British values from Jeremiah to Grenfell Tower

This is my sermon for this coming Sunday, published early in case any other preacher wants to pinch bits. The text is Jeremiah 20:7-13.

It compares the recent changes in British values with the tensions in Judean values at the time of Jeremiah.

What are British values?

For about 40 years, not just in Britain but across the capitalist West, governments have been making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The reasons are to do with neo-liberal economic theory, and are well known to economists. However, politicians don’t like to admit in public that they are doing it deliberately. To excuse themselves, British politicians have repeatedly blamed the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum on the EU, expecting we would vote to stay in. He gambled and lost.

Nine years ago there was an international financial crash. The Government, instead of attributing responsibility to the real perpetrators, the people controlling the banks, used the language of ‘workers against shirkers’ to blame the unemployed. Since then we have heard many stories of unemployed and disabled people having no money at all.

We have also been encouraged to blame immigrants for taking jobs. There has been much political debate about how to control immigration. Refugees have been subjected to the most appalling conditions, in Greek islands, at Calais, at British detention centres, and of course in the Mediterranean where unknown numbers have drowned. The response of most leading British politicians has been to make sure they don’t get into our country, and otherwise not care what happens to them.

All these events have made British values change for the worse. You only have to walk down Bold Street in Liverpool to see how many more homeless people there are now. We have become a society which has learned not to care about the destitute in our own city, while blaming and hating foreigners for everything that has gone wrong.

Then there’s health and safety. Politicians have been telling us over and over again that we need to get rid of all that red tape that stops businesses making profits. The important thing is for businesses to make money; safety regulations are a nuisance. Sooner or later the lack of commitment to health and safety was bound to produce a disaster, and it happened at Grenfell Tower.

Alternative values

Church leaders and people of faith have been asking what sort of country we are becoming. A country that hates everybody except themselves?’

At times like this it becomes all the more important for somebody to stand up for alternative values. Christianity offers them.

By our nature we look after ourselves. When we feel threatened we defend ourselves against other people. When we do not feel threatened we like to help others. When disaster strikes we suddenly become keen to help. The recent string of terrorist attacks has made us realise that blaming and hating foreigners has a cost. The fire at Grenfell Tower has made us realise that profit-seeking businesses are less important than having somewhere safe to live.

Suddenly, British values seem to be changing again. It is as though we are once again learning to care. For many, Jeremy Corbyn symbolises the option of a more caring society. It is worth remembering that he only became leader of the Labour Party because hundreds of thousands of people, mainly young people, were determined to create a better society.

Jeremiah

God touches Jeremiah's mouth

God touches Jeremiah’s mouth. Winchester Bible, c. 1170, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

The prophet Jeremiah lived in a country with a clash of values. Jeremiah belonged to the small state of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem, squeezed between two huge empires, Egypt and Babylon.

Prophets like Jeremiah advised the king. At the time of this passage the king was Jehoiakim. The book of Jeremiah tells us not only the advice he gave to Jehoiakim, but also how he felt. The passage we listened to describes how he felt after a lively interchange.

It went like this. Extracts from Jeremiah Chapter 19:

Thus said the Lord: Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests, and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom… You shall say: Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me…

I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will make them fall by the sword… I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth… And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbours in the siege…

Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended…

This is political opposition, as inflammatory as it gets. So he gets arrested and put in the stocks. When he is released we get the passage the lectionary has given us. I imagine him saying to himself ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’

O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me.

Given what he has just done, that’s not surprising, is it?
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

This passage tells us why he did it. He could have kept his mouth shut, but he felt compelled to speak up for God.

We can sympathise with the king. He had been put on the throne by the Egyptians, and he had to avoid anything that would offend them.

Jeremiah wasn’t satisfied with that. For Jeremiah, loyalty to the god of Israel was too important to compromise.

Jehoiakim’s father Josiah had been king before. Josiah had introduced a lot of reforms. The clash of values was between the supporters and opponents of those reforms. They are described in the Book of Deuteronomy. God had given the land to the people, in order that everybody would have somewhere to live and enough to eat. Therefore a good king would not oppress the people, or take from the poor to enrich themselves, but would make sure everybody could provide for themselves and live in peace.

Jeremiah approved of these reforms. When Jehoiakim became king he scrapped them. Jehoiakim was a typical oriental tyrant, living in luxurious style and capable of immense cruelty.

No doubt there were people who wanted their king to be just as rich as other kings, with palaces just as impressive as other palaces.

We today live with the same tensions. Donald Trump talks about ‘making America great again’. Here in this country, some people are keen for Britain to have the visible signs of wealth and power, and think the poverty and homelessness of many is a price worth paying.

But the prophecies of Jeremiah witnessed to different values. God has put us in a world full of good things, so that everyone may have somewhere safe to live and enough to eat. Everyone, whatever their nationality, whatever their state of health, whatever their skills and limitations.

600 years later, Jesus also looked forward to it. He called it ‘the Kingdom of God’.

Today, we are usually governed by people like Jehoiakim. They want luxuries for themselves, they can be cruel to people they don’t care about, and their main concern is to juggle the political situation so as to stay in power.

So we still need prophets like Jeremiah, who have understood how much better things would be if we lived the way God has designed us to live, and are driven to proclaim it by a burning fire in their bones.

May God raise up prophets for our age too.

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4 Responses to British values from Jeremiah to Grenfell Tower

  1. Medi Jones says:

    Found this very interesting and informative thank you

  2. ‘May God raise up prophets for our age too.’ Amen.

    Thank you for this wonderful piece of typology, Jonathan. Indeed, we need a prophet badly. I for one find myself hyper-ready to see hoodwinking, sculduggery and ulterior motive everywhere, particularly on our political scene. Here’s how: Why, I ask myself, did Theresa May announce swingeing cuts to pension benefits and more austerity left, right and centre, then spring a general election? And why is our rotten media now lionising Jeremy Corbyn, having constantly declared him hopeless and a loser only days ago? And I answer thus: The Tories want to off-load government, for something very dicey is afoot; they need Corbyn to scapegoat for it. Is Corbyn co-operating with this use of him? Only a prophet could sort their obscurantist shenanigans out.

    • Sophie, I’ve heard other people suspecting that the Tories want an election to lose. I have no idea myself – I don’t move in those circles – but if that’s what’s happening, I hope it happens soon.

  3. Yes, likewise — unless Corbyn is one of ‘them’, in which case we will end up pretty rapidly in an austerity programme that will make our teeth rattle, and with martial law that will stop our whining about it.

    Good night from your ever cheerful, full of trust, optimistic fan
    Sophie

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