May 8, 2008
The seventeen books of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament are for the most part not pleasant to read. Yes, you do have those hopeful, utopian passages about a perfect king ruling a perfected society in a world of perfect peace — "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares ...; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again" (Isaiah 2:4) — but they emerge from the text as surprises out of some of the direst, most scathing writing in all of literature.
The controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s now former pastor, made me pick up the Bible and re-read some of those books. Wright’s message and rhetoric unsettled me, angered me, frightened me, just as the words in those books have long done: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such evil upon this place that all who hear of it will feel their ears tingle" (Jeremiah 19:3). My ears were tingling.
Wright, like many other African-American preachers, draws from the tradition of the Biblical "social prophets," who take the taken-for-granted, God-on-our-side political attitude and smash it to bits like a clay pot. Perhaps not coincidentally, his namesake is one of the greatest of these, Jeremiah, the man called from birth to unmask the hypocrisy and cocky self-assurance of his nation and its leaders.
Most of the prophets whose pronouncements were gathered into the books bearing their names lived during the eighth through the sixth centuries B.C., times of exceeding peril for the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Assaulted first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians (whose capitals, Nineveh and Babylon, both were in what is now Iraq), their leaders played games of international intrigue, waging wars and forming alliances to thwart imperial aggression and absorption. Thinking themselves righteous and backed unconditionally by the power of their God Yahweh, they refused to see and acknowledge that their kingdoms were disintegrating from within from greed, injustice, and the worship of "false gods." Around them stood a core of professional prophets, bureaucratic soothsayers who told them what they wanted to hear: Their nations were indomitable because God was with them.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos among others, were of a different prophetic stripe. Outsiders lacking professional credentials or credibility, they took an unobstructed view of the social and political realities and the dismal consequences that awaited, and the priests and politicians despised them for it. Amos, for example, who lived in the kingdom of Israel in the eighth century, provoked a priest to inform the king: "Amos has conspired against you here within Israel; the country cannot endure all his words." Amos replied: "I was no prophet nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel’" (Amos 7:10-15). Considered laughing-stocks by the general public and sometimes subjected to imprisonment and torture (Jeremiah was once embedded for days in the muck of an empty cistern), they nevertheless refused to go away, relentlessly condemning the social sickness and offering prescriptions for reconciliation and peace.
Their calls for change went unheeded, and the destruction they predicted ensued. The kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria in 721 B.C.; Judah was obliterated by Babylon in 587.
When reading the prophetic books of the Bible, even devout Jews and Christians are tempted to think, "That was then." But these writings did not find their way into the canon of Scripture because they were historical documents but because they were timeless warnings: "Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place" (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
This is now.
That’s a sobering thought, something that few of us either want to hear or believe about ourselves or our country.
In his own way, Wright has done something of the same in our own time. His sometimes bizarre statements have enraged many — not the least his now former parishioner — but this is the prophet’s goal: not to comfort but to shock in order to disrupt complacency, to get people to see themselves and their situation with open eyes.
"Not ‘God bless America,’" Wright declaimed in one of his sermons, "God damn America." Infuriating, of course. But under this inverted rhetoric lies a disquieting truth: that God is not in our pocket, not the property of the U.S. government. If the nation acts with arrogance and injustice, God may well condemn it.
Obama and Wright have parted ways after 20 years, and it’s no wonder. Obama, despite his depictions to the contrary, is establishment now, and Wright remains the pricking prophet.
"Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability," Wright told the National Press Club. "Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable."
Jeremiah Wright is no Biblical Jeremiah. He may be "egomaniacal," as some in the press have called him. But he’s served the prophet’s role. If only for a moment, he’s forced some of us — and maybe a few politicians as well — to squirm.