Jeremiads for America: Six Unspeakable Propositions (& One Glimmer of Hope)

Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JEREMIAH 20: 10-13; PSALM 69:8-17, 33-35; ROMANS 5: 12-15; MATTHEW 10: 26-33

Today’s readings can be seen as centralizing the term “jeremiad.” In that light, and despite its usually dismissive connotations, I hope you’ll consider what I’m about to say as belonging to that prophetic category. I make it my own in a spirit of desperation generated by the trouble we all observe in our streets these days following the murder of George Floyd. What follows is entirely consistent with a liberation theology perspective — the most important theological development in the last 1500 years.

Jeremiads

According to online dictionaries, “jeremiad” refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future.

The word derives from the name of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah whose words set the tone for today’s liturgy of the word. Taken together, the day’s readings might be considered commentary on his opening denunciation of his own country, Judah.

By way of context, you should know that Jeremiah did his work during the Babylonian Exile (roughly, 597 – 538 BCE), when his country’s elite had been abducted to what is modern day Iraq. Jeremiah attributed that defining tragedy to the infidelity of Judah’s leadership to their covenant with their God. Above all, it mandated care for the nation’s poor, its widows, and orphans.

Instead, its kings and upper classes were busy lining their own pockets while neglecting the very ones their religious traditions identified as God’s favorites. For Jeremiah, that neglect represented a rejection of God’s very self. It accordingly merited a half century of exile from the Holy Land and God’s special presence there.

With all of that in mind, please read today’s biblical selections. To repeat, they will lay the groundwork for my contemporary jeremiads that might be addressed to the United States. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read them for yourself here to see if I got them right.

Today’s Readings

JEREMIAH 20: 10-13: I am surrounded by state terrorists. They monitor my slightest missteps using a sophisticated surveillance apparatus and sting operations that seek revenge for my damning accusations. But I remain undeterred.  My rich persecutors are the ones who will end up confused and shamed. YHWH, the champion of the poor, will see to that.  

PSALMS 69: 8-17, 33-35: In fact, nothing can stop any genuine prophet from siding with the poor: not public shame, not family ostracization, not insults or curses. Bolstered by divine kindness, mercy and love, all prophets speak words of comfort to the impoverished and imprisoned. In this, God’s spokespersons are one with the Source of Life itself that fills the seas and skies and the very hearts of humanity.

ROMANS 5: 12-15: The prophet, Paul of Tarsus, was no different from Jeremiah. Shockingly, he identified Law itself as the source of the world’s evil – a tool of the rich and powerful to control God’s favorites (the poor and despised) with feelings of guilt and shame. For Paul, Jesus the Christ – the greatest of the anarchistic prophets — rendered all such law obsolete. 

MATTHEW 10: 26-33: In that spirit, Jesus advised absolute refusal to accept the regulations, cover-ups and “state secrets” of the rich and powerful. Their every utterance should be disclosed for the lie it is. Speak truth then, even in the face of death threats. It is far better to lose your life, Jesus said, rather than surrender to lies of Rulers from Hell. Follow the example of prophets who though typically assassinated, preserved their integrity by telling the truth of a loving God committed to the poor and oppressed.

Jeremiads for America

So, in the spirit of those words from Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus the Christ, let’s review some of the most profound reasons for the police riots in our streets. I feel confident our three prophets would say that taken together, the following half-dozen propositions describe elements that have shaped our national reality of damning racism and police state violence. Our readings direct us to face up to these defining truths and take our lead from those vilified by mainstream culture – our nation’s indigenous, descendants of slaves, and the Latinx community.

  1. “America” was founded by scoundrels, not heroes: Face it: the so-called “Founding Fathers” were not heroic. They were outright colonialists who tired of sharing the spoils of their Grand Larceny with royal godfathers back home in England. Washington, Hamilton, and the rest wanted it all for themselves and their class. As liberation theologians argue, their Jeffersonian declaration that “all men are created equal” was intended principally to establish the fact that settlers were equal with the “Indians” and so could steal their land and resources which, they argued, were up for grabs according to the law of the strongest and that of capitalist “efficiency.”
  2. It all began with unbelievable genocide: In American Holocaust, David E. Stannard puts the number of indigenous Americans killed from the time of Columbus’ invasion to Wounded Knee (in the 1890s) at 100 million. It remains the most massive act of genocide in human history.
  3. Primitive accumulation of capital came from the unpaid work of millions of slaves: Three hundred years of such labor created huge fortunes and laid the groundwork for America’s industrial revolution.
  4. Huge swaths of “America” were stolen from Mexico: In 1845, the U.S. absorbed nearly half of Mexico – Texas first, and then [after the Mexican American War (1846-’48)], what became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. So, it’s not that Mexicans are crossing “our border;” rather, the border crossed them.
  5. Probably, about 90% of the nation’s police force is criminal: The evidence or police brutality displayed in our streets these days leads one to think that not much has changed since 1973. That’s when NYPD police insider, Frank Serpico, estimated that about 10% of police officers are honest; about 10% are absolutely corrupt, and the other 80% wish they weren’t. In fact, ninety percent of the cops we’ve seen on our TV screens exhibit what can only be described as unconstitutional criminal activity. Virtually all of them cover up, condone evidence-planting, and make excuses for crimes of their colleagues that we’ve all seen with our own eyes. In other words, virtually all of them are liars.
  6. Our nation remains the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: This characterization by Martin Luther King is as true today as it was when he made the allegation in 1967. As the most violent nation on earth, the United States represents the origin of most of the planet’s problems. If it fell off the face of the earth, the planet would be better off.

