Barack Obama, Meet Jeremiah

by Brian Walsh

It would seem that this is not the time to rain on the parade of Barack Obama. I know that a lot of good folk, including a lot of good Christian folk, respond to Obama’s ascendancy to becoming the first African American candidate for President with deep joy. Yes, this is indeed a historical moment to savour and to rejoice in.

Yet … I’m uneasy. You see the language about the American dream that pervades Obama’s rhetoric is deeply problematic.

I mean, when he proclaimed in his speech at the Democratic convention, “I will restore our moral standing so that America is once more the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future,” perhaps some people in the world are wondering, ‘what moral standing?’, ‘what freedom?’, ‘what peace?’, indeed, ‘what hope for whose future?’

I’m sorry, but a nation rooted in slavery and genocide, a nation with a bloody history of undermining and overthrowing governments unfriendly to American political, military and economic interests, a nation that has the largest military complex in the world, a nation that has had empire written all over it from its inception, just isn’t a nation that seems to me to have much of a moral standing. And to arrogantly claim that this nation, with this history, is the world’s “last, best hope” would seem to me to be little more than an idolatrous and ideological nationalism that is unbecoming to anyone who would desire to follow Jesus and submit his political aspirations to the shape of the Kingdom of God.

Okay, I’ll admit that that paragraph was perhaps a little over the top. It wasn’t nuanced enough. Surely we can’t dismiss America, nor Obama with his “New Dream for America” (Toronto Star headline!) so quickly. And when he says, “America, we are better than these last eight years,” I want to believe him. But what is at stake here is a discernment of the times, and a discernment of the American project,

So I’m going to take my lead from Jeremiah on this one. Here’s what’s interesting and disturbing about Jeremiah. He begins his prophetic ministry in the context of the rule of King Josiah. You remember the story. Josiah, grandson of Manasseh who “shed much innocent blood” (2 Kings 21.16) and son of Amon who served the idols of his violent father, becomes king at age eight. And Josiah becomes the leader of an amazing reform movement in Judah.

When Jeremiah’s dad, the priest Hilkiah finds the Torah in the Temple (that’s right, it was lost and forgotten!) he gives it to Josiah and Josiah calls for national repentance and starts cleaning house. Idolatry is outlawed, the places of idol worship are destroyed, the Passover is kept and the covenant is renewed.

I think that Josiah could have said something like, “Judah, we are better than we have been for the last number of years. We are a better people than this. We have a better promise than this. We have a deeper hope than this. By renewing covenant I will restore our moral standing so that the heirs of Abraham will once more be the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of shalom, and who yearn for a better future.”

And the writers of 2 Kings pronounce a favourable judgment on Josiah. “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord.” One of a very few kings about whom this was said.

But Jeremiah doesn’t share that judgement. Jeremiah never once makes reference to Josiah’s reforms. Jeremiah never offers his political endorsement of this king who sought to renew the deepest hopes and most profound promises of Israel. In fact, at one point the prophet says,

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and take note!
Search its squares and see if you can find one person
who acts justly
and seeks truth –
so that I may pardon Jerusalem. (5.1)

Give me one guy who acts justly and seeks truth, and then the fall of Jerusalem might be averted! One guy!

And for some reason, Jeremiah doesn’t reply, “Well, there is King Josiah, after all.” I mean Josiah’s doing his best here. He’s reaching into the richest memories of Israel, the deepest roots of her covenantal promises. Surely here is the one who acts justly and seeks truth.

But Jeremiah doesn’t appeal to Josiah. We don’t know why, really, but maybe Jeremiah felt that Josiah was too little, too late. Maybe he felt that Josiah’s reforms were not going to be radical enough to re-shape the very character of this idolatrous nation. Or maybe he felt that Josiah’s reforms, as well-intentioned and eloquently articulated as they were, didn’t get to the depths of the rot and corruption of the national character.

For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain …
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace. (6.13,14)

They say, “we are a better country than this” but the prophet doubts it.

They reach into the best history they’ve got and speak glowingly of the “promise” but the prophet says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” This is the American Dream, the American Dream, the American Dream.

No, this prophet, writing during Josiah’s reign says things like:

They went after worthless things and became worthless. (1.5)

You defiled my land. (1.7)

You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness. (3.2)

They take over the goods of others…they catch human beings…their houses are full of treachery…they have grown fat and sleek…they do not judge with justice. (5.26-28)

Truth has perished: it is cut off from their lips. (7.28)

Good thing Jeremiah wasn’t running for office.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

3 Responses to “Barack Obama, Meet Jeremiah”

  1. Andy Rowell

    I guess most Democrats who agree with you would only respond by saying the Republicans are worse.

    Recent example:

    Rick Warren: How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival in the previous thing. Does evil exist and if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?

    John McCain: Defeat it.

    The Democrats often lose because they are not patriotic enough. Obama does not want to lose.

  2. Andy Rowell

    Jim Wallis should know better. His post was almost simultaneous to yours:

    Friday, August 29, 2008
    An Historic Speech (by Jim Wallis)

    “But the many impressive speeches, spectacular entertainment, and eye-pooping display of fireworks were all overshadowed by the speech. I’ve heard many of Barack Obama’s speeches, from his keynote at the 2004 Democratic Convention, to his address on religion and public life at our Call to Renewal (now Sojourners) conference in 2006, to many of his primary orations. But, as was almost universally recognized by the media commentators, this speech took Barack Obama’s message and campaign to another level.”

    He also notes the issue of how Obama’s “patriotism” is questioned.

    “The sincere applause from the huge Democratic audience to Barack Obama’s genuine recognition of McCain’s patriotism was a highpoint of the night. I am hoping now to see that kind of applause to the recognition of Barack Obama’s remarkable American story and patriotism at the Republican Convention next week in St. Paul.”

  3. Randy Gabrielse

    Brian strikes some chords that I was feeling as I listened to Obama speak of “the American dream” and “American story,” but really wondered what to do with that. Not only do I believe the Republicans would be worse for America, but I know that no one could hold the kind vision that Brian, myself and many others would like to see, and still get elected. What happened to Gov. Huckabee in his bid as a Republican is evidence of what happens to people with that kind of vision.

    My vision of religion and national-level politics was shaped by an election in Grand Rapids Michigan in 1976 or 1978. I watched Michigan Right to Life fail to endorse a pro-life Democrat who was a charter member of their own organization because he was a Democrat. Stephen Monsma went from Calvin College to a career at Pepperdine, and is now a Research Fellow at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College.

    Randy Gabrielse


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