Jeremiahs Old & New: Wright & "wrong"

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

When you live in a country that for a week has been transfixed by the furious denunciations of America by Pastor Jeremiah Wright and furious denunciations of Pastor Jeremiah by much of America --

-- it is startling to read the original Jeremiah -- especially when his own furious denunciations of his own country are emblazoned for the special sacred Prophetic reading the same week.

(In Jewish tradition, on each Shabbat is read a portion of the Torah [the "Five Books of Moses"] and a Prophetic passage chosen long ago by the rabbis to underline or sometimes confront the message of the Torah portion.)

This past Shabbat Tzav, the traditional Prophetic reading was a passage from Jeremiah (7: 21 to 8: 3 and 9:22-23). I found not only our country but myself challenged at a profound level:

We say The Shalom Center is a "prophetic voice": Well then, what is a Prophetic Voice? Is the ancient Jeremiah? Is the modern one? When The Shalom Center honors six "prophetic voices" this coming April 6 –- all more gentle than either Jeremiah –- are they really "prophetic"? Do we need a new understanding of the prophetic voice in our own generation?

The ancient Jeremiah channeled God's burning anger at seeing the people betray their covenant of love, justice, and fairness. Bitterly, furiously, he denounced the kingdom of Judah for turning its burnt-offerings of animals and grains into the burnt-offerings of its own children, thrown into fires they thought would delight their God..

But on behalf of God, the ancient Jeremiah cried out that "the carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth." Even the dead shall not escape disaster -- for "the bones of kings and leaders, priests and prophets, even ordinary citizens, will be ripped from their graves and exposed to the sun they had worshipped, so that their own bones will become dung on the face of the earth."

How does this differ from the most extreme statements of Pastor Jeremiah Wright? How does it differ from "God damn America!" except by being far more graphic?

Why is it that we celebrate the one, or at least pretend to by calling him a Prophet and assigning him to be read as sacred writ, while viewing the other as lunatic and reprehensible?

Is it only because we can abide a 2500-year-old teaching that denounces a country we don’t live in, in a way we can't abide when the target is here and now and us? Or is there some deeper reason? Even some reason to reassess the ancient Jeremiah?

One article I saw last week said that Jeremiah Wright was saying nothing different from Dr. Martin Luther King in, for example, the profound speech of April 4, 1967, when he denounced the triple demons of America –- racism, militarism, materialism –- and warned that if they were left to fester, they would bring disaster on America.

There is some truth and some falsity in this comparison. I can't imagine the words "God damn America" coming from the mouth of Martin King. His prophetic warning was rooted in love, though anger certainly became a part of it. One year before he himself was killed, as he condemned the Vietnam War, he said: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government."

Notice that he said "my own government" – owning and affirming his connection to it. And notice that he used the word "today" -- for he knew both that the United States had for generations sometimes behaved violently toward large parts of the world –- and that the United States had also in the past sometimes acted with great generosity in the world, and was capable of acting that way again.

King would also have said that the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center were utterly a rejection, not a fulfillment, of God's loving message. The oppressed, said King, always have a choice of how to resist their oppression. They must not be passive –- and they must not be violent. They must build, not burn; teach, not torture.

God first spoke to the ancient Jeremiah:

See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and tear down,
To build and to plant.

The ancient Jeremiah put much more energy into uprooting and tearing down — or at least condemning and denouncing — than he did into planting and building. That is why in English we have a word for denunciation filled with rage: "jeremiad."

Jeremiah Wright did a great deal in Chicago "to build and to plant" – teaching jobs and self-reliance, aiding those with AIDS. Yet in this past two weeks, his words of rage, his jeremiads, have echoed louder in the national ears than the silent seeds that he has sown.

It was those seeds of hope that Barack Obama learned from, not the words of rage and tearing-down. He, as well as Dr. King, point us in the direction of a new paradigm of prophecy, just as many of us have worked toward new paradigms of sacred sexuality and sacred relationship with the earth, learning from and going beyond the biblical teachings of how to carry out a sacred covenant.

Perhaps as we struggle our way toward a new vision of the Prophetic, one more clearly filled with steadfast love, carried out in steadfast nonviolence, we can light up two verses from the ancient Jeremiah that follow the denunciations we read this past Shabbat:

"Thus said YHWH, Yahh, the Breathing-spirit of the world:
Let not even the wise glory in their wisdom,
And surely the wealthy must not glory in their wealth,
Nor the powerful glory in their power –-

"But only in this should you glory – yes, glory! --
As you bring to Me your most devoted caring:
That I, the Breath of Life, do loving-kindness, justice, and fairness in the earth:
In these I take delight. "

Our own six Prophetic Voices speak in a melody infused with loving-kindness and compassion. To join in honoring them on April 6 in Philadelphia (or by sending your own words from afar), see

Shalom, salaam, peace -- Arthur


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: