prophets and scribes

Toni Morrison. JK Rowling. Maurice Sendak. D.H. Lawrence. Aldous Huxley. Adolf Hitler. Anne Frank. Dr. Seuss.

The Prophet Jeremiah.

What do all these people have in common? The works of each of these authors has been banned, at some time or another, in some place or another, for some reason or another. Such is the strength of words, that even the mighty fear their power.

In Jeremiah’s case, his work was not merely banned, but burned. Destroyed. And this in an age when there were no carbon copies, no Xerox machines, no digital backup. The powers that be considered executing Jeremiah, as well, but relented. Others in history have not been so lucky. It is a small step from burning books to burning human beings.

A book, after all, is merely an extension of the human voice. It enables the writer to speak to those far away, in time or in distance. When writing first appeared on the scene of human history, it must have seemed as miraculous as the first phone call, the first radio broadcast, the first television would be to later generations. Remember, that in the early days of human literacy, not everyone could read and write; it was the job of scribes to set words to paper – to codify them, to digitize them, if you will – and then to retranslate them into sound. Until the invention of the written word, the only way to transmit speech was through someone’s living memory. The book replaced the bard, the mail replaced the messenger.

Speaking of messengers: let us return to our story.

Jeremiah runs afoul of the authorities when he forecasts the downfall of his own nation.  A little historical background here: Jeremiah was a prophet of the kingdom of Judah, whose prophetic career spanned the reign of five kings. This is not so much a testimony to Jeremiah’s longevity, as it is a testimony to Judah’s instability during this time.

When Jeremiah first received his call, the neighboring kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrian empire. Over the next decade it became clear to Jeremiah that his own kingdom of Judah would soon suffer the same fate. Yet Judah was in a deep state of denial; both king and people were certain of God’s favor and convinced of their own invincibility. Was not Jerusalem the home of the Temple, the Holy of Holies? Had not God promised David that his house would reign forever?  Other countries might fall, but it couldn’t happen here.

Theirs was the sin of exceptionalism, and Jeremiah called them out on it.

So when the King asked Jeremiah what God had in store for them, Jeremiah could offer no reassurance. He could not speak peace, when there was no peace. He could not speak comfort, when there was not comfort.  And so he was banned from the Temple.

Enter Baruch. Jeremiah enlists his friend to write down his prophetic warnings, on a scroll, and to take that scroll into the Temple, and to read it aloud. Baruch does this – and on a holiday, when the Temple will be crowded with visitors from throughout the kingdom. When the authorities seize the scroll and burn it, he does it all over again.

This guy interests me.

Baruch is not a prophet, he’s a scribe. His skills are intellectual, not inspirational. Jeremiah is the activist; Baruch is more of an academic. And yet he puts his life on the line, to carry Jeremiah’s voice to a place where Jeremiah himself cannot go.

Flash forward several hundred years.

Two weeks ago I was in London, with my family. On our first full day there, we took the kids to the Tower, to see the crown jewels and to explore the castle walls. If you follow those walls all around the castle, you pass through a series of small stone cells that once held prisoners; and on the walls of these rooms, you can see the graffiti that some of these prisoners etched into the stone walls. Some carved their names, others carved pictures: the outline of a hand, with a mark in its center; the outline of a footprint, also marked. These are religious symbols, signs of the crucifixion, left by Catholic prisoners during England’s century of bloody religious conflict.

One of those prisoners, we were told, was arrested for importing a Catholic book.

Which gave me pause. What sort of person risks prison for a book? What sort of book would be worth that risk? What story, what message, what memory is so important, that it must be passed on, at all costs?

Right before leaving for London, I went to see the movie Yesterday – did any of you see this? In the film, some unexplained warp occurs in reality, and the main character, a guy by the name of Jack Malik, awakens from a traffic accident into an altered world in which the Beatles apparently never existed. Jack is somehow the only person who remembers them, who remembers all of that music.

Now, Jack is a part-time musician, but he is no musical genius. He’s not the composer of these songs. He’s just, the guy that remembers them. But his memory imposes upon him a responsibility. And so this becomes his calling: to be the voice of the Beatles. Not to write down their songs, not just to record them and safely preserve them, but to sing them. To help the world remember.

Because it isn’t enough to archive our songs, our stories, our witness. Songs need to be sung, stories need to be told, truth needs to be spoken.

The moral of the film, perhaps, is this: We can’t all be Lennon or McCartney. But we can be Jack Malik.

As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are not all prophets. Not everyone receives that call, that breath of God that fills their lungs and forces them to exhale poetry. Not everyone has that vision, that ability to see clearly what others cannot imagine.

We can’t all be Jeremiah. But we can be Baruch.

We can lift up the words of the wise, we can bravely speak their truth in the presence of power.  This is especially true for those of us who enjoy the privilege of access – whether by virtue of race or religion or class or education. Those of us who still have access to the Temples of this age can use our voices to amplify the voices of those who have been shut out, and to remember the stories of those who can no longer tell their own.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – another author whose work was banned at one time – once said that “Listening to a witness, makes us a witness.” Baruch knew what that sentence meant. He was a witness. And thanks to him, so are we.

What do you know, that must be remembered? What have you learned, that must be taught? What have you read, that must be spoken? What have you heard, that must be sung?

Photo: public domain