I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord. A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping of Israel’s children, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God: Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness. (Jeremiah 3: 19-22)
It’s not every day that one hears a pastor exhorting his congregation to sing “God Damn America.” The firestorm of controversy over the comments by Barack Obama’s senior pastor and spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright (and the address on race that the comments prompted Obama to deliver on March 18) have stirred up a hornet’s nest of accusation and recrimination. But if Obama’s speech on race is as historically significant as many of us think, then perhaps the credit ought to go, in part, to Rev. Wright, for (unwittingly, to be sure) prompting the conversation. What did Wright say? One set of comments had to with the September 11 attacks:
We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye…We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost…
When attempting to sort through the controversy over Wright’s remarks, there seems little reason to linger over the comments about September 11, which do not differ greatly from those offered by a noted white pastor, Jerry Falwell. Falwell, as many will recall, laid the attacks at the feet of those who have pursued a secular public square in the United States. “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked….[T]he pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
For both Wright and Falwell, the attacks of September 11 can be traced to some basic consequences of something the United States, as a political entity, did. For Falwell it was secularizing the public square and legalizing abortion. For Wright, it was supporting state terrorism and using atomic weapons. To be sure, Falwell was widely criticized for his remarks, and issued a rather tepid apology. But he certainly was not repudiated or renounced by leading Republicans. To the contrary, John McCain practically fell over himself this year seeking reconciliation with Falwell, whom he had labeled as an agent of “intolerance” during the 2000 primary campaign. (McCain claimed that his earlier comments had been made “in haste.”)
Far more provocative and interesting, to be sure, were Wright’s suggestion that his congregation should not sing “God Bless America”:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people…God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
Now it’s one thing to say that September 11 was related to American foreign policy; it is quite another to damn the nation entirely. “God damn America” strikes at something close to heart of American identity: the notion that the nation has a special place in God’s plan for human history, that God has blessed the United States and will continue to bless it, if it continues to do God’s work. Such a view has deep roots in American history, and has underwritten some of our most significant social movements, including, but hardly limited to, abolitionism, suffrage, temperance, civil rights, and the Cold War.
Many commentators have linked Wright’s remarks to the tradition of the “jeremiad,” the prophetic vocation of speaking truth to power that has deep roots in white as well as black American Christianity. According to this characterization, Wright is fulfilling the prophetic role, highlighting the nation’s failings in an attempt to shock the nation to action. In the Bible, Jeremiah spoke out in protest of the Israelites’ falling-away from the covenant they had sworn with God at Sinai, and called the people to repentance for their sins lest God send further misfortunes on them. Jeremiah, and others in the prophetic tradition, generally did three things: 1) lamented the community’s present state (its neglect of widows, orphans, and the poor; its chasing after false gods); 2) hearkened back to a time of faithfulness, when the community upheld its covenant and walked with God; and 3) called for reform, repentance, and reformation in order to regain God’s promised blessing. Much was expected of a chosen nation, and the prophet’s role was to insist that the community mend its ways, ask God’s forgiveness, and reclaim its original promise.
When the Puritans journeyed from England to America in the 1630s, they brought this sense of chosenness with them: John Winthrop famously told his fellow settlers that “we shall be as a city on a hill.” Explicit parallels with the Israelites filled their early sermons – the ocean crossing as a kind of Exodus, the wilderness all around them filled with natives to be dispossessed so that a godly nation could arise in the American wilderness. Time and again, New England clergy (Jeremiahs of their own time and place)railed at their compatriots, lamenting their falling-away from the piety and godliness of the first generation, their frenetic pursuit of luxury and material success, calling them back to faithfulness and their covenant with God and each other. These presuppositions were deepened and strengthened by the events of the 1770s and 1780s, in which the notion of an American Israel throwing off oppression in order to take up its national mission settled ever more deeply into American public rhetoric. This link was only strengthened by the Revolutionary experience, the great evangelical revivals of the early nineteenth century, and the nation’s first movements westward.
