Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jeremiads are America's Oldest Scriptural Tradition

In all the recent press discussion
of Jeremiah Wright, I have yet to hear anyone note that Mr. Wright was named after the prophet Jeremiah.

For the record, the Book of Jeremiah is one of the oldest books in the Bible, and was one of the books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

If you want original scripture, you cannot go to an earlier source than Jeremiah.

Because I am lazy, I will turn to Wikipedia for a quick summary of the prophet, his book, and the term jeremiad :

  • Jeremiah was a very theatrical prophet of the Old Testmant (i.e. the "eye for an eye" testament). Notes Wikipedia: "In his various exhortations, Jeremiah made extensive use of performance art, using props or demonstrations to illustrate points and engage the public. He walked around wearing a wooden yoke about his neck. He served wine to a family with a vow of temperance."

  • In The Book of Jeremiah, according to Wikipedia, Jeremiah spends a quarter century "repeatedly issued prophecies predicting God's forthcoming judgment; advocating the Jews put down their idols and repent in hopes of turning away God's judgment and fulfilling their destiny as his chosen people. Jeremiah's fellow Jews refused to heed his warnings, did not repent and due the failure of his efforts, he witnessed the destruction of everything he knew, the exile of the Jewish elite to Babylonia, and the fleeing of the remainder to Egypt."

  • A jeremiad, Wikipedia inform us, "is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in poetry, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall .... Authors from Gildas to Robert Bork have had this label hung on their works. In contemporary usage, it is frequently pejorative, meant to suggest that the tone of the text is excessively pessimistic."

Jeremiads are some of America's oldest sermons, and were a core part of the early Puritan ministry.

The fact that so few Americans seem to have ever heard a good religious jeremiad gives you some idea of how far we have strayed from "that old time religion." It seems today's feel-good, pass-the-basket, sing-along churches don't really go in for that kind of thing. Hell fire? That's just allegory, right?

America's new churches, with their Gospel of Wealth, are designed to make us feel good about turning up the airconditioner, turning our backs on the poor, and killing muslims. They want us to feel good about ripping people off. You're rich? Great! That's as God intended -- never mind what Jesus said about camels, rich men, and eye of needles.

In the average church today, you will almost never hear a sermon about the evil of dumping toxins in the water or displaying ostentatious wealth. Helping the poor? There's not a lot of that in the modern church; just enough to give the youth fellowship folks something to do.

In the modern church, you will almost never hear anything about the state of America's crumbling schools, the slippery slope of detention without trial, or the failure to provide child care for young women with children struggling at the bottom of the U.S. economic ladder.

Instead, you will hear silly "children's sermons" and announcements about the permanent campaigns for a new roof or organ or mission trip. Bible passages may be read, but they will be devoid of social context -- as if we do not live in a country where housing prices have slipped 12 percent in the last year, where debt is not climbing through the roof, and where wages are not flat as a Kansas wheat field.

Churches have been devoid of social construct for a long time, especially in white America.

The churches most people are attending today were not leading the march for civil rights in 1960, anymore than they are leading the march for gay civil rights today.


No place in daily life is more segregated than the church pew on Sunday morning. And so no, you will not hear a sermon about the state of race relations in most churches; that would be too controversial. And again, never mind what Jesus said.

Meanwhile, we have draft dodgers like Rush Limbaugh questioning the patriotism of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man who stood up, showed up and queued up for U.S. military service back in the era when this country would not allow black men in the south to eat at a lunch counter.

And we have people like Sean Hannity -- a former bar tender who dropped out of both high school and college -- telling us what it all means.




BorderWars said...

The racist Reverend is well versed in the Old Testament, it appears. Especially the part about the big man in power concocting a plague to punish and slaughter those of dark skin over some transgressions tangentially involving slavery.

There's nothing amazing about Hannity or Limbaugh and their military careers and drug use isn't any more relevant than your own. What's amazing is that you're talking about lunch counters that the racist Rev was never turned away from instead of the entirely unforgivable race bating of a false prophet.

There's no way to spin his statements regarding the Government creating AIDS to kill Blacks as anything other than deplorable and Hitleresque

Anonymous said...

I don't think his patriotism has been questioned because he injected some social crusading and hard-hitting criticism of America's racist history into his sermons. I think his patriotism has been questioned because he used his pulpit to call for God to "damn" America, to refer to the 9/11 attacks as "America's chickens coming home to roost", and to harp on the theme that black America is and always should be a separate America opposed to white America, among other things.

At that point, getting upset because his patriotism has been questioned is kind of like getting upset because someone called the leader of the American Communist Party a "damn commie".

Is it seriously your logic that this is all actually laudable because it's "traditional" and nobody can ever question the patriotism of someone who has served in the military no matter what they say or do?

Anonymous said...

It's even more amazing that one might suggest that since he was given a particular name as an infant that he might grow up to become a preacher and have a flare for theatrics so intense that we all might misconstrue his hatred. PLEASE! You have to be kidding. If that were true than I must be a king as my name suggests and should thus act as one and we should all take me with a grain of salt.

PBurns said...

Chris, your knowledge of race relations in this country is breathtaking in its ignorance. Truly breathtaking. Come to Virginia (where Jermeiah Wright went to school), and I can show you around. We can start in Richmond, where statues of white Civil War generals line the main street. We can go to the legislature which not only made it illegal for whites and blacks to marry, but which also took the issue to the Supreme Court (and lost) in 1968. We can go to the Highland County Fair and count rebel flags, and I can introduce you to folks who wear T-shirts that read "I ride with Forest -- Armored Division" (that would be Nathan Bedford Forest for you young yankees). And then I can introduce you to black folks and you can tell them about your theories of how America is a fine place to be Bill Cosby.

Believe it or not, folks like Jeremiah Wright know more than you -- a LOT more. You see, in 1959 Wright began attending Virginia Union University, and in 1960 he was one of the folks helping integrate Thalimer's Department store in Richmond. Pictures here >>

So learn more. The "Happy Days" world you saw on television as a kid is not the world anyone actually grew up in. Sorry if you are too young, smug, and white to know better, but there it is. And yes, this stuff is not ancient history -- it shapes who people are, and how they think. Wounds heal, but scars remain.

Which brings me to my last point. If you are going to compare people to Hitler, then why don't you learn a little about him too? Seriouly, ignorance IS a treatable disease, and that statement is the kind of thing that will cost you your teeth in Tel Aviv.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps some need to do some research on the Tuskegee syphllis experiments, in order to understand some of where black America is coming from.

PBurns said...

Well "anonymous," since I did not say that, I guess we can ignore your comment. Done.

Lab Rat is asking a more interesting question, so let me answer that ...

This post is basically about "jeremiads." Damning folks is what jeremiads do, Lab Rat.

Seriously, that's what this form of sermon is all about -- damnation.

The basic structure of a jeremiad sermon is very old, and the core values that underpin it are fundamental to most religion; a variation of "Do good, get good; do bad, get bad." This is the message of religion at its most fundamental.

When giving a jeremiad, the "coming home to roost" part is what happens due to human sin and transgression. F*ck up and get damned. A gets you B. Sometimes it happens to individuals, sometimes to whole communities.

Remember, this is not the God of the New Testament who "turns the other cheek" and says "all is love." This is the Old Testament, hell-fire-and-brimstone God that is semi-psychotic, vengeful, angry, passive-aggressive, and perhaps in need of medication.

Granted, the "jeremiad" form of sermon is not as popular today as it once was, but it IS one of the sermon styles that built this nation. As the smarty-pants at >> write:

"The jeremiad was a formulaic statement of concern by Puritan ministers or magistrates that the colony had fallen into a pattern of declining piety (a paradigm historians refer to as 'declension'). Usually that declension had specific ramifications for God's displeasure with the colony in New England -- heavy casualties from warfare with Indians, the prevalence of epidemic diseases, or interference by the Crown with the colony's charter. These larger events were presented in the 'jeremiad' as the consequence of the individual sins or the declining godliness of the colonists."

In short, when folks screw up (by killing innocents, whoring, denying people jobs and housing, denying them education, waging unjust wars, purposefully denying folk medical care so they will die from an otherwise treatable disease, etc.), then bad stuff happens. Or, as Wright put it, the "chickens come home to roost."

Just to be clear, I am not saying Wright is correct or that I am agreeing with him. Wright is factually wrong on some stuff, and rhetorically wrong and hurtful on a great deal more.

