by Berry Friesen
The Bible doesn’t speak to contexts that closely match our own here in the United States of America. It addresses empire wannabees, exiles, the marginalized and the occupied. We are a class apart: stock-holders in the Empire, invested in its success.
Still, I find myself seeking help from the Bible, especially Jeremiah. Despite an ill-fitting context (we are Babylonians in its story, not the Israelites), we could benefit from its message. The prophet understood, for example, how during times of great danger, encouraging words can be a form of denial and disturbing words a step toward the light. Thus he said: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).
So long as Jerusalem’s walls stood unbroken, Jeremiah felt only gloom about the future. The people repeated tales of YHWH’s glorious deliverance in times past; they exulted in YHWH’s residence in Jerusalem’s temple. These practices fostered an attitude of exceptionalism. Few retained clear-eyed vision. “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies” (9:5).
When it comes to deceit, we citizens of the Empire have just lived through a remarkable 12-month period. Remember our government’s assurances that it was not spying on us? Its accusation of a chemical weapons attack by Syria’s military and its talk about how the Syrian people wanted to rid themselves of President Assad? Remember its assurances that U.S. weapons and training for rebel militias in Syria, Turkey and Jordan would not strengthen Islamic extremists? Its accusation that Iran was stockpiling enriched uranium and widening the war in Syria by its support of Hezbollah? Its promises of support for democracy and the rule of law in Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela? None of it was true.
Still, this extraordinary string of falsehoods has had little impact. Mainstream media don’t find it newsworthy. There has been no public outcry and most of us continue to give our government the benefit of the doubt. Occasionally, we may experience dissonance about how unreliable the word of our leaders has become, but we quickly recover a positive frame of mind. Despite its faults, America is an exceptional nation. Besides, in a complicated and difficult world, “errors” are to be expected.
As in Jeremiah’s time, we have taught our tongues to speak lies.
In late May, President Obama spoke to the graduates of the West Point military academy. It’s instructive to read his speech, especially with Jeremiah in mind. Here are several quotes.
So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.
America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.
I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.
America does not simply stand for stability or the absence of conflict, no matter what the cost. We stand for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity and freedom for people everywhere.
Jeremiah was convinced the collapse of the Jerusalem regime would open the doorway to salvation for his people. But until that day arrived, that doorway would remain shut.
As people committed to the peace of Messiah Jesus, we may wish for a similar scenario: the collapse of Empire and the return of accountability among the nations. Where are common people thriving? Where do we see the gathering of social capital through the practices of solidarity, forgiveness and mutual aid? Where is the fruit of labor shared with those who labor? Where are the ancient ways respected rather than cast aside in pursuit of short-term profits? With the collapse of Empire, the answers to these questions could again shape the future.
But that is not likely to happen any time soon. Technological superiority has given the Empire an iron grip. Its functionaries surveil the entire world and know nearly every secret. This knowledge enables it to compromise every leader who steps out of line, disrupt every endeavor that charts a different path, and exploit every human conflict for its own purposes. Empire’s grip will not be dislodged any time soon.
President Obama is not the problem, nor the Tea Party nor the Republicans nor the man or woman who will be the next President. The problem is that we the people have taught our tongues to speak lies and our institutions – corporations, labor unions, universities, media, military, philanthropy, churches too – have invested in the deceit. More than anything else, we want our exceptional life to continue.
Jeremiah said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” That is where we must start: by telling the truth and unlearning the lies.