Jeremiah . . . Dada Performance Art?
This is what the Lord said to me: ‘Go and buy a linen belt and put it round your waist, but do not let it touch water.’ 2 So I bought a belt, as the Lord directed, and put it round my waist.
3 Then the word of the Lord came to me a second time: 4 ‘Take the belt you bought and are wearing round your waist, and go now to Perath[a] and hide it there in a crevice in the rocks.’ 5 So I went and hid it at Perath, as the Lord told me.
6 Many days later the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to Perath and get the belt I told you to hide there.’ 7 So I went to Perath and dug up the belt and took it from the place where I had hidden it, but now it was ruined and completely useless.
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 ‘This is what the Lord says: “In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 These wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt – completely useless! 11 For as a belt is bound round the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,” declares the Lord, “to be my people for my renown and praise and honour. But they have not listened.”
The society was overly optimistic, but it was all crashing down. 1914 proved the notion of inevitable progress, which had been a hallmark of Western thought in the 19th century, was false. One reaction to this reality began at a Zurich café in 1916. The Dada movement was critical of capitalist societies, seeing those values as leading to war and stifling materialism. One vital expression of the Dadaists was performance art. Like that of Russian artist Oleg Kulik, who will live as a naked, barking dog in a museum for days at a time.
There was another society that was overly optimistic, but it soon would come crashing down. It was ancient Judah in the years before 587 BCE. The leaders of Judah believed in their invincibility because they had, within Jerusalem, “the temple of the Lord.” Jeremiah, whose action might have seemed a bit like a Dadaist, had he lived 2500 year later, mocked their optimism: “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” Ha! (Jeremiah 7:4) And Jeremiah got into the performance art shtick. Like wearing an undergarment without washing it, then burying it, and then pulling it out to find that it was “Good for nothing.” Or refusing to marry, as a sign of the imminent doom for Judah. Or wearing an oxen yoke, as a sign of the coming enslavement to Babylon. His actions led the leaders of Judah to declare him a traitor, and they left him to die in the muck at the bottom of a cistern.
But Jeremiah did not share the nihilism of the 20th century Dada movement. The impending doom was not merely because Judean society was rotten at the core, but because the leadership of Judah had failed to enact the justice (mishphat) demanded by God and failed live by the rule of kindness and mercy (hesed). Furthermore, Jeremiah was not a performance artist without hope. For when the impending fall of Jerusalem eventually becomes obvious, Jeremiah goes and buys a field, as a sign that the Babylonian occupation would not last forever, and life could return to normal.
We are living in a time when Western culture has some rot within. Populist leaders preach false optimism about greatness. Rampant addiction testifies to deeply ingrained nihilism. The key, Jeremiah would tell us, is to not forget the requirements that God has set forth to enact justice and live kindness. In justice and kindness, not in walls of exclusion or punishing tariffs, there is hope.
Can we do our own performance art and live out justice and kindness as a demonstration in a weary world of what life could be?
Our shared guilt is great, O God. Our wounds are grievous and seem incurable.
Help us to find hope in your righteous judgment.
Restore our health. Heal our wounds. Please God. Amen.