By Adam Ericksen, the Education Director for The Raven Foundation, exploring the intersections of mimetic theory, the news, religion, and popular culture. This piece was originally posted on the Raven Foundation website.
Do you remember when Barack Obama first ran for president? An old video of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, surfaced during the middle of Obama’s campaign. The sermon scandalized a lot of people. There was such an uproar from both sides of the political aisle that even Obama had to cut ties to his pastor because Jeremiah Wright preached these words –
God Damn America!
Jeremiah Wright and the Uncomfortable Truth of U.S. History
Much of the media fixated on those words without providing the larger context of Wright’s sermon. But the larger context of the sermon was full of more uncomfortable truths about the United States. The truth that makes many white people uncomfortable is that America has failed to live up to our ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality.
Wright reminded us of the horrors of American history. The genocide of Native Americans, the African slave trade, Japanese internment camps, the relegation of black people to sub-standard housing and schools, and the war on drugs, which is a war on poor people and black people. After describing this litany of failures by the United States government, Wright said,
And then [the US government] wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no! Not God bless America. God damn America! That’s in the Bible! For killing innocent people! God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human! God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme! The United States’ government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent!
Of course, the Bible doesn’t literally say “God damn America.” But the Bible does provide a prophetic warning for governments. The prophets warned the political rulers that if they neglected the poor and the needy, the nation would fall. Why? Because God cares about those in need. And so, if the rulers refuse to follow God’s demand, then God would cause the nation to fall. In effect, God would “damn” the nation.
The Prophetic Warning Against War Profiteering
And there’s more. In Deuteronomy 17:16-17, Moses provides a warning for future rulers about dealing weapons. Moses warned that the king, “Must not acquire many horses for himself, or return to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You must never return that way again.’”*
You must never return to the way of Egypt again. What’s the way of Egypt? Violence, oppression, slavery, and dehumanization. Israel was to be a different kind of people, one that did not oppress the needy, but provided justice for them. Horses were the tanks of the ancient world. The people of God were not to rely on military strength. They were to rely on God.
But their rulers went back to the ways of Egypt. For example, the book 1 Kings reports that king Solomon imported war horses and chariots from Egypt, which he then “exported to all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Aram.” Solomon discovered that there was big money in war, and he made a fortune off of violence.
Within one generation, the nation fell into a civil war. But the warning was there from the beginning. “You must never return that way again.”
Trump and Saudi Arabia: Let’s Make a Deal!
Which leads us back to Jeremiah Wright and the United States’ government. Despite the warnings, Solomon bought and sold weapons to make a profit. If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because the US government has been buying and selling weapons throughout our history to make a profit.
Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the latest example. Trump makes great deals, you know, only the best. So, he negotiated an arms deal that amounted to nearly $110 billion with the Saudi government. Time Magazine reports that Jared Kushner and H.R. McMaster celebrated with a “high five” and Trump aid Gary Cohn told reporters the arms deal would mean “a lot of money. Big dollars. Big dollars.”
The arms deal consisted of tanks, radar systems, Blackhawk helicopters, ships, Patriot missiles, a missile defense system, and artillery.
The weapons will likely be employed by the Saudis in their fight against Yemen. As Time reports,
This puts the U.S. in a precarious ethical position, say human rights groups and former U.S. officials. The Saudi-led airstrike campaign has hit numerous schools, hospitals, factories, and other civilian targets, leading to well-documented allegations of war crimes by human rights organizations. The war has also pushed much of the country to the brink of starvation, with more than 17 million people facing famine, according to the U.N.
The Saudi government will use weapons created in the United States to terrorize Yemenis who have already suffered enough from violence.
This is the way of ancient Egypt. It’s not the way of God. In fact, the United States has become the Egypt of the modern world.
God Damn America?
Personally, I don’t think God damns anyone. If God damns anything, God damns the powers and principalities of the world that make money from war. God damns those nations who have more faith in violence that they do in the ways of compassion, justice, and love that reaches out to even those we call our enemies.
And yet, I don’t believe that God even damns the powers and principalities of the world. I think God forgives them, as Jesus forgives them on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But that forgiveness isn’t cheap. It comes at a cost. And that cost is the invitation to lay down our weapons.
Laying down our weapons may cost the war machine “Big dollars.” But it is a step in the right direction. For, as Jeremiah Wright warned in his sermon, the violence that we sow is the violence that we reap.
In the end, I don’t think we need God to damn us. We are doing a good job of damning ourselves to a future of escalating and reciprocal violence. As René Girard, another modern prophet, warned in his book The Scapegoat, “The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer, there will not be enough time.”