by J. Denny Weaver
Connecting his experiences on a CPT delegation to Haiti with the old testament prophets and the gospels, Weaver argues that symbolic prophetic public witness can embody and point to the reality God intends for us.
This material originally appeared as "Making Yahweh's Rule Visible," in Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible, a compilation of essays honoring Biblical scholar Millard Lind., edited by Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns (Telford, Pa: Pandora Press U.S., 2000), pp. 34-48; copyright 1999 by Pandora Press U.S., used by permission, all rights reserved. For information regarding Peace and Justice Shall Embrace, see www.netreach.net/~pandoraus/ or contact the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org; 215-723-9125; 126 Klingerman Rd.; Telford, PA 18969.
It took several moments before the labored English words from the quiet, elderly voice began to sink in. He said only, “When I hear you praying, I have hope.” But as the words penetrated my consciousness, I sensed the presence of God. I have never felt closer to God than at moment.
An important element of preparation for that moment was the study of the Old Testament, in particular the study of the Prophets that I did some thirty years ago with Millard Lind. In this essay, I will sketch the relationship between my experience with the elderly gentleman and the understanding of the Bible and what it means to be one of God’s people that I began to develop in those courses.
The weighty moment came at the culmination of my first trip to Haiti with Christian Peacemaker Teams (1) (CPT) in December 1992. When the elderly gentleman addressed us, our team was in the heart of Port-au-Prince. We had formed an uneven circle around a statue that served as a symbol of Haitian freedom. Two or three hundred meters away stood the two buildings that housed the government powers of Haiti -- the capitol building and the army headquarters.
Haiti was experiencing government by the military junta that had deposed the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a coup. Army rule was repressive. Haitians were forbidden to meet in groups of more than four persons without an army permit. It was government policy to obliterate Lavalas, the movement that had brought Aristide to the office of President. People who mentioned the name of Lavalas or of Aristide in public were subject to arrest. Sometimes they just disappeared in the night. More than once our little group of North Americans was cautioned not to mention those names when walking in the street, lest we bring suspicion on the Haitians walking with us.
Of Haiti's total population of six million, an estimated 250,000 Aristide supporters were living in the underground rather than risk death at the hands of the army. Many had left their homes precipitously, slipping out a back way when friends or family came to warn them of army personnel approaching their houses. Most of those forced underground were on the army’s list either because they had worked publicly for Lavalas or had worked in social programs organized by Lavalas to address such needs as literacy or the fair sale of crops.
Prior to our action at the statue, our CPT delegation spent time talking with people in the underground, attempting to hear their stories and to give them a voice. A part of our public gathering around the statue in the heart of Port-au- Prince was to speak for these suppressed and oppressed people. As foreigners, we could say things Haitian nationals could not. Thus, protected by our status with Haitian TV cameras rolling, a member of our team read an eloquent and poetic statement from the underground calling for Haitians and foreigners alike to continue to struggle nonviolently for justice in Haiti. I took great satisfaction from participating in a group that enabled public expression of these suppressed Haitian voice.
Standing around the statue our group recited a liturgy, sang songs, and prayed together. But it was the elderly gentleman’s expression of hope in our worship that revealed to me in a new way the significance of our action. Of course it was important to witness against injustice and oppression and to give voice to oppressed Haitians! But we were doing it as Christians, as God’s people. At that moment I realized that both symbolically and actually we were the shalom community of God’s people, making visible and present God’s peace, in contrast to the oppressive powers resident in the capitol building and army headquarters in full view across the avenues. The elderly man had felt that peace, and in his words I experienced it too.
Those of us gathered in that circle were there because we were Christians committed to nonviolence. Our gathered CPT circle expressed our solidarity with suffering people. Our gathering witnessed to another way -- to the peaceable kingdom of God. Though the vision is not yet fully realized, we acted out the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11 for a brief moment as we stood in that circle. We protested the violence and injustice on the doorsteps of those who perpetrated violence and injustice. Although the cleansing was not complete, it seemed a bit like Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. For a few minutes, our circle was more than a symbol -- in the hope expressed by the elderly Haitian man, the reign of God was present.
This gathering was what the church should be -- a witness to the reign of God in the world, an institution to point out injustice and to speak on behalf of justice, and a community where peace, justice, and reconciliation are visible and real. Haitians as Haitians are not the church, nor is their oppression necessarily suffering for the cause of Christ. But their oppression is real, and the church is the church when it exposes that injustice and gives a visible witness to peace and justice as experienced under the rule of God.
