A popular song when I was in high school was “Joy to the World” by the band Three Dog Night, which began with the memorable line “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” I remember my biology teacher walking around the classroom singing it as we dissected frogs. (Sadly, that’s the only thing I remember about high school biology.)
But long before Jeremiah was a bullfrog he was an Old Testament prophet. To read Jeremiah is to read fiery rhetoric, denouncing the people and nation of Israel for straying from the way God would have them live. Jeremiah is often referred to as the prophet of wrath. Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel writes in his book The Prophets, “Jeremiah hurled a dreadful word at his people, accusing them of provoking or exciting God’s anger.”
Here is one example of Jeremiah’s words to the people: “‘The sons of Israel have done nothing but provoke me to anger by the work of their hands,’ says the Lord. ‘This city has aroused my anger and my wrath.’ Thus says the Lord God: ‘My anger and my wrath will be poured out of this place, on man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.'”
The role of the prophet was not one for the meek of heart, or for those who craved popularity. The prophet is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to clearly see the world as it is, and the world as God would have it. The prophet’s role is to proclaim to the people where they fall short of God’s expectations, to denounce their actions, and to warn what the consequences will be if they don’t repent.
As harsh as the prophets’ words may sound, they are motivated by love for their country and its people, and by love for God. To the people, the prophets speak on behalf of God, often using fiery and angry rhetoric; to God they speak on behalf of the people, often begging for God’s mercy on them.
The reason I am thinking about prophets, and Jeremiah in particular, is because in recent days I’ve seen another prophet Jeremiah on my tv screen, Jeremiah Wright.
Jeremiah Wright is now the pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the largest predominantly Black UCC church in the country. Among his parishioners were many prominent Black leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Those of you who follow politics may remember that the Rev. Wright became the center of controversy when Obama first ran for president in 2008.
At the heart of that firestorm were remarks taken from one of Wright’s sermons where he repeated the refrain “God damn America.”
The rhetoric was inflammatory, particularly when taken out of context. It is not language that I would ever use. But I recognized immediately that this modern-day prophet Jeremiah was following in the tradition of his namesake. He was denouncing the sins of the country that he loved, and warning what the consequences would be if the nation did not change its ways. He was not calling on God to damn America; he was warning that God would damn America if we failed to repent and change.
That important distinction was lost on conservative, evangelical Christians who quickly labeled Wright as a radical anti-American leftist, a label that they also pinned on Wright’s most famous parishioner.
The nation’s most well-known Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who has spoken at St. Dunstan’s several times over the years, quickly came to Wright’s defense.
“The current spasm of righteous indignation concerning Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, smacks of embarrassing ignorance,” he said. “Such a critique of Wright is ignorant of black preaching rhetoric and the practice of liberation interpretation. It is also disturbingly ignorant of the prophetic traditions of the Bible that regularly expose the failures of society in savage rhetoric. It is odd when right-wingers misconstrue this belated Jeremiah as they do the original Jeremiah, who knew about God’s passion for truth-telling in risky places.”
Another one of Wright’s defenders in 2008 was the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of Martin Luther King, one of the most prominent churches in the nation.
“We celebrate Rev. Wright in the same way that we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth, very often it makes people uncomfortable,” Warnock said in a 2008 interview with Fox News.
In a more recent interview with the AJC, Warnock said that “any fair thinking person would recognize that everything a government does, even the American government, is not consistent with God’s dream for the world.”
Perfectly orthodox theological statements. But now Warnock is a candidate for the U.S. Senate. And his opponent Kelly Loeffler, an extremely conservative evangelical Christian has pounced on Warnock’s words. Her campaign has spent $1 million on ads associating Warnock with Wright, claiming that her opponent “celebrates anti-American hatred.”
The ads are theologically and factually wrong, not to mention racist, but they are sure to have an impact.
I would suggest that Loeffler, who puts her piety front and center in her campaign, study the Old Testament prophet Amos.
“I hate, I despise your festivals,” Amos says to the leaders of Israel, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-rolling stream.”
What Amos is saying here is that God has no patience with those who attend worship and make a public display of their offerings and their piety, then go into the world and mistreat the poor. A modern-day example of this might be going to church on Sunday, then spend the week defending taking health care away from the poor in the midst of a pandemic.
One of our Senate candidates has done that. It’s not Raphael Warnock.