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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

Damning America right and left

In America, condemnation of sins is as old as the Puritans


Great outcries of angry condemnation have swirled around Barack Obama’s campaign for presidency because of the oft-quoted words of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright: “God damn America.”

Few quote his full text where he said: “The government gives [black people] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America -- that’s in the Bible -- for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

For many Americans, the phrase “God damn” is bad language and should not be heard from the pulpit. To say “God damn America” is to commit the supreme sin of anti-Americanism. They fail to remember that such words are an integral part of the biblical tradition. Indeed the word “damn” fundamentally means that someone is declared to be guilty and deserving of punishment.

Few of the pundits who were so outraged by language from Sen. Obama’s pastor bothered to note that Christian fundamentalists are in the habit of regularly opining that God is punishing America for some sins. Only their list of sins for which America deserves punishment is different from that of Rev. Wright.

In the words of the recently deceased Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, “I really believe the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger at them and say you helped 9/11 happen.”

Similarly, Pat Robertson attributed the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 to divine vengeance brought about because of the Supreme Court’s forbidding Bible reading and prayer in the schools. “We have insulted God at the highest level of government and then we say why is it happening? Well, it is happening because God almighty is lifting his protection from us.”

Both Mr. Robertson and Christian conservative John Hagee claimed that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment of God for the sins of New Orleans. Mr. Hagee said, “All hurricanes are acts of God,” and, citing a gay parade in New Orleans, added, “I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God. I believe the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, God brings punishment sometimes before the Day of Judgment and I believe that Hurricane Katina was in fact the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”

Although some Americans may claim to be shocked by Pastor Wright’s words, while ignoring those of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson, such damning is indeed typical of biblical prophetic thought. The prophet Jeremiah, for whom Jeremiah Wright is aptly named, filled his book with condemnation of Israel for its sins, both sexual and social, proclaiming God’s intention to pour out divine wrath against it. “Let my wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doing” (Jeremiah 4:4).

Such diatribes threatening America with divine punishment for her sins, appropriately called “jeremiads,” were a regular feature of American preaching from the first Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The first governor of the colony, John Winthrop, in his first address to colonists written on shipboard during the journey to America, warned that if this elect people “deal falsely with their God,” divine wrath will be poured down on them, they will become cursed and driven out of the land to which they are going.

Such warning continued to echo from American pulpits. Nicolas Street, pastor of the New Haven Congregational Church at the time of the American Revolution, claimed that the suffering of the colonists at the hands of the English crown was divine punishment for their sins. Only if they repented would they be allowed to enter into the new liberties promised by the Revolution.

All these threats, warnings and proclamations of divine punishment, both in the biblical texts and in the mouths of American preachers, stand within a context of the assumption of divine election of a special people of God, whether Israel or America. Because God has chosen this people for special blessing, God is especially wrathful at their “backslidings.” In Pat Robertson’s words, “God almighty is lifting his protection from us.”

While Jeremiah Wright also proclaims God’s damnation on America as a reversal of the presumed entitlement to divine blessing, his catalogue of sins has to do with injustice to America’s black citizens. Moreover, he includes in these sins for which America deserves punishment setting itself up as an idol to be worshiped: “God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Perhaps this is the judgment upon the sins of American history, along with those of racism, that Americans should particularly heed.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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