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Liberation Theology, Oppression, and Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This is a slightly modified paper I did for my Old Testament class.  We were given a list of passages to analyze and our analysis had to be based on a specific Biblical criticism.  The Biblical criticism I choose for this was socioeconomic criticism.


The text I have decided to exegete is the Temple Sermon of Jeremiah in Jer. 7.1-15.  I have decided to use socioeconomic criticism in order to address some of the key questions, challenges, and opportunities raised by this text.  As socioeconomic criticism relies on the revelation (from Bartolomé de las Casas through Franz Hinkelammert) that God has a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed and on the revelation (from Marx through Lenin) that through dialectical materialism we understand that capitalism is the root cause of death, destruction, and (in essence) sin in this world we can look at Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon in a truly liberating and illuminating way.

What the sermon by Jeremiah raises is why is it that God can abandon His chosen people with destruction of that which is most holy to the people of Judah, the Temple?  How can God just simply leave His people to outsiders?  By looking at this hard sermon through the socioeconomic critical lens we can see that there are specific reasons for this and that they raise tremendous opportunities for preachers and professors to preach to their students and congregants about the true liberation power of the Bible and on how this story can still speak powerfully to us and show us a truth about the times we live in today.  In essence, this story can show us the moral obligation for Christians to help subvert and overturn the present day exploitative system of this world: capitalism.

To first explain why this must be seen as an emancipatory text for the proletariat in our society we must first look at the historical context of Jeremiah in his society and how and why his words caused such a scandal during his day.

The 7th and 6th centuries BCE were times of chaos for Israel, in the overall context of the Near East there was the collapse of one major empire (the Assyrian) and the rise of two others (the Egyptian and neo-Babylonian) due to the vacuum caused by Assyria’s fall. [1] Because of this fact Israel was ripped apart at the seams politically and socially, as the nation was caught in-between two warring empires.  Specifically the sermon takes place during the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah who “did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh, just as his ancestors had done.” (2Ki 23.37).  What Jehoiakim did was to align himself with the pharaoh of Egypt (who appointed him the position of king to replace king Jehoahaz) which meant he had to raise taxes and take silver and gold from the people of Judah in order to give the pharaoh ransom money.  Because Judah had fallen so far from God and the Torah Jeremiah was chosen by God to not only prophesize to the people of Judah but to tell them that there was virtually no way (through intercession) Judah could save itself from destruction.


In order to do this God told Jeremiah to prophesize at the “gate of Yahweh’s house” (Jer 7.2) and in turn tell the people that their beloved Temple, which had been so heavily integrated as sacred in their culture over the years, was going to be destroyed and was, in fact, no longer the “temple of Yahweh.”  Despite telling nothing but the unadulterated truth to the people and officials of Judah he was greeted with scorn and contempt, as no one could believe his harsh words.  So ingrained was it that Judah was God’s chosen country and that the Temple was God’s sacred dwelling place that Jeremiah was accused of blasphemy and greeted with the words, “You shall die!” (Jer. 26.8b)

Remembering that we need to look at Scripture through the eyes of the poor and the proletariat and that Scripture holds an emancipatory revelation for us today, as God gave preferential treatment to the oppressed and the poor back in the days of Jeremiah (and still does to this day), I will now begin to explain why the actual text of the Temple Sermon are a call for us to show preferential treatment to the poor by acting to overthrow our modern day “dens of robbers,” (7.11) which would be bourgeois parliamentarianism [2] and capitalism (both essentially intrinsically connected).

In verse two God has Jeremiah standing at the Temple gates; he has Jeremiah standing at center stage, what could be considered (if you will) the Capital Building of Washington D.C.  This is to make sure that God’s message is being heard by those whom visit the Temple and by those who are leaders of the nation of Judah: the priests, the prophets, and the officials.  Therefore blame is not only being placed at the feet of all of Judah but it is specifically being directed against the leaders of Judah as Jeremiah is essentially proclaiming God’s condemnation at their front porch.

