Jeremiah, chapter 32, verse 2: “At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard.” The people are in captivity. Jeremiah is under arrest. There is no hope. On the horizon, as far as the eye can see into the future, there is defeat, subjugation and enslavement.
This week, after police in Tulsa killed Terence Crutcher, after police killed Keith Scott in Charlotte, after police killed Tawson Boyd in Baltimore, after report after report of their deaths, all three of them black—this week I’ve had a song playing in my head, on repeat. J Cole wrote it after Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson. “Can you tell me,” J Cole sings, almost yelling, “Can you tell me why every time I step outside I see my people die?” Then he repeats these lines, over and over again, moaning them, sounding weary:
All we want to do is take the chains off
All we want to do is break the chains off
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is be free.
He sings a desperate hope, crying out for a life without the threat of violence, life without subjugation, life beyond the legacy of enslavement. “All we want to do is take the chains off / All we want to do is break the chains off / All we want to do is be free.” His voice trails off before he finishes his last line, exhausted with this world that never changes, chains that never break.
Jeremiah, in our Bible story, was known as the weeping prophet, mourning Jerusalem’s enslavement, crying out against their subjugation at the hands of the Babylonians. He prophesied a grim future, full of destruction, terrors that no one wanted to talk about, that no one wanted to see. He prophesied uncomfortable truth, unbearable realism.
On Friday, Rev. William Barber described the masses of people walking the streets of downtown Charlotte as a prophetic movement, people coming together to prophecy an unbearable truth—that Charlotte has been under siege for years, as schools were slowly re-segregated, as “poor black neighborhoods were afflicted with disproportionate law enforcement during the war on drugs,” as local police began to function like immigration officers, raiding homes, snatching family members, deporting undocumented residents.
Rev. Barber ended his reflection on Charlotte by turning to the person in our Bible story today, Jeremiah. “In the Scriptures,” Barber said, “the prophet Jeremiah denounces false prophets for crying ‘peace, peace when there is no peace.’ We cannot condemn the violence of a small minority of protesters without also condemning the overwhelming violence that millions suffer every day.”
Systemic violence, besieging a people, a city, a country—three more black men killed by police this week. And in the face of this captivity, J Cole sings in Jeremiah’s tone, prophesying a desperate hope, exhausted yet persistent, weary yet stubborn. “All we want to do is take the chains off / All we want to do is break the chains off / All we want to do is be free.”
From his cell, Jeremiah buys the field in Anathoth as a prophetic act, an act of hope—that his life will go on, despite the siege; that his people will work for life, despite Babylon’s subjugation; that he will struggle to imagine an impossible future. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” Jeremiah declares. “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15).
There will be life, Jeremiah says, God says. There will be life—houses and fields, vineyards and gardens, growing through Babylon’s chains.
The question for us here, the question for our church, is do we want to be part of this new life?—life growing through chains, life struggling to be free. Life is always already happening. Because that’s how God works, by grace. The question for us is how we respond to that grace, how we respond to that life, growing without us, yet calling out as an invitation to us.
That’s what I saw in the pictures and videos from the masses gathered in the streets of downtown Charlotte, people of all colors, chanting and walking, organizing for life in the face of Humvees and soldiers, military vehicles and personnel out of place, camouflaged for a desert landscape—yet crowds of people, like you and me, our neighbors, stubborn with hope, walking side by side, calling out what makes for bearable conditions for them to live, to go on, to build households, to work in fields, to labor and garden, to pick up kids from school without worrying that you might get shot.
“All we want to do is take the chains off / All we want to do is be free.”
The question for us here, the question for our church, is the same one we are asked every time we prepare for Communion, the same question we will ask one another in a few moments. “By God’s grace,” we ask, “will you love and serve your neighbors?”
Communion is an invitation into this gospel, where we are brought into God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s justice—and this gospel has everything to do with how we love our neighbors, how we join them in new life, in proclaiming new life, breaking through chains.
We are people of life because we worship the God of life, we follow the one who organized new life in the midst of Roman captivity, the one who comes to us now, in the Spirit, surrounding us, empowering us, sending us into our communities to join our neighbors, that their protests may become our protests,that their struggle may become our struggle, that their life might become our life—because, according to the Psalmist, God has promised hope, a stubborn hope, a life where the oppressed will experience justice, where the hungry will have food, and where the captives will be free.
This is the world we belong to. This is the world God has called us into: this life, this hope, this gospel, where the Holy Spirit draws us into one another, into the lives of our neighbors, where we discover that our lives are already bound together–and as we feel our way into our communion we find ourselves with Christ, the one who breaks chains, the one who sets us free, the one who hears Rakeyia Scott, her cries, as she calls out to the police gathered around her husband, Keith Lamont Scott, his face smashed into the asphalt—Rakeyia Scott’s voice calling out, with a stubborn hope:
He better live. I swear, he better live.
Yes, he better live.
He better fucking live.
He better live.
And the Psalmist responds: “The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps. 146:9).
(A note of gratitude to David Evans for sharing this J. Cole song with me.)