Clearly our actions around that statue were symbolic. A mere thirty people, we did not bring obvious change to Haiti on that Wednesday morning. But we did make a visible, symbolic enactment of peace and justice, … and for a brief moment the reign of God was present. Around that statue in downtown Portau- Prince, with the elderly gentleman murmuring in my ear, I was living in the Old Testament narrative I first learned from Millard Lind, in particular the story of Jeremiah’s battle of the yokes with Hananiah.
A prophet of the Southern Kingdom, Jeremiah’s public career covered the forty years of that kingdom just before its fall in 587 (627–587 bce). In 597, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had invaded Jerusalem. Judah’s King Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah and Coniah), who had reigned only three months, was carried into Exile, along with the royal family, their retinue, other leading citizens, and a significant portion of the temple vessels. Nebuchadnezzar installed an uncle of Jehoiachin on the throne as a vassal. He reigned under the name of Zedekiah. (2)
Opinions varied concerning the exiles and whether Nebuchadnezzar’s rule should be accepted. The majority no doubt considered the deportation a brief interlude that would soon be reversed. After all, it did not seem possible that Jerusalem, Yahweh’s city, would come under foreign domination. Those who interpreted Zion theology to proclaim the invincibility of the city (Ps. 46, 48, 76) believed that Yahweh would soon act again to save the city, as he had done previously. (3) Those who held this view considered Jehoiachin the real king of Judah, and they expected his return in the near future, along with the temple vessels and treasure. One faction of those who retained faith in the near return of King Jehoiachin maintained hope that assistance against Babylon would come from Egypt or through an alliance with Egypt.
Jeremiah supported none of these views. He considered Jehoiachin unfit to rule (Jer. 22:24-30). He opposed any alliance with Egypt. He expected a long Exile, and he advocated full submission to the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah 27 and 28 narrate the prophet’s public, symbolic, and confrontational means to convey that message. Using wood and straps, he constructed the kind of yoke oxen might use to pull a load. Apparently Jeremiah wore the yoke daily to symbolize the message that he had from Yahweh, that Israel should submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon and abandon thoughts of a near return of the exiles.
Jeremiah propagated his message widely. Jeremiah 27:3-11 recounts delivery of the message to the various kings who sent emissaries to negotiate with Zedekiah. The kings were to know that it was Yahweh who appointed rulers, and that Yahweh had given the lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Jeremiah’s message implied that their alliances, whether with each other or with King Zedekiah, were useless. Yahweh’s word, as symbolized by the yoke Jeremiah wore, is that the nations should put their necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him.
For those who refuse to submit, said Yahweh, “I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence … until I have completed its destruction” (27:8). Prophets, diviners, and any advisers who say differently “are prophesying a lie,” and the king who listens to such a lie will be “removed far from [his] land” (27:10). On the other hand, those who submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon, “I will leave on [the] land, says the Lord, to till it and live there” (27:11).
Jeremiah took that same message to King Zedekiah. Zedekiah seemed beholden to the people around him. A series of court prophets had visions of independence from Babylon and pushed Zedekiah to resist Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah counseled the contrary. “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon,” Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “and serve him and his people, and live. Why should you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?” The prophets who say otherwise “are prophesying falsely” in the name of Yahweh (27:12-15).
Finally, Jeremiah proclaimed the same message to the priests and the citizens of Judah generally. “They are prophesying a lie” who say that the vessels will soon be brought back from Babylon. “Do not listen to them; serve the king of Babylon and live. Why should this city become a desolation?” (27:16-
Chapter 27 shows Jeremiah engaged in a symbolic action that likely witnessed against the majority opinion. He spoke a word of Lord to the reigning powers that opposed what they wanted to hear. Our action around the statue in Port-au-Prince could claim Jeremiah’s act as something of a model. We spoke and acted out a word that we believed came from Yahweh. Without identifying Haitians as the church, Christians were speaking out to name an oppressive situation and to call for the liberation of suffering and oppressed people. The powers we addressed resided in the army headquarters and the capitol building in plain sight across the boulevard.
Jeremiah’s act pointed to a reality different from that of his hearers. They saw a near return. Jeremiah believed that seeking a near return would lead to devastation, while submission to the conqueror would preserve the city and lead eventually to the return of the exiles and the temple treasure.