Verses three and five have God telling his chosen nation that He still wants to dwell amongst His people.  But in order to do that they must show preferential treatment for the poor, which God lays out in verses five and nine.  In order for God to dwell amongst His people the nation of Judah must not oppress the immigrant and treat him unjustly, they must care for those whom are most needy (the widow and orphan), and Judah must not “shed innocent blood” (v. 6); nor shall Judah break the commandments of the Decalogue (v. 9).  But to couple this, God proclaims something that is truly revolutionary, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of Yahweh…” (v. 4)

O’Connor states that this “draws on different theological and symbolic traditions to make claims similar to poetry.  Israel is guilty and divine judgment justified.” [3] Just as Jeremiah was using different theological and symbolic traditions to challenge the world view of his contemporaries, that the Israelites were to always be under God’s protection and that the Temple was forever holy and sacred (and the legitimate seat of power for God’s reign)’ so too were the likes of Marx, Hinkelammert, Lenin, and Gustavo Gutiérrez (to name just a few) as they challenged the sacred institutions of our modern life: namely capitalism and bourgeois parliamentarianism (which has now morphed into neo-liberal free-market trade).  Those previously mentioned prophets grounded their thinking in the material reality of this present sinful world to critique the present day priests (the leaders) and prophets (the academics) in order to create justice for the lower exploited classes.

Continuing with O’Connor, “The sermon insists that YHWH is an untamed deity, a wild being not reducible to theological formulae, who can bring the temple to ruins…” [4] Since God cannot be confined to theological formulas by standard bourgeois academics and theologians we must understand that the actions of God and God’s justice are always grounded in the concrete realities of the present in relation to His preferential treatment to the poor.  Because the king was acting unjustly and because the downtrodden were being ignored God had to act radically by destroying the very institution that His people saw as sacred: the Temple.

We cannot trust in the “deceptive words” (v. 8 ) of those who hold up our modern day Temple, the capitalist market.  To do so will cause one to alienate themselves from God by alienating themselves from humanity by stealing from the poor, murdering for capital, and making offerings to false gods (the market of commodities) (v. 9).  Because we are deceived by the fallacy of capitalism through the lies of false prophets we end up acting wickedly because of a lie (we either oppress or become complicit in oppression of the lower class masses, the proletariat and lumpenproletariat).  One must discern what is truth, there is no room for relativism, there is a truth and that truth is that God takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor.  Because God did to the Temple what He did to Shiloh (v. 14) we must now look to see what institutions we consider venerable and sacred and what institutions we put our trust in.  To begin to create justice in a society that has repeatedly not adhered to the warnings of the past and present (v. 13) one has to destroy our Temple; capitalism must be fought against and destroyed.

To do this we must use any and every means necessary to liberate God’s oppressed from the clutches of present day sin (capitalism).  As James H. Cone argues, this does not exclude violence. [5] Later on to conclude the overall story God states that he acts with “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness…” (9.24b) Acting in love does not mean passive resistance anymore than it means violent resistance.  True liberation must be done with love of God’s people (the proletariat and lumpenproletariat) and as we have seen in the Temple Sermon sometimes love is revolutionary destruction of the present day society; thus a loving liberation can include violence against oppressive systems and peoples in order to escape pure and utter Hell on earth.  This is, in the tradition of Jeremiah, the only option we have to help our brethren achieve full emancipatory humanity and dignity since Jesus was of the spirit as well as of the flesh, so mere spiritual “freedom” is not enough, mankind needs full freedom for the flesh and spirit.

Notes:

  1. Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Jeremiah,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 487.
  2. By bourgeois parliamentarianism I mean democracy for the rich and by the rich.  Under bourgeois parliamentarianism there are indeed freedoms: freedom of those who own the means of production to buy and sell labor power and the freedom of the proletariat and lumpenproletariat to sell their labor power to whomever they want for a limited amount of time.  For Lenin, “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners.” (The State and Revolution, trans. Robert Service [New York: Penguin Classics, 1993], 78.)
  3. O’Connor, Oxford Bible Commentary, 495.
  4. Ibid.
  5. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 217-225.
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