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Another Jeremiah

I recalled Micaiah before I thought of Jeremiah in this case, even though Dr. Jeremiah Wright shares the great prophet’s name. Micaiah is the prophet of who never prophesied anything good about Ahab (1 Kings 22). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was definitely an anti-patriot. Very little that he said was appreciated by the hierarchy of Judah, and he certainly was not an advocate of dialogue.

Which brings me to Barack Obama’s former pastor, who doesn’t speak in terms of dialogue, and doesn’t sound like a great American patriot. But leaving aside message for a moment, he definitely does have the tone of a prophet. Prophets tend to have an abrasive personality, or else they are driven to abrasiveness by the messages they are called upon to deliver. I remember one church at which I taught on the gift of prophecy. After I had discussed rebuke as an element of prophecy, one of the members told me that they didn’t do rebuke at that church; they preferred encouragement. All I can say is that if you prefer encouragement, you probably won’t like the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.

My main objection to the current frenzy over Dr. Wright’s sermons is simply that I would not want to be judged by the sermons of all my pastors. It’s not that they would likely be quite as embarrassing to me as Dr. Wright’s are to Barack Obama, but they simply have all said things with which I would not agree. In some cases I would argue strenuously. But I don’t run away from a spiritual leader simply because I disagree. I have learned from reading Bishop John Shelby Spong and from Dr. Norman Geisler. You could hardly find two more different people, both claiming the mantle of Christianity. Yet I’m not going to put down a book by one or the other because I’m in the presence of someone who thinks they are dangerous.

But secondly, I think America needs to hear some of the things Dr. Wright has to say, and it is for this reason that I personally would put up with the things that he has said that annoy me. Frankly, I think we have forgotten the value of annoyance in our culture. Annoyance gets people thinking. Annoyance gets people acting.

But the most quoted line is “God damn America.” I’m not going to say it myself. I imagine I come across most of the time as the king of nuance, and whenever I don’t, someone goads me into it via the comments. Other than as a formula I doubt I’d even say “God bless America” without some caveat or another attached!

But what is it that leads to the “damning” of a country? Is it a preacher proclaiming what he sees as the problems of the country in a loud voice? No! Those are largely words. The most damning thing that can happen in any country results from our actions. In Jeremiah’s time, the leaders of Judah freed their slaves, but then when the danger turned aside temporarily, they took them back (Jeremiah 34). Jeremiah’s words were harsh. What they had done to others and more, would be done to them.

If we, as a country, continue on the course which we seem to have chosen, to reduce liberty at home and to respond with violence toward every country that may provide support to terrorism we will not be successful. It is an approach that doesn’t count the cost and doesn’t consider the results of violence. I do believe violent action can be justified, but because of the terrible consequences, and the many unintended results, one must be extremely sure that the violence is necessary and will be successful in improving the existing situation.

I would not join in saying “God damn America;” in fact, I most fervently pray otherwise. But if we choose a deadly course of action, as the leaders of Judah did, and refuse to listen to the voices that call us away from it, then we will surely be damned.

I am concerned that we have no strategic vision for dealing with terrorism. Some may wonder how I connect strategic vision with a moral issue, but surely any justification for violence must include some kind of desirable result. Where will we be 10 years from now? 20? What will the world look like? Our problem is that we don’t know, and apparently don’t care. We just see what we can do to line up forces to invade one country after another. When you take a course of action that results in death, you have to be exceptionally careful to make sure that you have actually chosen the best course of action.

Under such circumstances someone needs to tell us that we have to think of something more than retaliating for 9/11, that we need to find our moral compass. That’s the role of a prophetic voice. There are those who think our problem is merely military authority–if people fear us enough we will be safe. Others are concerned only with moral authority, thinking that safety will result from being right enough. I’m concerned with both. Either pure moral authority without action or action without moral authority is going to lead to chaos and death.

Finally, I have to ask what would happen to Jesus were he to preach the sermon on the mount in our American churches today. Oh, I know, we have an explanation for it line by line as to how it doesn’t mean what it actually seems to be saying. But I imagine that Jesus could make it completely fresh and shock us with a new way of presenting such concepts as loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and how blessed are the meek.

No, Dr. Jeremiah Wright isn’t the ancient prophet Jeremiah, and he isn’t Jesus. I wouldn’t feel so free to agree with him if he were! But the level of anger we’re seeing tells me more about our moral defensiveness than it does about Dr. Wright.

And with that I have surely offended enough people for one post!

(I am commenting on another angle on this issue in my first post at RedBlueChristian.com.)

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  1. Thanks very much for this very thoughtful blog. I’ve been thinking along very similar lines. Rev. Wright is a prophet in the vein of Jeremiah and Amos. Unfortunately, when one decides to run for elected office, especially the office of president, one must forsake his or her allegiance to Christ in favor of allegiance to the national ideology/idolatry. I fear for Sen. Obama, that in the process of this campaign he will lose his soul.

  2. I agree with you. I’m very tired of the ranting of the smug far right. I’m happy Rev. Wright’s messages are out in the open. I was sorely convicted by them, to the point of tears–althought I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “Damn America.” I have prayed, however, to have keep my faith and courage if God does judge us further during my lifetime.

    In addition to losing our understanding of the true nature of the prophetic voice, we’ve over-spiritualized the concept of judgment, forgetting that when God judged Israel, it was in a very real, embodied and sociopolitical realm.

  3. Finally, I have to ask what would happen to Jesus were he to preach the sermon on the mount in our American churches today.

    When clergy decide to make comments whether they are blue like Jesse Jackson or Wright, or red like Pat Robertson (or even Muslim Imams), there are always repercussions. This prophetic voice comes with responsibility and a response. It’s time that both red and blue listen to each others’ prophetic voice because God is trying to say something in the midst of our emotions. My fear is that we don’t like each others responses when it does come.

  4. I was think of how Jesus cursed the neighboring cities in his time as well as the rich. The Jesus Seminar’s translation in the Five Gospels, like Jeremiah Wright, and probably like Jesus before them all minced no words:

    “Damn you who are rich now…” (etc.)

  5. Everybody seems to be most annoyed with “God Damn America,” whereas I think it’s the most effective part of what I’ve seen from Wright. I doubt that Wright is literally saying that all of America should be sent immediately to hell, but rather, what he’s doing is taking a potent and incredibly idolatrous phrase that weds Christianity to the particular nation-state of America and inverts the phrase to demonstrate how very far America is from being a nation that actually follows Christian ideals. Which is, like, painfully obvious to anyone with eyes and ears. The only things Wright’s really implying are that Christianity doesn’t equal America and that America often does things that are morally wrong in God’s eyes. It certainly shouldn’t be a news flash to any but the most mealy-mouthed right-winger that both of these statements are unqualified truths. So what’s the problem?

    Wright is calling us out on our idolatry, and what’s wrong with that? Surely it isn’t comforting for most of us to hear, but when was the call to follow the Kingdom of God meant to be comforting?

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