Nor did the jeremiad go away after the founding era. Time and time again, critics raised their voice in the name of founding American principles, lamenting the continuing obstacles standing in the way of their full realization, and calling Americans to reform their practices and claim the nation’s foundational promises. Frederick Douglass told an audience on July 4, 1852, that “[t]he principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” He, and countless white critics like him (including, perhaps, President Abraham Lincoln), saw the Civil War’s carnage as a kind of chastisement visited by God on a sinful nation who had too long tolerated the sin of slavery. In the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt, too, looked back to the spirit of the founding in making a case for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” arguing that “Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776….Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people…Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” And during the twentieth century, Martin Luther King powerfully “refuse[d] to believe” that the bank of American justice was bankrupt, and brought his dream to Washington. It was, he told his audience, “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” King—America’s twentieth century Jeremiah—called a nation to honor its deepest commitments, to pay the promissory note that was written at the nation’s founding.
The most recent example of such an understanding was in plain view on March 18, when Barack Obama voiced his view that although the nation’s founding document “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery,” nonetheless “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution.” His dream, like King’s, was deeply rooted in the American dream. Obama (and King, and Roosevelt, and Douglass, and Lincoln) offered a jeremiad that we might call “progressive”; one that asserted a deep faith in the nation’s promise, articulated at the founding but always painfully incomplete. It is a jeremiad because the prophetic vocation here is being exercised: speaking truth to power in the service of reclaiming the community’s fundamental goodness and promise. It is progressive because, without being saccharine, it asserts that progress does happen—slowly, painfully, and never easily—and that progress is due, in large part, to two things: the powerful potential of American ideals, and the courage of American citizens.
There are, of course, other ways to play Jeremiah. Christian Right leaders like Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the like have themselves used a jeremiad to mobilize millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into political life since the 1970s. They lament developments in American society and politics since the 1960s –the sexual revolution and the acceptance of homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, the removal of prayer from public schools, the increasing prevalence of violence and degrading sexual content in the media. This jeremiad looks to the past as well, not so much for ideas and principles as for concrete aspects of past practices: traditional “family values,” prayer in public schools, a friendly relationship between church and state, heterosexual marriage. For these Jeremiahs the nation’s misfortunes stem from its turning away from traditional beliefs and practices that dominated in earlier times, and to which they seek to return. Much of it is nostalgia, to be sure, but the point here is that there was a time when things were rightly done, and we have lost that, and need to get it back.
All of this seems far, far away from Jeremiah Wright, however. The biblical Jeremiah’s vocation, after all (and Douglass’, and King’s) was not to damn the nation, but to call the faithful back to a right relationship with God and each other, one that, on some level, they acknowledged in their founding promises. In this way, the jeremiad can often claim, with good reason, to represent the most loyal patriotism even while engaging in the most strident dissent, since it anchors itself so deeply in founding virtues. King had no illusions about social realities at the time of the founding, but he located the power of the Constitution in the American ideals of liberty and justice for all, in the radical potential of the American founding. Passing civil rights and voting rights legislation would represent a vindication of those founding promises.
There seems little of this in Wright’s comments. Now this is not to say that what Wright says is not true; in fact there is, as Obama himself put it, an understandable sense of suspicion and distrust that black Americans, particularly black Americans of Wright’s generation, hold toward the nation. But Wright does not offer a jeremiad. His words evoke not King’s dream, but a rather different set of religious voices from American history that have denied the nation’s fundamental promise. William Lloyd Garrison called the nation “diseased beyond the power of recovery,” and famously burned a copy of the Constitution, referring to it as “an agreement with hell.” Or consider Stephen Douglas’s denial, in his debates with Lincoln, that American founding documents had any promise whatsoever: the authors of the Declaration of Independence, he claimed, were speaking only of whites, of “British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain.” For Douglas, as for Garrison, as, it seems, for Wright, the nation’s racial promise is limited to the concrete details of its past: the narrow, literal wording of the Declaration, the failure of the Constitution to do away with slavery once and for all.
So this Jeremiah is not quite the Jeremiah that some would have us believe. He offers a trenchant and much-needed critique of American race relations past and present, but seems unable or unwilling to offer a vision of an American future that might transcend that past. Obama made just this point:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made, as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know, what we have seen, is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
Of course, proclaiming that the nation can change and actually seeing such change happen are two quite different things. Perhaps the great service of Reverend Wright’s controversial remarks will turn out to lie not in the sentiments he voiced but in the response he evoked from his most famous parishioner. That would be a call and response worthy, not just of the African-American religious tradition, but of all Americans.