Listen To Article
by Joseph Kuilema
Recently, I was window shopping while waiting for a table to open up for Sunday brunch. While browsing around an antiques store I ran across Jeremiah 29:11. The verse was stenciled in stylized fonts on the plate glass of an old window, the frame covered in layers of cracked paint, beige over white over yellow.
Here was scripture in shabby chic. For $60 I could hang it on the wall of my home and lend it an air of rustic authenticity and wholesome comfort. A quick Google image search of Jeremiah 29:11 will turn up thousands of variations on this theme, the word of the Lord superimposed over a bed of crisp fall leaves, a shimmering alpine lake, a road disappearing into a summer sunset.
I should note that I have friends with Jeremiah 29:11 hanging in their homes or even tattooed on their bodies. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ, people I love and respect. The verse is a great source of comfort to many, and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that.
At the same time, all too often the verse is plucked completely out of context and presented as an emotional salve for the “first world problems” of American life. You didn’t get the raise. You were not accepted into your first choice of colleges. It’s ok, God has a plan, and that plan probably ends with your health and wealth.
Jeremiah 29:11 is often presented as an individual guarantee of the prosperity gospel. When God closes a door, God opens a window. Maybe a window with Jeremiah 29:11 stenciled on it.
Of course plucking verses out of context like this is completely contrary to a Reformed approach to scripture. For us, the Bible is more than a collection of aphorisms. It is a window into who God is, a witness to the story of God and God’s people.
From this perspective, Jeremiah 29 is first and foremost a letter to the exiles in Babylon, to those who survived the war in their homeland, to the craftsmen and artists who have been forced from their lands and live now in the heart of the empire, to a people living in fear, feeling abandoned by God; a letter written to a stateless people, a people who were once enslaved, by a teenager threatened with death for telling unpopular truths.
God of course speaks through scripture in many ways, but what might God be saying through Jeremiah 29 to us today, at this particular place in this particular time? In America in 2017?
My sense is God is not primarily talking to people like me here, as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual man. Certainly this passage is not directed to any one individual. The “you” here is corporate.
So who might God be speaking to primarily? I think there are clues in that shabby chic window frame. It probably came from a house somewhere in my city. Perhaps an older house, with peeling paint. Probably lead paint. A rental house in a forgotten corner of the city, in a poor community. A community of immigrants, those with documents and those without, of workers, crafts persons, and artists. People who have come to the U.S. both in response to our enormous needs for cheap labor and because they have been pushed out of their own lands by war, by the natural disasters of a warming planet, or the violence of gangs fueled by our nation’s appetite for drugs and escapism.
God speaks to the exiles in the empire.
Jeremiah is a prophet, and as Nicholas Wolterstorff has pointed out, when the prophets speak of justice they are talking about “primary justice.” They are not talking about isolated unfortunate (or even tragic) episodes or events. Instead, the prophets are talking about the daily conditions of what he calls “the downtrodden and excluded,” or “the quartet of the vulnerable,” namely the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant. (Wolterstorff, N. (2006). Justice, not charity: Social work through the eyes of faith. Social Work and Christianity, 33(2), 123-140.)
I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city that by 2040 will be 25% Latino, but was the 23rd most segregated major metropolitan area in the nation along White/Hispanic lines according to the 2010 Census. In a region populated by the descendants of Dutch farmers, we literally sacrifice the lives of immigrants to the idols of our agricultural profit and low priced buffets. We tear families apart through deportation and ignore the mother “refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).
We want to build a wall.
Yet there is hope. I think of the immigrants from Bhutan and Myanmar growing their native vegetables on the edges of this city, at Bethany Christian Services’ incubator farm. I think of the husband of one of my friends, a Liberian with a sprawling garden in the city. I think of the worship services and baptisms and weddings being conducted all over this city in Spanish, Dinka, and Arabic.
When I listen to these voices, I hear the words of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah more clearly. And God says to the immigrants, the widows and the orphans, the refugees:
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.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Joseph Kuilema teaches social work at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.