Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah warns of the difficulty of prophecy: “All those who used to be my friends watched for my downfall.” But he also recognizes that God will support him: “But the Lord is at my side, a mighty hero.” Finally, God “has delivered the soul of the needy from the hands of evil men.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus instructs his followers not to be afraid. Whatever is revealed in secret will be revealed to all.”
What would you say if you met Jeremiah? If you think you would shake his hand and thank him for his prophecy, you’re likely just a little smug. Truth be told, Jeremiah was a pain in the neck and we all know someone like him. He’s the guy who can’t leave well enough alone, who can’t just go along. He’s the guy who makes a simple staff meeting go on and on because he won’t let go of something. And while, deep in your heart, you know he’s probably right, you just wish he would shut up. The change he is calling for will happen but it needs time.
It’s easy to revere a prophet from thousands of years ago. It’s often said that the role of a prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And let’s face it: many of us are comfortable.
I can support Black Lives Matter intellectually because I’m not black. I can support marriage equality because nobody ever challenged my marriage. I have the benefit of living in a neighborhood that doesn’t exclude anyone and I work at an agency that celebrates equality. I am fortunate.
But what of those who aren’t? A few years ago my wife had the good fortune to meet Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She wrote the book What the Eyes Don’t See. If you haven’t read the book I strongly recommend it. Dr. Mona is a pediatrician who cares for children in Flint, Michigan. You may recognize Flint as a suburb of Detroit whose population is primarily black and poor. Flint used to purchase their water from the city of Detroit but in 2014 they decided to stop doing that. They decided to pipe their own water from the Flint River as a cost saving measure.
The water pipes they used were coated with lead. Detroit spent money to pump in an additive that prevented lead from leaching from the pipes and entering the water supply. Flint didn’t. Over the next few years families in Flint noticed that their water tasted funny and children who bathed in the water developed rashes. When they raised the alarm that there was something wrong with the water they were told to shut up.
And when Dr. Mona began to notice elevated lead levels in her patients she was also told to shut up. Lead levels in children cause irreversible brain damage and the only way to prevent brain damage is to eliminate lead levels in water.
But politicians and civil servants on many levels refused to believe there was anything wrong with the water in Flint (that none of them drank). They ignored and dismissed the warnings and they threatened those who raised the alarm.
And they did it out of fear and cowardice. They didn’t fear losing their life or their health. That at least would have been understandable. No, the workers in Michigan faced the same dilemma as the listeners of Jeremiah: do we support what is right or do we fear losing what we have?
Can we lose our jobs? Can we lose our social standing, friendships or our place in our families? Do we fear being seen as a troublemaker or “that guy”?
Again and again Jesus tells us to transcend our fears. When he tells us not to be afraid he’s not talking about an emotion but a decision. Feeling fear isn’t a sign of weakness and it’s not the end of our story. Jeremiah and Jesus (and many others) challenge us to move beyond our fear to courage.
Jeremiah and Jesus call us to recognize that we will find in our lives the existence of injustice. But sometimes we find injustice in places that we could easily ignore because speaking up they will cost us.
I used Flint, Michigan as an example, but this is far from unique. Time and again we see politicians who admit off the record that they support (or oppose) a vote but fear losing their jobs if they vote their conscience.
But here’s the problem: when we look at people like Jeremiah and Dr. Mona we see them as heroes but we see them only in hindsight.
Here in the United States we revere President Truman (1884-1972) who took office in 1945 on the death of President Franklin Roosevelt and left office when he chose not to run for reelection in 1952. At the time he was criticized for removing General Douglas McArthur from his position as Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command in the Korean War. He was also criticized for the war that was becoming a quagmire. The day he left the White House his popularity was less than 30%.
We also revere Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968). We remember his leadership in the Birmingham (Alabama) Bus Boycott in 1955 and his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. But in 1967 he spoke about his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his popularity plummeted. When he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis 75% of Americans had a negative opinion of him.
I say this because our call to courage doesn’t always (or ever) mean we will be seen as heroes. If we are called to comfort the afflicted we need to recognize that those who are afflicted might not necessarily appreciate our courage. If we are called to afflict the comfortable we need to recognize that the comfortable are people who like us or have power over us and will withdraw their support.
But if we listen to today’s readings we need to understand we are called to speak our truth in and out of season. We are called to speak our truth knowing what it may cost us. Because in the end we should value truth more than we value our social standing. Jeremiah, Jesus, Dr. Mona, Harry Truman, and Dr. King did.