As a newcomer to the States, I remember vividly my first visits to the giant bookshops—Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc.—that are now part of the urban scene here in the US. Coming from the cramped bookshops of England, to be able to sit down, drink coffee, and browse for hours (without even buying anything!) was a whole new world for me.
However, for me, the cappuccino, background music, and lounge chairs were not the biggest eye opener. What really caught my attention were the whole isles of books devoted to the issues of “wellness”, alternative medicine, hypnosis, biofeedback, liberating your inner child, Transcendental meditation, and aromatherapy—to mention just a sampling. Yards of bookshelves designed to create the illusion that if only we use the right therapist, mantra, herbs, diet, and medication we can effectively dodge most pain and suffering in life.
It was then that I realized that in the U.S. we have now substituted a “therapeutic culture” for one that previously focused on self-denial, character development, civil society and personal courage. In such a cultural context, the call of Jesus to voluntarily take up the cross, a method of execution that causes pain and breaks a person, now so graphically portrayed in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, seems to most people both scandalous and obscene.
It is counter cultural, subversive, and if practiced by enough people, might even damage the economy—the most sacred of our cultural institutions. But Jesus did say it, and he actually expects us to do it, because the truth is (in contrast, the lie neatly packaged in the therapeutic culture of consumerism), that it is through our brokenness, not our beautiful bodies and manicured minds, that healing is released to the world. And if this is how the life of Jesus was made available to a broken world, it should come as no surprise that the same mechanism might also operate through the lives of his disciples.
Outside the Lord himself, perhaps nothing better illustrates the biblical principle of brokenness than the life of Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah was so immersed in the suffering of his people that the rabbis speculated that he might be the mysterious Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53. His life was caught up and intertwined with that of the circumstances and tragedy of Israel, and through his brokenness we get a unique insight into the broken heart of God. Through Jeremiah, we see God as totally submerged in the tragedy of Israel. The Babylonian siege plunges the city into famine, and when they eventually go manacled and naked into exile, Jeremiah and God, go with them.
Abraham Heschel, the Jewish scholar, points out that Jeremiah’s tears (“O that my head were waters, and my eyes and fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of my beloved people”, 9:1), are in reality the tears of God himself. Heschel says at this point that Jeremiah has no independent emotional life and although in this scripture, and the many others like it, Jeremiah is the one who is weeping, he is simply engulfed in the grief of God and a channel for the tears of Israel’s bridegroom, the Lord himself.
For those who struggle with Heschel and the rabbis seeing such a vivid and graphic portrayal of the brokenness of God incarnated in the prophet, one has only to scan the pages of Jeremiah to find ample evidence of the accuracy of their insight. For instance: “Thus say the Lord of hosts, consider and call for the mourning women to come. Let them make haste and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush with water” (9:17, 18). Commentators agree, that the “us” in the passage is both God and Jeremiah. God himself is in mourning and his heart is broken over the tragedy of Israel, “the beloved of his soul”.
Israel was God’s vessel to heal the wound of the world, and Heschel points out that “Israel’s distress was more than a human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, his displacement, his homelessness in the land, and in the world. The Lord was abandoning his dwelling place, but then God, we might say, would be without a home in the world. In spurning his people, he would dishonor the throne of his glory and it would mean the collapse of God’s mission” (14:20,21).
However, as Christians, unlike Heschel, the pious Jewish scholar, we know that the miracle that all this was eventually recovered in Jesus. However what we fail to see, that it is the prophetic task of the Church, as it was the prophetic task of Jeremiah, to incarnate the grief and tears of God so that the poor and oppressed can grasp His heart towards them in the hour of their need. It was the tears and brokenness of Jeremiah that foreshadowed the suffering and grief of the Messiah, and reflected to his generation the heart of God towards an oppressed, suffering and broken people—even though this was a result of their own sin.
Karl Barth was fond of saying that the church is sent out as the earthly historical form of Jesus’ own existence in the world. This means that we can and must incarnate the broken life of the suffering servant through our identification with the poor and the God forsaken. Through our lives, our tears, our grief, and our compassionate care, we enable them to see into the heart of the God who is weeping and grieving alongside them in their pain. Someone said that the hermeneutic of the gospel is the life of the congregation as it lives it. This means that if we separate belief and behavior we actually distort the very truth we are seeking to proclaim.
The Russian Orthodox Church frequently speaks of charismatic gift of “tears”. As a Church that has been through much suffering they know that reflecting the heart of God to a people in poverty and oppression is the prophetic gift of the Church to the world. They also teach that it is a costly gift and only comes through brokenness and poverty of spirit as we enter into the fellowship of our Lord’s sufferings.
I have a dear Albanian friend who, though in “exile” here in the States, loves his people dearly. A few days after the Kosovo crisis began I went to tell him that I was praying for his people, and much to my surprise—and his—I wept uncontrollably as we embraced. A few days prior to this I had never even heard of Kosovo, and now I found myself flooded with grief and broken in heart for a people of whom I knew almost nothing. But that morning I gave my friend a gift. Tears are “visible words” and mine, both spontaneous and unexpected, were more meaningful that anything I could have expressed verbally. God shared some of his grief and pain for the suffering Kosovars through my own tears.
Jeremiah’s tears foreshadowed the tears of Jesus himself. Jesus as a man of sorrows, with his interaction the lepers, the blind, the lame, the poor and the hungry, was a window into the heart of God himself. Then, as Moltmann says so well, on the cross—God was forsaken by God, that he might become the God of the God forsaken—and out of the empty tomb birthed a people who would also be gladly broken for the healing of the world as they also joyfully take up their cross. Allen Wolfe said that, “in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed.”
I still enjoy a visit to Barnes and Noble, and the coffee is still great, but shelves championing the therapeutic culture of wellness now repel me. The call of Jesus on our lives is in an opposite direction—that of brokenness and compassion—and sadly, I can’t find much of this on the bookshelves.