitomizes certain characteristics of the preaching life that need further exploration and elucidation for the church’s sake in this violent and technological age. Jeremiah is a model anti-propagandist. His language is raw, mercurial, even profligate at times. With little regard for half-truths and social graces, he interrupts the carefully measured, official accounts of the king’s court. His witness to the leaders in Jerusalem cuts to the heart. His critiques invite such swift retribution because they are so devastating to the carefully woven, royal narrative. Also, more than any other prophet, Jeremiah comes as close as one can to complete despair without losing all hope. He is not “speaking truth to power” as much as he is punching through the delicately gilded official account of reality with persistent lamentations. Perhaps most importantly of all, he intentionally disrupts all royal conceptions of the enemy. Jeremiah entrusts his enemies to God’s care. Violent retribution is not an option.
A central aspect of his prophetic mission is Jeremiah’s direct chastisement of the leaders of Judah for doing evil. They have turned from God in order to worship false godsspecifically fertility gods. At the heart of their wickedness is an enduring and powerful lie, spoken earlier in ch. 811, that there is “peace, peace.” In reality, there is no peace, but impending violence. Babylon’s war horses are snorting in the distance. Judah’s destruction is imminent. But the lie lives, and is perpetuated by what Jeremiah calls “the false pen of the scribes” (88). The scribes have flipped the tradition of their ancestors upside down, rigging language in service to their own power and affluence. By the power of the pen, and the power of persuasive speech, the scribes, chief priests, and kings have diluted the word of God, and saturated the people with falsehoods.
They have convinced the Judeans that it is a blessed thing to build high places whereupon they may sacrifice their own flesh and blood. More specifically, they have sanctioned the sacrificing of children. The word of the LORD in Jeremiah 731 (and 195) says: they “burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command.” Not only did the LORD not command it, but, the LORD says, “nor did it come into my mind.” The inhabitants of Jerusalem, those whom the LORD brought up out of Egypt, who were saved from Pharaoh’s iron fist, have not only broken God’s heart but continually trampled it. They manufactured something so horrible that it could only be generated outside God’s own imagination, and they turned it into a cornerstone of religious observance. This gruesome aberration could not have come to pass apart from the “false pen of the scribes.”
I’d like to suggest that this “false pen” is representative of the means by which those in positions of authority use language, images, and symbols to consolidate and perpetuate their power through systematic deception and violence. Thus, the “false pen” can be seen both as a record of ancient propaganda,43 and also as a metaphor for modern propaganda. What Jeremiah calls “the false pen of the scribes” writing on Judah’s behalf undoubtedly enabled those in positions of power and authority⎯kings, priests, scribes, etc.⎯to both persuade and manipulate the people to adopt and bless ways of life and worship that were diametrically opposed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The powers knew language mattered. They knew how to use the power of the pen to their advantage.
Listen to Jeremiah 1818:
Then they said, ‘Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah⎯for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.’
Judah’s scribes know that if they acknowledge Jeremiah’s prophecy as true, they will contradict their own officially sanctioned instructions. They must criminalize him before the charges against them gain traction. If they let Jeremiah loose, the powers will lose credibility, and with it, their authority. They must accuse Jeremiah of infidelity so that their infidelity will remain hidden.
This text reflects the propagandist’s anxiety. Jeremiah attacks the leaders for their infidelity. In ch. 28, Jeremiah cries out against them, “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.” The propagandist’s greatest fear is an unbridled and unmuzzled prophet who is determined to expose the official narrative as a lie. Kill the prophets, and you may move the false pen across the page to your heart’s content.
This unbridled tongue, or what we may call “prodigal truthfulness” is the first characteristic of the prophet as anti-propagandist. In Jeremiah ch. 20, the priest Pashhur hears Jeremiah prophesying, comparing Judah to a shattered earthenware jar, and describing its imminent destruction. Pashhur is enraged. He strikes Jeremiah, and puts him “in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the LORD” (202). The next morning, Pashhur releases Jeremiah from the stocks. But Jeremiah is undeterred:
The LORD has named you not Pashhur but ‘Terror-all-around.’ For thus says the LORD: I am making you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; and they shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall kill them with the sword (203b-4).44
Here is the prophet, hardly cowed by physical harm and imprisonment, immediately flying back in the face of an agent of the false pen, telling the truth as if it were an emergency. People’s lives are at stake. Death awaits Pashhur and his comrades. Pashhur will be there in person to see his cohort impaled on Babylonian swords. He will be marched off to a foreign land. He will die there. And his demise will be the logical conclusion to the lies he helped concoct and perpetuate.
Jeremiah is a prodigal truth-teller because when he speaks, he dares speak. His prophetic mission is constituted in part by this daring proclamation. He is punished severely, yet he goes on speaking. He is relentless. He is lavish with the truth he speaks. He speaks not only to a sympathetic audience, but to the perpetrators of the lies. Like the sower who goes out to sow seed, Jeremiah prodigally spreads the truth around as though he cares not whether it lands on rocky ground or rich, dark soil. He is the woman who dumps the expensive nard on Jesus’ feet, not caring what it will cost her, inviting severe responses from witnesses, but also telling a truth no one else seems capable of or willing to tell (Jn. 121-8). The woman comes to Jesus, she empties the contents of a life-time worth of wages on his feet. “You are going to die,” she seems to be saying, “so let me call this to everyone’s attention, and commend you to God.” Jeremiah tells the truth, prodigally, so that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. He speaks to a mixed audience, unconcerned that he is offending the powerful. He tells the truth so unsparingly his message cannot help but interrupt and even deface the official narrative.
