American Jeremiad 

Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds
And like those who set traps to catch men.
Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit;
They have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit.
They do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it,
They do not defend the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this? declares the LORD.
Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?
A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority,
And my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?…
To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed so they cannot hear.
The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
                    –Jeremiah 5:30,31; 6:10

Poor Jeremiah.  What a frustrating task he had been given, and how futile it all seemed.  If only the people would have listened.  The LORD was ready to pour out his forgiveness, if they repented. But they just could not admit they had done wrong.  They were God’s chosen people, after all; his own inheritance.  Indeed, his temple was in their midst; he himself dwelt among them.  So they would always be safe, they thought.

“Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!'” he said.

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers forever and ever.  But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless”  (7:4-8).

But they would not hear of it. 

The prophet’s words may safely seem light years away from us, but we have only to look around us to see how little human nature has changed in 2,600 years.  The rich still devour the poor, the powerful always stepping on the weak. Courts and lawmakers are corrupt; immigrants and the poor find no justice, and we all fall prey to the greedy.  None of this is surprising.  What is even more tragic, however, is that so few of God’s people seem to take it to heart. 

In Jeremiah’s day, in the face of ominous threats from an unruly empire to the east, professional prophets and priests continued to wave the flag and preach the invincibility of the Israelite state, since God was on their side.  Few bothered to look within or ask, “Yes, but are we on God’s side?”  Instead, they treated him more as a mascot than the Master of the universe.

In our American hubris we assume that this has always been and will always be God’s country.  That America can do no wrong and is accountable to no one. That we are free to inflict our greed and vengeance on any nation we please because we can, and wherever we go, the Almighty will go with us.  We’re America.

See how desperately we cling to our national myths and how tirelessly we try to silence all the little voices worldwide that dare even to whisper, “The emperor is naked.”  Sure of our righteousness, we indignantly tighten our borders against the onslaught of humanity that daily pours across seeking a drink of water– only because on the other side we have fouled their streams or diverted them to our own use.  In vengeance we attempt to hunt down every naysayer who, tired of our holding his head in the toilet, dares to kick against our divine imperium.  How dare they use terror and violence!  Those are our prerogatives alone.  (I am not in any way condoning terror and violence, and they do not suddenly cease to be what they are, terror and violence, simply because our side uses them.)

We even ascend our national pulpit quite frequently to wag our finger at other nations and lecture them on human rights, democracy, fairness, the rule of law, and yes, even torture.  [China, in fact, after years of enduring our sanctimonious jeremiads, recently issued a report on human rights conditions here.]  It seems much easier, you see, to snip the wires and silence the alarm bell, than to admit we have a problem– that we are the problem.  Always much simpler to treat the symptoms than the disease– in the short run, at least.  Simple and tragic. 

Tragic because we exhaust ourselves, our armies and our treasure in attempting to stop our ears to the truth.  In reality, we would not be spending trillions “fighting terrorism” if we had not been pillaging and oppressing the Muslim world directly or indirectly for generations.  We do this, we claim, to protect American interests.  What are those interests?  Chevron, Dow, Coca-Cola, DynCorp, Halliburton, Monsanto, Ford, WalMart.  These terrorists, they’re jealous of our freedom, we say.  Yes, they are.  They want freedom, too.  Freedom from us.

Now we’re planning to spend hundreds of millions to secure a border that will never be secure, for without justice, security is but an illusion.  It never occurs to us that people come here, not because we are so wonderful, but because our economic policies in our own hemisphere have left them no other choice.

I do not dispute that my country has done and continues to do some good in the world, but the idea that the world hates us so much because we stand for truth, justice and democracy is a pathetic deception.  The image we have of ourselves– the America that gives and gives and gets nothing in return but ingratitude– should have expired with the Marshall Plan.  That America, if it ever existed at all, is long dead.

The truth is that the U.S. is, and has always been, a nation tragically at odds with itself.  We stand for one thing, but pursue another.  We speak soaring words that make the world dream– of freedom, democracy and the sacred rights of humanity– but our ambassadors are not Tom Jefferson or Abe Lincoln;  they are Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blackwater.  

Decide, O America, which will ye be?  A free republic or an empire?  For history proves you cannot be both.


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