“They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)
Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.
A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.
A few excerpts:
Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.
The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.
I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.
Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.
There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.
This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.
These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.
I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story. Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.
And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.
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