Our action around the statue also pointed to a different reality. By joining hands and uniting our hearts and voices in prayer and song, we became the new reality of the people of God. We made visible the reign of God as an alternative to the oppressive powers that faced us. Like Jeremiah, we called people to forsake the current path and to experience the rule of Yahweh. The elderly gentleman murmuring in my ear sensed that and made me sense it.
Jeremiah’s symbolic action did not go unchallenged. The response was both public and symbolic. The prophet Hananiah accosted Jeremiah in the temple in the presence of the priests and the general populace. Like Jeremiah, Hananiah also claimed to speak the word of Yahweh. But he contradicted Jeremiah. Rather than counseling submission to Nebuchadnezzar, Hananiah said,
"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (28:2-4)"
Like Jeremiah, Hananiah also engaged in symbolic action. He grabbed Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it, saying, “Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years” (28:11). And with that demonstration, Jeremiah left the scene (28:11).
Like Jeremiah’s dramatic act, our act around the statue also met a kind of challenge. Our group had planned how to respond to a direct confrontation from the military, but we left the statue before any materialized. However, we did receive a direct challenge of another kind.
On our first night in Port-au- Prince, the men in our group stayed in a guesthouse run by evangelical missionaries from the United States. Around the dinner table that evening, we discussed the activities we were planning for the week, including our public demonstration, which was still in the planning stage. The next morning at breakfast, our hosts informed us that their guest rooms were no longer available for us to sleep in. They wanted nothing to do with people who would engage in “political” action against the government.
These missionaries opposed in the name of God what we planned to do in the name of God. To our team, this seemed parallel to the opposition to Yahweh’s word that Jeremiah experienced from Hananiah and the other court prophets.
Jeremiah’s account also reveals a great deal of ambiguity concerning the understanding or the conclusions his audience might draw from his action. Jeremiah and Hananiah used identical words to introduce their message: “Thus says the Lord.” In terms of empowered claims or appeals to authority, they were equal. Each engaged in a symbolic act that made his message visible -- Jeremiah constructed and wore a yoke; Hananiah seized it and broke it. And the first round of acts ended there. After Hananiah had snatched and broken the yoke, Jeremiah withdrew, silently acknowledging the problem of whom to believe when prophet contradicted prophet and each claimed to speak for Yahweh. (4)
Jeremiah did suggest one criterion for identifying the true prophet. Preceding prophets had prophesied war, famine, and pestilence, Jeremiah said. The greater burden of proof would now reside on the one who prophesied peace. “When the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet” (28:9). In the final analysis, however, how the events turned out would be the final arbiter of which prophet -- Jeremiah or Hananiah -- truly spoke for Yahweh.
Like Jeremiah’s action and response, our action in Port-au- Prince lacked an obvious outcome that would validate our action as Yahweh’s word. Jeremiah counseled submission to Nebuchadnezzar in expectation of a return from Exile some seventy years in the future (25:11), a person’s normal life span. This was hardly more attractive than Hananiah’s promise of return within two years! We had no expectations that our witness to the word of Yahweh would bring a change of government anytime soon in Port-au-Prince.
Sometime after the initial faceoff with Hananiah, Jeremiah returned to the fray, now apparently wearing an iron yoke. Jeremiah told Hananiah:
"You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals. (28:13-14)"
This word from Yahweh also included a personal message for Hananiah, with an ironic twist. Because he had not previously been sent by Yahweh, now Yahweh would send him right off the face of the earth.
“Listen, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead.
And he died that same year (28:17).
Alongside his work with the yokes, Jeremiah engaged in a number of other symbolic acts. While they may have lacked the confrontational style demonstrated in the yoke, these acts proclaimed the same message. He buried and ruined a new loincloth as the basis for prophecy about the Exile (13:1-11). He slammed wine jars together, breaking them (13:12-14) as a sign of coming destruction. He remained single and childless to dramatize the coming desolation of the land of Judah (16:1-13), and he smashed a pot as a symbol of what Yahweh would do to Jerusalem (19:1-15).
The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem. As Jeremiah was facing imprisonment in the court of the palace guard, he bought a plot of ground (Jer. 32). Enacted in the face of the imminent fall of the city, the purchase expressed faith in the promise of Yahweh that at a future time, the people would return and normal life would resume in the land.