Jeremiah also laments, and this is the second characteristic of the anti-propagandist. His lamenting is inseparable from the truth he tells. He grieves for Jerusalem. But he also grieves God’s treatment of him. “Oh LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed” (Jer. 207). The word “deceive” has sexual connotations, such that one could conceivably argue that Jeremiah is accusing God of rape. It is a visceral lament. He is accusing God of taking advantage of him for no reason. In a moment of utter despair, he curses his own birth. “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (2014). We can hardly imagine a more anguished lament than wishing aloud to God, not that you were dead, but that you had never been born.
As Ellen Davis has argued, this kind of lament, which is not foreign to the Psalms, has a way of “marking the trail into despair in God’s plain sight, so that God can follow ‘to the bottom of the night’ the one who is crying out in anguish.”45 She says this in light of Wendell Berry’s comment that,
The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope—and thus has hope, even if only a little.46
To lament in such a way, and especially to do so within earshot of those duped by the false pen, has a destructive effect on the official narrative. It creates cracks in its façade through which newness of life may sprout and grow to create further, deeper cracks, until what was once thought to be impenetrable lies in pieces on the ground. As Brueggemann says, “The riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings.”47
In Luke 2225, Jesus says to his disciples, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But not so with you.” The propagandist always portrays the power structure as beneficial to the common good. Propagandists are ever the optimists. But the power of Jeremiah’s lament lies in its exposure of the false narratives of optimism, affluence, and beneficence, by which the rulers and authorities proclaim their concern for the people’s welfare and prosperity. Jeremiah’s tears leave hard evidence that all is not well. His weeping is what Brueggemann calls “a radical criticism, a fearful dismantling because it means the end of all machismo; weeping is something kings rarely do without losing their thrones. Yet the loss of thrones is precisely what is called for in radical criticism.”48
Finally, Jeremiah is a reconciler. As a witness to reconciliation, he is an anti-propagandist because he relinquishes control of his enemies to God. A central element of propaganda is the need for an enemy. There must be an enemy. Once the enemy is established, war is an easy next step.
Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.49
Without enemies to rely on for both covert and overt propaganda, propaganda has little power to persuade. In order to rouse the masses to action, there must be an orienting adversary, a fear-inducing point of focus for the people’s attention. Jeremiah does not fall into the trap. He urges cooperation with the Babylonians. But the kings of Judah go their own way. They are puffed up. They are mad for war. They believe they can outmaneuver the most powerful empire of their day.
But Jeremiah’s relationship to enemies is all-encompassing. “Give heed to me, O LORD, and listen to what my enemies say!” says Jeremiah (1819). He proceeds to describe the details of Judah’s impending destruction. The difference, however, is that Jeremiah understands the business of dealing with enemies to be God’s business. In his despair, he asks God not to forgive their sin, and implores God to deal with them while God is angry. Nevertheless, even in the midst of Jeremiah’s jeremiad, he relinquishes vengeance to God. He compares God to a “dread warrior” who is with him. He asks God to allow him to see God’s retribution upon his adversaries. Even in Jeremiah’s anger and despair, when it would seem fitting to encourage a violent response to a violent system, he instead places himself in God’s hands. By imploring the leaders of Judah to pursue cooperation with the Babylonians, he epitomizes in his own person a relationship of exchange and embrace with enemies.
Jeremiah’s prophesy foreshadows the language of reconciliation in the New Testament. It is interesting that every New Testament word translated as “reconciliation” or “reconcile” holds in common the root word, αλλάσσω (to exchange; transform), which is derived from ἀλλος (the other). These words combine to form the biblical Greek word for “reconciliation” (καταλλάσσω), which means “to exchange with the other.” But as Barth reminds us, the word καταλλάσσειν (reconciling) is said only of God, and καταλλαγῆναι (being reconciled) is said only of humanity.50 God is the primary agent of reconciliation. Human beings may only participate in the reconciling activity God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jeremiah anticipates God’s reconciling prerogative with the enemies of Judah, and with his adversaries in the house of the Lord. By doing so, he models the way prophetic language may disrupt the false pen of the war hawks, who feverishly work not only to create enemies out of thin air, but to convince the people they can defeat their enemies by violent means.
Certainly we have recently departed what could only be described as the bloodiest century in human history, during which more than 100 million people died as a result of modern warfare and industrial-scale violence. And while the language of the royal consciousness offers little more than a stammering around the tombstones, it always tries its best to silence the prophets. Yet, through his prodigal truthfulness, visceral lamentations, and reconciling posture, Jeremiah models what it means to preach in contexts saturated by propaganda. By telling the truth with reckless abandon, he introduces an element of chaos (which is really the introduction of God’s order) that frustrates the royal court’s false message of “peace.” His lamentations signal to the Judahites that all is not as well as the king would have them think. Jeremiah pours cold water on the king’s optimism and strategic benefactions. He also eschews violence by usurping enemy language from the ruling authorities, and relinquishing his enemies to God.
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