We are living in a world with no shortage of trauma each day. From floods to tsunamis, victims of gun violence and terror, refugees seeking to preserve their lives only to find themselves caught in wars and waves, we are constantly bombarded with the reminders of a relentless suffering experienced by God’s children.
Where can we turn to find assurance of God’s loving presence in our midst holding us in caring hands?
The words offered to us by Jeremiah in chapter 18 give us the famous image of God as potter. In this scenario God instructs Jeremiah to visit a potter’s house — as one biblical scholar notes, a common activity: “These pots were the everyday ware of a typical Judean household, serviceable, perhaps not perfect in shape or color, but useable by a family to hold grain or wine enough to sustain common life.”
There, Jeremiah observed the tedious work of the two wheels spinning together and the careful labor with the clay to create a useful vessel. How typical of God to lead a prophet to an ordinary sign to speak to something much more extraordinary for God’s people. And yet, what follows is a rather harsh interpretation of a God, who, like this potter remaking the vessel that has fallen apart in his hands, reworks the clay — seemingly callously kneading and pounding the material until it is malleable enough for the wheel once more. Likewise, God fashions the vessel with promises to “pluck up and break down and destroy” a nation or kingdom that does not turn from its evil.
This is not a picture of a God gently taking to clay to mold and coax it to the right shape, but a God that sees and does what is necessary to mercilessly rectify the situation at hand. If anything, one might feel discomfort and uncertainty in God’s power, and wonder if we are truly safe there. Can we find assurance of God’s good will toward us there in the very hands of such a willful potter?
Even as we turn these questions over in our minds, again and again, another month goes by with more tragedies caused by human hands. Gun violence and shootings ... another addition to the list happened in mid-August in Queens, as a man took matters into his own hands by violently taking the innocent lives of two men, an imam and his assistant, who occupied many societal margins but sought to embody and encourage peace as best they could through their religion. These victims were killed as they were leaving their mosque, having labored with their hands to pray for their neighborhood, their community, their world.
Jeremiah’s words are for us, too, and a reminder of how we will occupy the space and time given to us. Will we use our hands for the good of God’s people, meaning all God’s people — all stories, all bodies, all lives? This is where the text shifts for me, and the possibility of how we might take comfort and hope in God’s sovereignty.
Though it might be easy to reduce these words to a moralistic judgment on nations, on states, communities, and even churches, we might consider the overarching covenant God has made with God’s people. This picture of God suggests a changing God, and how can we know the whims of a God that changes God’s mind? But we might find hope in that thread throughout the scriptures, and raised here in a provocative way: God changes towards the good of all humanity, and our purpose then is to follow in the way of compassion and love in the same manner.
One way to do this, as Jeremiah suggests, is through confession.
A major tenet of Protestant faith is the act of confession, both as individuals and as a community. Confession can serve as a means to honestly and genuinely express not only one’s failures, or the failures of a community, but to acknowledge and lament the fragility of humanity. What would it mean for our churches to say to our neighbors that we are wholly and painfully aware of the ways in which those who profess to follow the Christian faith have failed over and over in not only the areas of tolerance but compassion? That we do lip service but when it comes to truly knowing and loving our neighbors, we have so much more work in front of us?
In some remarks I gave at an event addressing Islamophobia, I said about the church, "We have been complicit in perpetuating those value systems, guilty of prejudice and violence towards those who are "non" — non-white, non-male, non-hetero, non-normative, and non-Christian, at so many levels."
I shared the words of Peter Heltzel, a theologian who writes, “Prophetic grief transforms our sadness into seeking faith-rooted justice for all so we must speak up and repent by dismantling systemic racism within our institutions, churches, communities, families and hearts, and by becoming humble, supportive allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, accountable to those who suffer most.”
As a person who is committed to a faith that is centered around the life of a first century Palestinian — who from the beginning stood with the marginalized, the rejected and isolated, and the non-normative of society, and even himself experienced state-sanctioned violence and execution — I believe we must more than affirm these lives, these bodies and hands, but that our work must begin with a specific reflexivity, personal and communal, that is rooted in repentance and acts of confession.
Jeremiah’s words affirm that reconciliation is possible, but that we are to give our hands to that work, too.