Of course, the list of propositions like those could go on infinitum. Our nation continues to exist in profound denial about its continued racism and overwhelming corruption. Democracy in America has virtually disappeared through gerrymandering, voter suppression, crooked voting machines, and campaign contributions that amount to legalized bribery. All levers of power now reside in the hands of oligarchs supported by a racist “justice system” that has also been captured by the wealthy elite – all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Glimmer of Hope

Besides echoing prophetic jeremiads, what I’ve just said are simply home truths. By themselves they’ll surprise almost no one who is paying attention. Yet (at least for me) taken together they illustrate the fact that (far from being exceptionally good) our country is deeply, deeply flawed by a profound racism, corruption, and supporting violence that put us nearly beyond human possibility of redemption.

Ironically, however (as always in the biblical tradition that Jesus endorsed) it’s in society’s marginalized classes that hope is to be found.

At this particular historical moment, it’s the nation’s black community that embodies our last best prospect. It’s what makes America truly distinct and great. I’m referring to abolitionism, the civil rights movement, and heroes like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. They were more highly principled and greater heroes than Washington, Jefferson or Hamilton. Their work for social justice has influenced liberation struggles across the planet. It has inspired other achievements that make America great – such as the drive for women’s liberation, the gay rights struggle, and the environmental movement.  

Conclusion

Yes, this has been a jeremiad homily against a dying nation blinded to its false premises by systemic racism. Today’s readings and the prophetic traditions they represent remind us that what makes America great are those who have resisted and continue to resist all representations of white supremacy. The real heroes – the truly Great Americans – are our country’s indigenous remnant as embodied for example in the Standing Rock water protectors. They’re the slavery and prison abolitionists, women suffragists and feminists. Above all, at this moment, they’re the Black Lives Matter activists inspired by their Civil Rights Movement forebears.

The prophet Jeremiah himself, along with his counterparts, Jesus and Paul call us to accept such uncomfortable facts and join forces with those equally prophetic agents of hope.

Jesus Had a “Bleeding Heart” (Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34

The theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word is leadership political and spiritual. The image uniting both is shepherding.  For me that pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that in both government and church those qualities are in extremely short supply.

Think about political “leaders” announcing (literally) the day after the election of our nation’s first African American President, “I want that man to fail.” (Didn’t that mean they want our country to fail?) Think about clergy from our own faith community (literally) preying on young boys, ruining them for life, and then presuming to speak authoritatively to women and the rest of us about sexuality. That’s failed leadership.

The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah laments the absence of political and spiritual leaders who were watchful, protective and caring in his time too. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders of Jeremiah’s day (all men) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new leadership to reverse that syndrome.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark specifically addresses that promised reversal. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding.  Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace, but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in the early church.

Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep. Leaders are there to foster the emergence (in Paul’s words) of a new kind of person – not over-worked, but rested, living in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink.  In a word shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion.

No doubt Jesus had that kind of respite in mind for his tired apostles when he invited them to “rest a while.”After all they were his sheep, and he their shepherd. His invitation reflects compassion for his friends.

But there was to be no rest. The “sheep” in the wider sense were so starved for the compassionate guidance unavailable to them either in court or at the Temple. So in droves they stalked Jesus and his friends even to their desert retreat. All of that evoked Jesus’ own compassion. The text literally says “his guts churned” when he saw the directionless people; they were so forlorn. So that was the end of any thoughts of “R&R” for Jesus and the others. (Buddhists speak of “The Compassionate Buddha. Mark reminds us here of “The Compassionate Jesus.”)

All of this highlights the defining characteristic of the type of leadership, the type of “shepherding” Jesus prized and practiced. It was defined by putting the needs of others first, even when that meant he himself would be deprived of the rest he deserved.

What a practical criterion for judging the leadership of our politicians, popes, bishops and priests! What a powerful criterion for judging our own leadership in our families, communities and places of work.

Who are the best leaders you know (political and/or spiritual) in terms of putting the needs of others first? When have you or persons close to you exercised leadership in those terms? Do our daily lives, our political lives show evidence of following the Compassionate Jesus? Why does our culture consider having compassion (a “bleeding heart”) a negative quality?  (Discussion follows.)