Jeremiah's Prophetic Words for Justice and Renewal in Our Communities

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"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." Jeremiah 29:5-7

As foreigners and exiles in this world, Jeremiah’s words are as relevant to the church today as they were to the exiled Israelites in Babylon. In our visual culture, the images of anger, murder, sin, and injustice are constantly placed before us, and the challenge for the church is how will we respond? How does real change happen? Where does change that moves beyond abstraction and ideology come from?

Jeremiah roots it in local action that seeks the good of, Babylon, that land of exile: Build homes, be productive, give and receive, and seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. The prophet calls us to work that takes seriously both the embodied nature of Christian faith and the social location—community—God has placed us in. All too often, we become fixated on national headlines and events, neglecting the clear and present issues facing our own cities and neighborhoods. As a result, we are either catalyzed to short-lived acts of protest and calls for sweeping action with no impact on our own communities, or overcome by feelings of guilt brought on by a sense of impotence to change anything. How freeing it is the receive the prophet’s words that peace, prosperity, and change is rooted in the local setting—our neighborhood, town, and city—and not from top-down legislation but rather grassroots social action.

But this work is not easy and it is not quick. It requires us to willingly relinquish our hold on the American Dream and take up a Kingdom Vision instead; to repent, believe, and take up our cross by engaging in the sorts of transformational practices to which God instructs His people. The sorts of practices preached by the prophet and echoed by Martin Luther King and John Perkins over the past sixty years: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.

  1. Build Houses, Plant Gardens (Relocation)
    Change requires new works of integration; of people moving “across the tracks,” into diverse neighborhoods, and living within socio-economically depressed communities. In a recent article posted at The Gospel Coalition entitled “Riots in John Piper’s Neighborhood,” Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra recounts the stories of Christians who have labored for the good of the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis; a tough, diverse inner city community home to over 100 languages and host to some of the recent rioting in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Planting churches, starting schools, opening non-profits and local businesses. These are just a few of the ways some of the nearly 400 members of Bethlehem Baptist Church who moved into the Phillips (and adjacent) neighborhoods have sought to bring restoration, renewal, and justice over the past four decades.

    Zylstra sums up the struggles and joys of relocation in a single excerpt midway through the article:

    “Living in the neighborhood gives you a distinct understanding,” he [Jeff Noyed] said. “You have the opportunity to be involved with block clubs, with Bible groups, to be there for gunshots and murders and stolen cars.” And police injustice and rioting and homeless tent cities. And people coming to Christ and having enough food to feed their families and getting on their feet financially. “There are hard days, believe me…but overall, the word I’d use to describe ministry here is a privilege. [1]

    Or as Northwestern College theology professor, Dr. Michael Andres, “Jesus does not simply give handouts, or minister at arm’s length. In love, he relocates and lives amongst the broken, powerless, and marginalized.[2]”

  2. Seek Peace and Pray (Reconciliation)

    We believe in a God who has revealed Himself as the One who seeks to bring true justice and peace among people [3] through the painful, costly, reconciling work of Jesus Christ being brought to bear on all of life. In Christ, the dividing walls that separated Jew and Gentile were torn down, and, similarly, dividing walls between people today are being torn down. As those reconciled to God and united to one another, the church has received the ministry of reconciliation and the opportunity to work as peacemakers and reconcilers. Or, as the Belhar Confession puts it: “[We believe] the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells,” and “that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice…standing where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others. [4]”

  3. This means the difficult, but necessary, work of confession and repentance, and it includes the equally difficult work of releasing resentment, bitterness, and hate by extending forgiveness. It means facilitating spaces and conversations for this to take place in our communities; taking the initiative to establish forums for corporate lament and taking steps towards bringing people together even as our culture seeks to drive people apart.

    And finally, it means praying because “there’s more working against the church coming together across ethnic and cultural lines than just our personal prejudices [and, I might add, systems/structures],” writes John Perkins, “The Enemy has staked his claim on keeping us divided and keeping us from trusting one another. [5]” What a radical thing to pray for God’s will, for peace and prosperity, to be done in the land of our exile—the land in which so many have experienced incredible pain and suffering—and for reconciliation, restoration, and renewal; to pray for God to heal our hearts, for the good of our neighbors, for the church, for organizations and non-profits working for justice, and for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. If we do this, our hearts, minds, and hands cannot help but be moved to act in ways that fulfill the prophet’s words.

  4. Give and Receive (Redistribution)
    Redistribution isn’t about socialist political ideology, taking on a “white savior complex” or simply offering charity to the needy. It’s a give-and-take. It’s about a willingness to receive from others, to be blessed by them, and to offer what we have in return for the good of the shared community.

    I’m reminded of a service trip I took students on five years ago to Jackson, Mississippi, to partner wtih Voice of Calvary in their community development work. Over the course of the week, we gave to the neighborhood—clearing yards, fixing homes, distributing food, and sharing meals and life together—but we received much more. We received an education in life from a different cultural vantage point; we received encouragement from the stories of persevering faith in the midst of struggle; and we received a vision of what can happen when gifts of time, money, knowledge, power, stories, and love are willingly exchanged in mutuality between people: rich and poor, black and white, men and women, etc.

    It’s only as we give and receive, as we share our lives, resources, and stories, that relationships are formed and friendships built—crucial pieces in the puzzle of community development. This is what our neighborhoods could be if we will humble ourselves and participate in the work of redistribution.

Nothing that I’ve written condemns public protest or being concerned with the plight of peoples on the other side of our nation or around the world. It doesn’t negate the fact that there are reforms to be made in our justice and economic systems. These can be good and powerful means of witness and working for justice and peace. However, what it does do is remind us that more is necessary. Communities are not changed by virtue signaling, professional athletes postponing a playoff game, celebrity tweets posted from penthouse apartments, or even through federal legislation (alone). Lasting, redemptive change happens through blood, sweat, and tears, street by street, neighbor to neighbor. It requires sacrifice, perseverance, and the power of the gospel to affect every aspect of local life: the individual and the family, as well as schools, businesses, government and law enforcement.

What I hope is that this challenges you, and challenges the church, to consider how we can live into our identity as a pilgrim priesthood in the world, witnessing to our hope in the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God—as opposed to any earthly kingdom or leader—in our communities and neighborhoods through words and actions that work for justice, peace, and renewal pointing to the future reality of what is yet to come.

May we not be distracted by the world, its ideologies, and a divisiveness that seeks to stymie reconciliation and renewal in our local communities. Rather, may we be emboldened by the Gospel, and our God of grace, to seek the good of our cities to the glory of our God and in love for our neighbor. I believe the Lord has placed us where He has for this purpose, and, as the church, we have the privilege and opportunity to work for this sort of change as witnesses to a watching world of the redemptive reign of Christ.

Originally posted here at my blog (From Balaam's Donkey) at the Areopagus Campus Ministry website.

[1] Zylstra, Sarah Eekhoff. “Riots in John Piper’s Neighborhood,” The Gospel Coalition. August 24, 2020. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/riots-john-pipers-neighborhood/.

[2] Andres, Michael. “Between Two Gardens: An Organic Salvation for Community Development from the Biblical Narrative,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, ed. Charles Marsh, Peter Slade, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

[3] Belhar Confession (Article 4.1)

[4] Belhar Confession (Article 4.8-9)

[5] Perkins, John. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2018.

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