Archive | September, 2017

Jeremiah moments

4 Sep

I’ve been having Jeremiah moments lately.

In Jeremiah’s lifetime Solomon’s temple was destroyed and Jerusalem fell—both at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah preached that Israel would fall to the Babylonians because of its unfaithfulness, its worship of idols, and general greed. God, he insisted, holds Israel responsible, the Babylonians carry out the divine judgment.

The government did not take this kindly to this message—after all, it weakened the morale of the armed forces. This preacher’s constant attacks got under the skin of the governing elites, resulting in his imprisonment.

I have resisted assigning God’s judgment to current events, because of the misguided and even false prophecies of some right-wing conservative Christians—Pat Robertson, for example. Nevertheless, I see many aspects of American life today that might well bring down the wrath of God—and these prompt my Jeremiah moments.

Here is what comes to mind: 200 years of slavery and deep-seated racism after slavery was abolished, rolling back health care for needy people, substandard schools and restricting access to colleges and universities, curtailing voters’ rights, the top ten per cent becoming ever wealthier, waging war, promoting militarism.

But there’s more at stake than a list of woes. The deeper point is that these practices have diminished people, often irreparably and in many cases destroying them. Slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination plundered the African Americans, deprived them of the benefits of their own labor. Whites accumulated wealth through the property they owned. Farmers invested their labor, selling crops, and increasing the value of the land. Except for the very poorest, workers saved money from their wages and earned guaranteed pensions. In the wake of the Second World War, social mobility and education lifted millions into the middle class and affluence. Whites were able to establish themselves. Native Americans were dispossessed of their lands, treaties have been broken, with a few exceptions, the people left in poverty. Blacks worked the land as slaves, but the fruit of their labor went to their owners. In the north, residential restrictions and selling houses on contract severely limited property ownership. Barriers to employment, combined with limited access to labor unions and poor schools were a drag on social mobility. Both Social Security and the Federal Housing Administration were designed to exclude African Americans.

These actions go deep, they dig into a person’s basic humanity, like seeds that germinate buried in the earth until they poke through the surface. They alter life-chances, and to deal with them requires more than apologies or changes in policy. These practices have diminished people, often irreparably, and in many cases destroyed them.  Slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and lack of opportunity made it almost impossible for African Americans to profit from their labor and own property.

Discrimination against African Americans defined their lives for generations by denying them the life that whites take for granted. Whites say, “I’ve never discriminated, I’m not racist,” ignoring that the substance they live off is to a large extent the unrewarded labor of Blacks. The seeds have been planted and cultivated for generations, and those seeds have borne their fruit and continue to do so.

Much of the time, these evils go unattended by the larger society. There is a tendency to focus on the surface, rather than the deeply embedded seeds. Today, only a very few whites, for example, take responsibility for slavery, even though many families, companies, and institutions of higher learning owe their very existence to the unrewarded labor of slaves.

“Gentrification” is a symbol of our desire to separate ourselves from the evil that stalks us. Gentrification of urban neighborhoods has extended itself to a gentrification of minds (borrowing a phrase from Olivia Laing’s,The Lonely City), which in turn encourages the gated community syndrome that walls out the outcomes of the evil that has been sown. Our nation has a sad record of dispossessing groups who live outside the gates.

When I think about these things, I realize that I am face-to-face with genuine evil—and it has been inherent in American life from the beginning. Here, Jeremiah comes to mind.The evil that has been planted deep in American life carries the seeds of its own destruction, and inevitably it encounters the righteousness of God as wrath. In these moments, death and destruction will ensue. Of that much, we can be certain.

But there’s more to the Jeremiah moment. As the city was under seige and about to be laid waste, Jeremiah, also at God’s command, bought a piece of property. This prophet of doom invested himself in the very society that was under God’s wrath and thereby performed an action that  symbolized God’s action of showing love for the people on whom wrath had also rained down.

My Jeremiah moments are complex and difficult. It takes great effort to discern the destruction that God’s wrath will bring to America. It’s not a simplistic message, although some conservative voices might make it seem so. It takes even more insight to understand how God can show compassion for that which divine wrath destroys. The destruction is real—Jerusalem’s fall was not fake news. The possibilities of renewal and rebirth are also real. But they will come on the pathway of suffering and death—the way of the cross.

(c) Phil Hefner 9/3/2017