A Nation Under Judgment?

Since starting work in November, my morning routine has become pretty regular. After my alarm goes off for the final time, I turn over and grab my iPad. I check e-mail, Slack, and so on, and then if I have some extra time, I browse Twitter. I set up my Twitter feed in 2016 after the election to hear the latest from two general categories of famous people: political reporters with the inside scoop on the latest from the Trump administration and political figures with similar (vaguely centrist) views to my self.

After reading about the mayhem that the president is subjecting our country to for a few minutes, I close the iPad portion of my mornings by reading a passage of the Bible and jotting down some notes on a Google doc. I do this to set a bit of a tone for the day; it’s then the last thing that I’m thinking about as I shower and head into work.

Lately, we’ve been studying the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is one of those books of the Bible that modern-day American Christians usually skip over, which is exactly why we decided to read it. What message are we missing that our culture doesn’t want us to hear?

We’re approaching the halfway point in the book, and I can see why it’s so commonly avoided. The book of Jeremiah is actually about 90% the opposite message to the only verse many of us know from it:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Jeremiah 29:11, ESV

American Christians love to quote this verse at graduation events and other occasions where the future could potentially feel uncertain. It fits very nicely into the generic self-help spirit of 21st Century religion, an approach that sociologist Christian Smith calls moralistic therapeutic deism.

And it’s also decidedly not the primary message of Jeremiah’s book. Let me share a few choice passages preceding chapter 29:

The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” Then the LORD said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land.”

Jeremiah 1:13–14, ESV

So destruction is coming. What did they do wrong?

“Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit. Therefore, they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things?” declares the LORD, “and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?”

Jeremiah 5:27-29, ESV

Abundance of riches and little concern for the needy. And God’s just raring to punish them for this. Uh oh.

“And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste.”

Jeremiah 7:33-34, ESV

God’s saying that there isn’t going to be a silver lining to the destruction headed their way. This won’t be one of those feel-good moments where someone goes through a difficult time but learns an important lesson, or even the type of event that late-night comedy can joke about.

Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.

Jeremiah 11:14, ESV

Don’t bother praying? Since when does God ever say that? God allows Abraham to argue on behalf of the thoroughly evil Sodom and Gomorrah, but here he tells Jeremiah not to waste his breath.

For thus says the LORD: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament or grieve for them, for I have taken away my peace from this people, my steadfast love and mercy, declares the LORD.

Jeremiah 16:5, ESV

Don’t even mourn! After all, mourning, in that time as in ours, was a sign of greatness: The more important you are, the more people will mourn your passing. By telling Jeremiah not to mourn, God is saying that they’re a worthless people.

O house of David! Thus says the LORD: “Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed, lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of your evil deeds.”

Jeremiah 21:12, ESV

Sprinkled throughout these dire warnings are specific reminders of what the people of Israel had done wrong. These fall into two main categories: Idolatry and economic injustice. Even so, their repeated conflation suggests that to God, maybe there isn’t that big of a difference.

We’ve been reading Jeremiah since October, but only since I started reading it directly after browsing Twitter did I realize its relevance for today.

As NYT columnist Ross Douthat wrote last May:

Among Trump-supporting religious believers, the long odds he overcame to win the presidency are often interpreted as a providential sign: Only God could have put Donald Trump in the White House, which means he must be there for some high and holy purpose.

The trouble with this theory is that it’s way too simplistic about what kind of surprises an interventionist deity might have in mind. Such a God might, for instance, offer political success as a temptation rather than a reward — or use an unexpected presidency not to save Americans but to chastise them.

We’re a long way from any final judgment on God’s purposes in the Trump era. But so far the Trump presidency has clearly been a kind of apocalypse — not (yet) in the “world-historical calamity” sense of the word, but in the original Greek meaning: an unveiling, an uncovering, an exposure of truths that had heretofore been hidden.

Ross Douthat, The Baptist Apocalypse

Douthat goes on to describe how that unveiling has exposed what was hidden and ugly in both political parties, media figures from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, and finally, the topic of the month, the Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention. On that last topic, he references an agonized reflection by Al Mohler, the president of Southern Seminary, that first got me thinking along these lines:

Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.

Al Mohler, The Wrath of God Poured Out — The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention

Zooming out from the #MeToo apocalypse, I’d like to submit for consideration the possibility that Douthat alludes to, that this entire era is a form of God’s judgment on our nation.

It’s been a condemnation most obviously on our polarized political system. I’m not even primarily talking about the official situation, with politics in the gridlock of the longest shutdown in history. In just the last two weeks, we’ve seen this country tear itself apart over a shaving commercial and an odd encounter between protesters in DC.

These are just the latest examples of what Scott Alexander calls Scissors: Stories that seem intentionally designed for controversy. When reflecting on contemporary events like the Kavanaugh hearing and Kaepernick protests, Alexander’s fictional narrator says that he suspects Putin’s handiwork “because [he] gets The New York Times.” For those of us who believe in an interventionist deity, is it so crazy to think that God himself is behind the scissors, acting in judgment of us as a nation?

This isn’t just about politics, either. Most immediately adjacent, this era has been a crucible for the eyeballs-obsessed media. Under immense scrutiny (witness BuzzFeed News’s shot block this week), distrusted by wide swaths of the public (partly because of how they run with Scissors), still under the weight of diminishing profitability and the decline of local news, dealing with their own series of #MeToo controversies, the Trump era has certainly felt apocalyptic to many members of the news media that I follow.

But before anyone makes this about the “them” in the media, let me remind us all that like Jeremiah’s prophecy, this is ultimately condemnation of the American people. Trump himself has exposed how little control the “elites” have. They couldn’t keep Trump from being elected, and they no longer constrain him in the executive branch. In the media, the social media tail is now wagging the mainstream media dog. More and more, we’re finding that we can’t blame our leaders for our problems; we have to look at ourselves.

If we’re a nation under judgment, what then?

Jeremiah’s message is sprinkled with hints of hope for a moment further in the future, including that most famous verse plucked completely out of context. But his main point is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Judah, the falteringly faithful contingent of God’s people whom Jeremiah was prophesying about and against, would eventually meet a fate befitting their lust after foreign gods: exile to Babylon. Jeremiah specifically prophesies that it’ll be 70 years before they can return, long past the lifetimes of his listeners. It’s this important context that leads The Game for Good Christians to describe this promise as “Being long dead before the Lord answers your prayer.”

I’m not a prophet, so I won’t pretend to know what ultimate punishment God has for us befitting our idolatries. But I do have a sense that with our political polarization, we’re headed for some kind of nation-wide schism. A literal civil war seems obviously unlikely; we’ve been there, done that. But something more like a divorce could be the natural outcome of our division.

For now, though, we’re all still in the rest of the book preceding the coming destruction. And it’s agonizing.

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh the walls of my heart!

My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent.

For I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.

Crash follows hard on crash; the whole land is laid waste.

Suddenly my tends are laid waste, my curtains in a moment.

How long must I see the [presidential] standard and hear the sound of the [T]rumpet?

Jeremiah 4:19-21, ESV, additions mine

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