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Declaring Doom 2

In 1620 John Winthrop, leader of Massachusetts Bay, transported the covenant God made with Israel to the covenant God was making with the New World. En route to Massachusetts, Winthrop preached a now-famous sermon: “A Model of Christian Charity.” He is our first illustration of how Americans have prophesied godlessness and the judgment of God or apocalyptic doom if they do not repent.
The warning that the country will fall apart if Americans don’t repent and turn to God is an old “script” in American history … and this chp, by Wilson Brissett, examines how a particular form — the “jeremiad” — was used and re-used in American religious and political sermons.
Let’s begin with this: there is a problem here with the “little boy who cried wolf.” Some use the jeremiad for anything and everything. What prompts you to use or to respond to a jeremiad?
The calling — the covenant — God made with those who were setting up life in the New World was that they might become a “city upon a hill.” If they live up to what God has said, blessing; if they do not, God’s wrath. Winthrop, however, was no pietistic or quietist. Instead, he envisioned the covenant’s obligations for the new community to be loving God and loving others, and inherent to this love of others was economic justice.
The “form” these folks used to remind the Puritans of their calling/covenant was the jeremiad, the sermon that evoked the style of Jeremiah: remind them of the covenant, list their sins, warn them of God’s judgment, promise them blessing if they repent, and remind them that God’s wrath can burn against them if they neglect their covenant obligations.
Then Jonathan Edwards expanded this style of declaring doom by urging his contemporaries to embrace the surprising work of God in the Great Awakening or they would be rejecting the work of God and incur God’s wrath. So here the jeremiad was expanded from simple obedience to a specific act of God in the country — the revivals.
A study of Edwards: Samuel Hopkins took the Puritan jeremiad and applied it to the country for slavery and to masters who had slaves. His words: “Can we wonder that Religion is done to decay in our Land, that vice and profaneness have overspread the whole Land, when the Ever glorious God has been blasphemed openly in the practice of Slavery among us for So long a time?” (30-31).
This chp of Brissett, then shifts at the end to show that the jeremiad was re-used by Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln — with much less covenantal basis and for political liberalism, Romantic individualism, and the plea for national unity. Inherent is the warning of what might happen if Americans do not live up to their calling.

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John C

posted October 9, 2008 at 6:10 am

The great strength of the Jeremiad is that it fostered a self-critical approach to America and presented a challenge to uncritical patriotism (My country right or wrong; America is the greatest force for good in the world). But can the jeremiad survive when talk of God’s judgement on the nation seems slightly crazed? When Jeremiah Wright says ‘God damn America’, or Falwell interprets 9/11 as divine retribution for America’s sins, they are not treated as prophets, but as fanatics. Is the Jeremiad dead?

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Scot McKnight

posted October 9, 2008 at 6:15 am

John C,
Good point: it does reveal a critical approach to government and to church. Is it dead? The extremes of the jeremiad are making it more and more shock-and-awe talk that seemingly has to be ramped up to extremes to get a hearing. Yes, I think it is falling on deaf and deadened ears today.

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posted October 9, 2008 at 6:27 am

Perhaps you should construct a jeremiad warning of the danger that fanatics will bring the ruin of the jeremiad. It would be a self-referential joke that like, 5 people would think is pretty funny. 😀 At least, I would think it was funny.
What prompts me to respond to any warning is if I sense a likely cause-and-effect from my current behavior. You reap what you sow. If someone convinces me that I am sowing something now that will bring a certain sort of result (“harvest”) later – that motivates me to either keep it up or to intentionally alter my behavior.
If I perceive that someone is trying to sell me something or that they seem more interested in manipulating me or my emotions I tend to tune them out. In highly technical terms, I flip the bozo bit.

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posted October 9, 2008 at 7:21 am

Good comments. Isn’t the kind of preaching described here, though, inevitable in a certain sense? (Though I fully agree we should show some restraint and humility in saying what God is going to do.) What I mean is, Moses said it, Jeremiah said it, Jonah said it (to Assyria), John the Baptist said it, Jesus said it, Paul said it, etc. (not just American preachers). By “it” I mean the proposition that if you (individually or collectively) don’t get on board with God, you will suffer loss, perhaps extreme loss, sooner or later, in God’s discretion.
It’s the overreaching (on God’s behalf), like the predictions of “Jesus coming back in 1988″ that seems to be a problem, but not the statement that, generally and certainly, continuing to blow God off will have horrible consequences. Michael Patton has a post that essentially argues that the commandment to not use the name of God in a vain or empty way isn’t about “swearing” but about saying things in God’s name that he has not given you to say, i.e., don’t say “thus says the Lord” if the Lord has not said “thus.” It strikes me as persuasive and important. (So maybe preachers use the name of God in an empty or vain way more than anyone!)

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John C

posted October 9, 2008 at 7:43 am

Matthew S – it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was lapsing into a jeremiad about the decline and fall of jeremiads. So thanks for pointing that out – perhaps the jeremiad isn’t dead yet!

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posted October 9, 2008 at 9:11 am

I must have missed the reference to the author and book … sounds like something I would like to have in my library. I’ll go back to the previous thread and check …

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posted October 9, 2008 at 9:31 am

Though Christians may find themselves under an unwanted yoke if we don’t repent (or a modern day Babylonian Exile) I doubt America’s end will come because of God’s wrath. Every society rises and every society falls.

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Mark O

posted October 9, 2008 at 11:13 am

I think your post exemplifies the common understanding of our day that in fact God is not doing much purposefully in the world.
If God is sovereign, then in some way, all society’s that fall are a result of God’s will, and if they are disobedient, wouldn’t that be God’s wrath? For instance, Nazi Germany fell because the Allied forces invaded and destroyed it, but in another sense, didn’t God’s wrath come down on Nazi Germany as well?
Of course, it’s hard to understand what things are happening because God is ordaining it himself and what things are a result of human evil…and often I think it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two.
Also, didn’t God have a different relationship with Israel, and now his Church, than he did with non-jews/non-believers?
Wow, this is a confusing post, but I’d better post it before I confuse myself any further.

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