That said, to properly understand the sermon, you need to understand that it has a strucure, and it is an old and accepted structure used in our churches and synagogues (white, black, and every other color) from the beginning of time.

From the perspective of an older black audience wondering why bad things like 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina happened in America, it's not too hard to make a list of bad stuff that has gone on that might result in a wrathful Old Testament God coming down with fire and vengeance (i.e. , "damnation").

Now is this the way the world REALLY works?

Does God REALLY wreck havoc on entire communities because of sin, real or imagined?

I don't think so, but there is another world view that disagrees with me, and to tell you the truth, there tradition is much older than mine (even if mine is currently more popular).

Of course, this older, less popular, tradition has some problems with reality. And I am not shy about pointing them out.

For example, church folks who say Hurricane Katrina is God's "payback" for the sin of sodomy and fornification in New Orleans fail to notice that some of the more flagrant strip clubs and bars in the "Big Easy" were largely untouched because they were located on higher ground in the French Quarter. Oops!

But no matter. Religion is not entirely rational, is it?

How do you reconcile the vengeful, jealous, petty tyrant of the Old Testament with the beneficent God of the New Testament?

To some extent, the God you choose is partly determined by your own religious tradition, and partly by your own world view, your own temperament, your own personal history, and your willingness to live with paradox. Lots of people, lots of Gods. So it has always been.

Barack Obama and Rev. Wright have very different histories, and very different temperaments, and I am not entirely sure they share the same God at all times.

Apparently, jeremiads were not Rev. Wright's usual fare at church -- in fact they were so rare it seems to matter quite a lot what day Barack Obama was sitting in a pew.

What Obama and Wright DO seem to share is a love of this nation and a belief that we can do better than we have done.

That's called patriotism where I come from.

And it is not the shallow patriotism of wearing a flag pin made in China, but the honest patriotism of having spent a lifetime in service to improve this nation.

Jeremiah Wright's service began in the military, and then moved on to ministering to addicts, homeless, helpless and hopeless. He has saved marriages and helped get kids in school. He has built a community, and no one in Chicago denies his church has been a powerful force for good.

Obama walked away from a million- dollar-a-year legal career to work for $10,000 a year as an organizer in Chicago. He has a long track record of service, sobriety, and level-headedness. Even those who disagree with Barack Obama on policy, have to concede he is not a fly-off-at-the-handle Jeremiah Wright.

Which, ironically, cannot be said for folks like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly. These folks have spent their entire careers engaged in off-the-wall jeremiads. Though they may wrap themselves in the flag and claim to believe in the loving God of the hopeful and unafraid New Testament, these TV and radio talking heads preach the message of the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament while engaged in no service work at all as far as I can tell (and yes, I have looked).

Does their hateful and self-centered conduct excuse Rev. Wright's ill-chosen and hurtful words? No. Not at all. In no way.

But it IS ironic, isn't it?

Talk about the tin pot calling the iron kettle black!


Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

My point was mainly in that, familiar with the form of the jeremiad or not, questioning the patriotism of someone who is calling for damnation of their own country- traditionally or not- and accusing its government of deliberately arranging to engineer a virus to kill off troublesome segments of its own population- is rational. You may disagree with the implied conclusion, but it would be difficult to imagine having no question at all. Either way, much like faith, Reverend Wright's relationship with his own country is his own business.

As for Hannity, Limbaugh et al... I really hate being shouted at by demagogues on the television or radio even if I agree with them, so I couldn't even begin to comment on whether they qualify as "patriots" (as much as I respect military service, I'm always suspicious on the tendency of both the left and right to automatically "rank" anyone who has served over anyone who hasn't in "patriotism", hence the question)- as I never watch political television or listen to talk radio.

Any issue I have with Obama has nothing to do with his patriotism and nothing to do with any impression I might have that he shares Wright's belief- I don't think he lacks in the former and I don't believe he does share them.

Luisa said...

Good for Huckabee.

Man has a spine and a conscience.

Anonymous said...

I think we can trust Martin Marty on this (look him up if you don't know who he is -- he's probably the #1 theological expert in the nation). Marty, who is white, and who has often attended Wright's church over the 35 years he has known him, says: "The big thing for Wright is hope. You hear ‘hope, hope, hope.’ Lots of ordinary people are there, and they’re there not to blast the whites. They’re there to get hope. It’s not anti-white. I don’t know anybody who’s white who walks out of there not feeling affirmed.”

