The blow to Christian egos may not be such a bad thing. Christians, particularly those in the West who are heirs to many centuries of political and cultural dominance, must learn to contend with shrinking influence and growing marginalization, even vilification, where they once enjoyed a high, even dominant, status. But the general cultural decline it betokens is a far more serious matter. So contends Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and some of the most powerful parts of his lecture, particularly in the final third or so of his text, testify to the depth of his conviction.

Sacks offers Jeremiah’s words as a starting place for Christians as well as Jews to respond to that decline. He interprets Jeremiah as introducing to human history, through the Jews, the idea of a creative minority devoted to the common good, congenitally averse to the wielding of domineering political power. In Jeremiah’s day, he argues, the Jews had been punished with exile for forgetting this idea, for becoming “obsessed” with politics and worshiping power. Sacks argues that the mission of Jews throughout history is to stand for the principle that religion should never be used to empower dominant majorities or to undermine the principles of diversity and particularity.

Whatever the merits of this view, it represents quite a leap from what Jeremiah actually said. The prophet told his contemporaries to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, not out of some abstract devotion to the common good or the principles of diversity and non-domination but in an appeal to self-interest: “If [the city] prospers, you too will prosper.” It is wise practical advice that Jeremiah is giving. Don’t withdraw into cubbyholes, or go to war with the authorities, because you will lose something you want. Instead, keep on as best you can, and be confident in God’s promises. Relief and restoration will come in his good time.

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