Mahatma Gandhi and Prophet Jeremiah on an Alternate Future


We need to be gathering resources that describe an alternate future. A future of hope different than what we know today. This past week carried more news of fires and hurricanes, sordid political tales from various countries, heinous murders and untimely deaths. And yes, there was good news too! But whatever our week was like, having resources of hope to draw on, even while we also lament the pain of the present, is never more needed.

Two voices that bring those resources of hope could not be more different. One, an Indian reformer who stood up to the British Empire and articulated an alternate future of hope and freedom. The other a Hebrew Prophet from the 6th century B.C. who dared to speak out a word of resistance to the popular beliefs, but in that word brought a message of hope that there would be life beyond the calamity of the Babylonian Empire.

With Mahatma Gandhi, a long-term perspective enabled him to not give up hope that freedom would come for his people. Hear one of his many quotes that deal with hope and a future: When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it-always. (thanks to my dear friend Sandy for alerting me to that quote.)

For Gandhi, it was the oppression of the British Empire, one of the strongest and most widespread in history, that seemed up until World War II like it would never go away. Indian independence seemed a long ways off, if it would ever come. But Gandhi had to draw hope from a longer perspective. This did not lead him to be passive, far from it. His resistance took non-violent forms like fasting and peaceful non-compliance, methods later learned and applied by Martin Luther King in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States.

The Hebrew Prophet was Jeremiah. Two books are devoted to his life and ministry in the Old Testament, the book by his name and another called Lamentations which is God’s painful love song of judgement and hope over Jerusalem and Judah. Jeremiah lived in a present of hopelessness as the Babylonian armies were seemingly invincible. He lived however in a realm of prophetic faith and hope, with the circumstances around him providing no corroborating evidence.

Here is what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says about this prophetic faith, in his book Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah, pg. 181: Holding to a vision of how it will be is the business of prophetic faith. It is a key mark of ancient Israel’s prophets that they held to a vision of an alternative world in season and out of season. And they could hold to such a deep and abiding hope precisely because they understood that the new alternative to come was not to be derived from the present circumstance. Their hope was not grounded in their sense that things are going to get better, nor in the notion that things were evolving in a desired direction. And therefore they were not utterly undone when things got worse, for that also was not finally relevant to their vision. Their hope had an independence from the present, because the new world would be a gift from God, who would act in unqualified freedom.

Wow. Amazing words describing the situation in 588-587 B.C. for Jeremiah, as he languished in captivity in Jerusalem as the Babylonian armies surrounded it in a siege. And after 18 months they sacked it and carried much of the city into exile to Babylon. Note Brueggemann’s words: the hope of the prophets like Jeremiah was not grounded in a sense that things would get better, because usually they got worse. As he so powerfully writes, “their hope had an independence from the present, because the new world would be a gift from God, who would act in unqualified freedom.”

We need those words today. You see, a common characteristic of Gandhi and Jeremiah was despair, as it is for most prophets. Gandhi says it in his quote, not if I’m in despair but when. For Jeremiah, you only need to read many verses in his book or in the small book of Lamentations to become persuaded that despair was a regular part of his life. Living into an alternate future doesn’t make us optimists or pollyannas, thinking that everything will always go well. We can only see an alternate future if we have plumbed deeply the depths of our hopeless present.

Gather the resources you need to see that alternate future, whatever your own context is. Life on Planet Earth is not going to get any easier, for a myriad of reasons. Yet mixed into the deepest despair is the most insane joys, an alternate future that is a gift from a Creator living in unqualified freedom yet who suffers deeply with us in this very real present.

Live on and love well.

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