What's funny here is that no one who knows Wright has a bad thing to say about him, and no one who knows Obama has ever heard or seen him say or do anything that was not of exemplary and sterling character.

- CC

PBurns said...


Yep Dave, it is funny. It seems a lot of people have never found racism in white preachers before, never found racism anywhere in America's past before (what lunch counters?), and deny there is any racism in America today. Blind to all that.

Tells you a lot.

By the same token, these same folks seem to have just discovered that some people say crazy things that are factually wrong. This is news to them as well, LOL.


Or perhaps there is something else afoot?

As I said back in November, about Obama: "The more you see of this guy, the more you realize how incredibly solid he is. As time goes on, more and more people are going to pay attention, and the folks making the sniping comments about race and name are going to look smaller and smaller until at last they both reveal and embarrass themselves at the same time."

And that is happening.

Unable to find anything to attack Obama on, they are shooting at others, inflating errors and stupidities by someone else as if they are a reflection on the actual candidate, whom they cannot get their hooks into. Suddenly a preacher no one had heard of before is very important, but the candidate is not. And what is important is not the drug treatement centers this preacher has created and funded, the literacy courses this preacher has created and funded, the prison work done, the meals to shut ins delivered, the 38 years of hope-filled sermons etc. -- what is important is not what the man has DONE for 38 years, but what he said in 15 seconds six years ago. And no, they do not have time to show you the whole sermon! God forbid you should actually watch any full sermons, LOL.

And Obama? He is a racist by extension, I suppose ... a secret mau-mauing negro who will ... what?

Well, that is left dangling. As every movie maker knows, it's always best not to show the monster for fear the audience will laugh out loud at the absurdity of it once it has actually been seen in the full light of day.


Anonymous said...

I look on the whole issue as proving there are old black men who sometimes say stupid things the same as there are old white men who sometimes say stupid things.

I am somewhat disturbed by the double standard employed regarding the issue, i.e., Trent Lott was forced to resign his Senate leadership position for praising Strom Thurman at his (something like) 100th birthday party.

The whole "jerimiad" issue is interesting from an historic and biblical standpoint (can alway count on you to post interesting and sometimes useful trivia), but strikes me as somewhat of a strawman. A well-constructed strawman, but a strawman none-the-less. Seems somewhat akin to making a case that anyone named Patrick can cast snakes from Ireland. ;-)


PBurns said...

I would agree that two wrongs don't make a Wright.

Actually, that was a much funnier joke back in the day when Jim Wright was getting book payola and the Clintons were sucking up Chinese money for their campaign. Back then I opened up a speech with a nice set-up that ended with the line: "Two Wongs don't make a Jim Wright." It brought the house down, I tell you ;)

The jeremiad thing is not a straw man or excuse -- just a notation about preaching styles and structures. "Damn" in a sermon is short for damnation, and damnation is what happens to you if you sin and do not repent.

A lot of very good people have criticized and damned America before. Here's a sermon to read from Martin Luther King >>

This is a sermon about hubris and arrogance, but Martin also has some pretty tough things to say about Amrica. Read the whole thing and find the part where he says America is guilty of war crimes. And he was not wrong, as the 40th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre make clear. The young folks can look that up on Wikipedia ;)

So, did white Republicans fear Martin Luther King back then? You bet'cha. They not only *feared* Martin, but they *loathed* him.

And yet today, even the Republican kids who have never heard of My Lai (or Wounded Knee, or Tuskeegee) say Martin Luther King was a great man.

And he was.

The point is that preachers preach. They use a lot of rhetorical devices to try to break through the wall of complacency. But, like all people, they also are fully capable of saying things that are foolish and stupid. Does that mean they are evil? No, not necessarily. And, for the record, Trent Lott was not evil either. His hair style was borderline criminal, but the rest of him was OK ;)


Moses Gunner said...

Sean Hannity is a Hypocrite! I recently found this article - The SEAN HANNITY AND LAURA INGRAHAM HYPOCRISY.
Very Interesting take on the Right's attack on Obama and his Reverend.