Other prophets also engaged in symbolic activity. Isaiah, a prophet active in the Southern Kingdom whose career (742–701 BCE) spanned the fall of Samaria in 722, gave his son a name that foreshadowed the fall of Samaria (Isa. 8:1-4). When Judah had an opportunity to join an alliance with Egypt and Ethiopia in a revolt against Assyria, Isaiah strongly opposed such a coalition. For three years he walked around Jerusalem “naked and barefoot,” to illustrate the shame of Egyptians and Ethiopians and as a symbol of their future Exile and of Israel’s folly in trusting foreign powers (Isa. 20).
Ezekiel was among those deported to Babylon in 597. (5) Some of Ezekiel’s actions do not appear completely normal. In some sort of ecstatic state, he remained speechless until given an oracle by God (Ezek. 3:27). (6) He drew the city of Jerusalem on a brick, then ate siege rations and lay bound on his side for 430 days, the traditional number of years Israel was in Egypt. (7) In doing so, Ezekiel was acting out the siege of the city and the captivity of Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In his body he bore the punishment Yahweh was laying upon the people (Ezek. 4). In another pantomime, Ezekiel shaved his head and burned portions of the hair, with only a small portion saved, to picture the coming destruction of Judah (Ez. 5).
Such actions in the prophetic traditions of Israel show that Jesus’ own acts stood fully within that prophetic tradition. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, the action had a deliberately confrontational element. Before he revived the withered hand, he called the man to come and stand with him in a prominent location, so that those who objected to such Sabbath activity would be sure to notice. Then Jesus looked “around at all of them,” made eye contact with them, and told the man with the crippled arm, “Stretch our your hand.” (Luke 6:6-11). Other reports of healing on the Sabbath make equally clear that these acts of Jesus were not only controversial, but also intentionally confrontational (Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6). These acts had elements of both symbol and actualization. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus engaged in an act demonstrating that the regulations propagated by the religious leadership were subverting and distorting the purpose of the Sabbath under the reign of God. But it was also more than a symbol. In the act of healing, the reign of God was made present and visible.
In his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-38), Jesus confronted prevailing standards in another way. He had already violated the strict purity expectations by traveling through Samaria, rather than around it. Then he surprised the woman at the well by his willingness, as a Jew, to accept a drink from her, a Samaritan. The purity code forbade his contact with a menstruating woman. Since one could never be certain that a woman was not in the unclean state, the practice was to assume that she was unclean, a condition also extending to any vessel she touched. (8)
At their return, the disciples were surprised that he was speaking to a woman (John 4:27). Recent literature has frequently pointed out that Jesus’ interactions with women raised their standing and broke the conventions of a patriarchal society. For example, Walter Wink states, "We can see that in every single encounter with women in the four Gospels, Jesus violated the mores of his time." (9)
Jesus' cleansing of the temple constitutes a third vignette that both symbolizes and effects a new reality. Jesus found the temple desecrated. The debate about the exact nature of that desecration need not concern us here. Of import is that Jesus engaged in a “cleansing” action to reclaim the temple for the rule of God (Luke 19:45-48; Matt. 21:12-13). Since it confronted the prevailing structures of the social order, this action, along with the Sabbath-day healings, is akin to modern acts of civil disobedience.
As we stood around the statue and the elderly Haitian gentlemen finally made his words clear to me, I came to believe we were engaging in activities that stood in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus. Like them, we used symbols and gestures to make God's rule visible. Stationed in front of the oppressive structures of government and the military, I could even believe that our little circle resembled a temple cleansing. In the space within our circle, into which the elderly gentlemen stepped, the oppressive forces were momentarily expelled and God’s peace reigned.
However, the relationship between the actions around the statue in Port-au-Prince and what I learned from Millard Lind goes beyond the acquisition of biblical models of symbolic or activist behavior. If models of activity are the only gain, then the models and their modern counterparts would have little meaning in and of themselves. One can develop symbolic acts in support of any cause. As isolated moments, the acts of Jeremiah walking around with an ox yoke or Ezekiel curling around his brick or Isaiah strolling naked around Jerusalem or CPT folks singing in a circle -- none of these actions points to a significant truth or carries significant meaning when isolated from the believing community. Only the wider context or frame of reference endows such acts with their meaning. The foundation for symbolic activity or acts of civil disobedience appears in the call of Yahweh to Abraham:
"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)"
Yahweh's people have a mission in the world: to live as Yahweh's people. When they fulfill that mission, when they live up to the calling of Yahweh, then that people will be visible in the world. And when Yahweh’s people live up to their calling, other peoples are blessed.
