Kathleen O'Connor has spent her career studying the the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. Her studies have focussed upon the meaning of these books for the people who lived through the times surrounding the fall of Judah and for us today. A recurrent theme in her studies is the problem of human suffering and our relationship to an all loving God.
This most recent monograph, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise is a pinnacle of her ground-breaking work. In it she explores the problem of grief and suffering in a dialectical manner, that of man standing before God, and finds not only meaning, but expression, hope and recovery for those who suffer such unspeakable horror.
Noting that Jeremiah has historically been a difficult and disjointed book, Dr. O'Connor shows how its lack of structure reflects the fragmented and dissociated lives that follow disasters of great proportion. Noting that victims of horrible trauma experience events that defy expression in words, she shows how Jeremiah's Laments give voice to the suffering and provide a space in which an individual or community can express it's grief and pain.
Part of the dialectical problem of such disasters is resolving the mutual responsibility of God and mankind in the wake of events that seem to create only victims that are lost. The contrast between the complaints of Jeremiah, his sermons, and the historical reality that other's invaded and committed atrocities upon Judah create a tension within the narrative that reflects the tension in the lives of survivors. While this tension is never clearly resolved within the text it reflects the real situation wherein all parties share in responsibility, work of recovery, restoration of life, order and relationship to God and each other.
Jeremiah also weeps. He weeps for those who are too numb and stunned to weep. He shows us that is fitting and proper to weep. His words give visceral expression to that weeping. The harsh and often obscene violent language (such as rape) to describe the injury, pain and suffering is shocking but in its extreme give voice to the voiceless wails often barely audible yet lifted up to God in roar.
In this analysis of Jeremiah we find a true physical, emotional and spiritual image of what diaster does to individuals, societies and relationships. By giving voice to all aspects of this shattering of our tentative lives, Jeremiah provides the framework for the Scriptural process of grief, lament, anger, contrition, petition and eventually recovery. Jeremiah does not give us an easy solution but a very realistic and painful one.
Yet Jeremiah offers us hope. It takes its most succinct form in the Book of Consolation but in toto by anchoring all in our God who loves us and who we need to return to. Yes even victims heal by repentance, if not for any proximate sins that led to their disaster, but as the way towards redemption. The path may lead through a long desert but we shall not walk it alone. The survivors, the children, who seek the Lord's face will find healing and life.
Dr. O'Connor's work will endure as not only a valuable theological analysis but one of tender insight and discovery of God's true word for the suffering. It will be of great value for theologians, teachers, ministers and those of us who work with disaster victims, war survivors and victims of disease, trauma, domestic violence and rape. It gives us voice to comfort the suffering by pointing to God's Word for the sufferer. It is a message that eventually gives hope by pointing to the joy of the Gospel and to where all must turn for the one thing needful.
Although inspired by secular studies of suffering and disaster, as well as the horrid multiple disasters of the past and current century, Dr. O'Connor does not read secular concerns into the text, change the text to suit her thesis or avoid the mysteries and difficulties of the text. Rather she lets the text speak with its sensitivity and love and find's within the text that God's message for us is as fresh today as it was 2600 years ago. The text stands as it is.