The foundational activity of confronting the world happens when Yahweh’s people live in the world as God’s people in response to the call to Abraham. When God’s people fulfill their mission, they may confront -- and pose a clear alternative to -- the segments of the world that do not profess loyalty to Yahweh or acknowledge the rule of Yahweh. The symbolic acts that have ultimate significance are those that reflect God’s people and make visible God’s people in the world.
When Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel spoke or acted, it was in response to the effective word of God: "Thus says the Lord." Their proclamations and their acts witnessed to the rule of Yahweh and to what was expected of God’s people. Thus identity with God’s rule (or God’s will) gives meaning to the symbolic actions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
In the long perspective, the people of God claim their identity from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ symbolic actions, such as healing on the Sabbath, accepting service from a woman and a Samaritan, and cleansing the temple, have meaning as actions that make visible the rule of God. These actions demonstrate what the reign of God looks like for those who live it and live within it.
As the one whose person and whose life is most fully identified with the rule of God, Jesus’ actions make the preeminent statement of what the rule of God looks like in the world. This larger framework of the reign of God, made visible and present in the prophetic acts and in the life and teaching of Jesus, provides the meaning of CPT actions in Haiti.
Our action around the statue had meaning if and when it was shaped by or reflected the reign of God. And the presence of the reign of God was initiated with the call to Abraham. It was continued through the children of Israel and in the prophets who critiqued them, and revealed most fully in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Actions around a statue in Port-au-Prince by CPT ultimately are valid not merely because they point out injustice or protest Haitian government actions, or because they are staged in front of Haitian power structures. These actions acquire validity when they show what it means to be the people of God in continuity with the biblical people of God, who began with Abraham, continued in the tradition of Israel and her prophets, and then in Jesus.
Locating symbolic actions within the framework of the people of God also makes a significant negative point, making clear what symbolic action is not. In the case of Port-au-Prince, we were tempted to identify the victims of oppression as God’s people and to include in the reign of God all those entities that served to alleviate oppression. In September 1994 the United States launched an invasion of Haiti with the stated purpose of restoring President Aristide to power. Even some peace-church folks supported those acts by the military because the military seemed for a time to lessen oppression and secure greater freedom in Haiti.
My experience on another trip to Haiti posed the temptation strongly to include the military within God’s rule. Our delegation had a meeting with the Directrice Générale of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Her office was located in the former army headquarters, on whose balcony we had seen soldiers standing when we had the vigil at the statue on my first trip. During a tour of the building, I stood in what was once the office of the coup leader who had deposed President Aristide. Now this building was being remodeled and the Ministry for Women’s Affairs had taken over a segment of it. It seemed like the temple had been cleansed.
That Jesus' actions in the prophetic tradition provided a ready context for our actions made the demonstration feel like a temple cleansing -- but that it could not be. While we could rejoice in the conversion of the building to more wholesome purposes, the governmental agencies that produced the change -- whether the United States army or the Haitian government -- are not representatives of the people of God, even though God may use them for God’s purposes. After all, Jeremiah himself had said that Yahweh was using Nebuchadnezzar to punish rebellious Israel.
God's people are a faith community, not a political entity defined by geographical space. They represent the reign of God. Theologically, the actions of armies and governments do not represent the reign of God, even when they produce a momentary lessening of oppression.
If being the people of God as a witness to the world provides the wider framework for our actions, then we are living within the biblical story. In the Bible we find the story of God’s people -- a story that began with Abraham and continued through Israel to Jesus. The story that identifies us as God’s children and as followers of Jesus comes from the Bible. When we act in ways that make visible the people of God, we are living within a story shaped by the Bible. Our actions around that statue in the heart of Port-au-Prince were an incarnation and continuation of the Bible’s story. I know now that these actions of CPT in Port-au-Prince were a continuation of what it means to be the people of God and to live within the story of the Bible.
1. Christian Peacemaker Teams is an initiative of the historic peace churches and other peace groups who support violence-reductive efforts and nonviolent peace activism around the world;
2. J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986) 408;
3. Miller and Hayes, History, 409. Ben Ollenburger has demonstrated that the security of Zion provided by Yahweh "is made conditional on the posture of the community," which is expressed in terms of "faith and trust" in Yahweh. See "Zion, the City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, no. 41 (Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1987) 148;
4. John Bright, Jeremiah, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965) 202–3;
5. Ezekiel’s career is often dated 593–570 bce;
6. Millard C. Lind, Ezekiel, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996) 44;
7. Lind, Ezekiel, 54;
8. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (New York: Macmillan, 1962)
9. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 129.