Covenants and Jeremiads

Alive after the Fall Review

Surviving World War III

Get Instant Access

When the descendants of Jacob fled Egypt and followed Moses into the desert, they waited at the foot of Mt Sinai until God made a covenant with them. The covenant acknowledged that this God had delivered them from slavery and was preparing to make them into a great nation, and it assured them that the same God would remain faithful to them and to their descendants. In turn, the covenant stipulated civil and religious obligations that they now had to accept in order to be worthy of God's protection. These obligations became the law of ancient Israel, and grounded as they were in a covenant with God, had the effect of making any violation of communal duties not only disruptive to the community, but also a crime against God. Consequently, divine punishment could be expected to follow flagrant breaches of the law.

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah lived several centuries after the covenant was given at Sinai, at a time when Jerusalem was a pawn in the wars between the great regional powers of Babylon and Egypt. As a small kingdom, Judah was in a precarious position, and the succession of kings during Jeremiah's long tenure as a prophet sought his counsel for how they could be assured of God's protection. Jeremiah consistently advised that the people had to repent of their collective sins and change their ways if they hoped to be delivered from their enemies. He appealed to the covenant their ancestors had entered with God, which had obliged them to "not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow ... to not shed innocent blood ... and to not go after other gods" (Jer. 7.6). They were in violation of this covenant, and consequently the anger of God had been kindled and calamity was about to overtake them if they did not repent and amend their ways. This idea that disaster falls upon those who refuse to repent and rectify their wrongs is the defining formula of the Hebrew prophets. Jeremiah was such a consummate practitioner of this call to repentance that the formula has been given the name "jeremiad."

The Puritans in America are remembered for their identity with Israel and their fondness for both the covenant and the jeremiad. John Calvin had rehabilitated the covenant idea to explain how it is that a sovereign God with absolute power who had no need for us had relinquished arbitrary freedom and committed to deal with creation according to certain constant purposes - purposes, it is important to note, that are primarily concerned with justice. The Puritans, theological heirs of Calvin, had further developed the covenant idea to mean that "God pledged Himself not to run tyrannically athwart human conceptions of justice. The creator was represented as agreeing to abide by ideas comprehensible to man."8 Accordingly, covenant was seen as a moral order built into reality that has been offered to humanity as a gesture of God's providential care, and in gratitude we are wise to conform our lives to it. And in addition to this comprehensive covenant, for the Puritans there were subsidiary covenants God established that were intended to order human life into families, nations, markets, congregations, etc. - institutional arrangements humans enter, agreeing to assume certain obligations so that social life can flourish.

On one boatload of Puritans that sailed from the old world, the lay preacher John Winthrop called the anxious settlers to the deck and, with the story of Israel foremost in his mind, instructed them that if they survived the voyage and arrived in the new world, it would be evidence that

God had ratified a covenant with them. This covenant obligates them, he explained, to "follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God." In undertaking the work that lay ahead of them, "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body."9 Should they live up to these obligations, God would be pleased and allow them to shine "like a city upon a hill," to serve, that is, as an exemplary model for other settlements; but if they should fail to live up to them, they would become a cautionary tale for others, and be driven from the good land they were about to occupy.

With the passage of time it became clear that they had, indeed, failed to establish the covenantal utopia they had envisioned. There were wars with the Indians, shipwrecks that distressed their colonial economy, pestilence, epidemics, devastating fires, outbreaks of witchcraft, and political squabbles. Jeremiads began to be heard. In their own view, to read surviving sermons, they behaved little better than Sodom, only worse because the Sodomites did not have the benefit of a covenant blessing to moderate their behavior. They were guilty of fornicating, gambling, frequenting pubs and drinking heavily, neglecting their families, falling asleep in church, behaving in a proud manner, overcharging for their goods, growing greedy and deceitful in their business practices, breaking promises, failing to provide for public schools, and dressing strangely.10 The rhetoric of self-condemnation that grew out of this experience is astonishing. Countless sermons denounced the sins of the people and carried the stern warning of God's wrath to follow if they did not repent and return to their covenant promises.

The logic of the covenant could work retrospectively, as well. If there was a calamity, say, an Indian attack, a famine, a hard winter, or an outbreak of smallpox, the reflex from the pulpits, and within the people, was to determine what sins had been committed, and by whom, to warrant this punishment. Thus, in 1743 when the crops failed in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards went into jeremiad mode and told his congregation that in failing to do justice to the poor, they had brought this divine judgment upon themselves.

The Puritans deeply internalized the jeremiad, and various historians and political scientists have suggested that this is their most lasting legacy to America.11 James Morone argues that "the jeremiad became a kind of American anthem," the idiom into which we habitually slip when reality falls short of our utopian aspirations. The jeremiad, he writes, "scolded the people for moral backsliding, dazzled them with their historical duty, and invested their mission with an immodest goal: redeem the world."12 Thus the notion of covenant and jeremiad serve as the fount of a long tradition of American exceptionalism and the mix of moral crusades, appeals to founding principles, imperialistic ventures, and counter-cultural protests that are associated with it. This explains why, according to John Hall and Charles Lindholm, America is "a society that is in fact the most powerful and stable in the world, yet is perennially shaken by self-doubt and moral anguish."13 The fear of being forsaken by some kind of guiding purpose if we forsake the principles enshrined in our founding documents haunts conservatives and progressives alike. Every new bit of poll data that measures the condition of the body politic is in some faint way a pragmatic test of whether we are right with God.

As tension-ridden as this makes us, it is a healthy tension, and one that permeates popular culture. It is used ironically in fictional treatments of the Puritans themselves, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and more modern equivalents, such as Richard Wright's Native Son and films like Far from Heaven and The Stepford Wives. These are stories of upstanding, well-ordered communities that, in their efforts to rid themselves of some obvious sin and to restore order, wreak havoc and commit every sort of injustice. Greater sins are given license to conquer lesser sins in order to maintain a fa├žade of communal purity. But by peeling away the surface layer of bourgeois respectability, the madness of a self-righteousness that has substituted itself for a long-forgotten social covenant is revealed. These jeremiads deliver the admonition that the desire to appear pure is the deep wrongdoing that has given rise, and given cover, to a multitude of sins.

Catherine Albanese has drawn a line between the utopianism that propelled the Puritans on their quest for a New Jerusalem and the long tradition of nature religion in America. Under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, nature began to serve as a symbol of original purity, promising to restore to a primordial harmony those communities that choose to abide by its inherent priorities, disciplines and obligations. Like covenant, nature is there with its objective reality and laws, not to be quarreled with. It is "a moral teacher, instructing people in the laws of right and wrong."14 Conform to it, and be blessed; violate it, and be cursed. Covenant under the guise of Nature has inspired a myriad of utopian experiments in our history, back-to-nature movements and artifacts of various sorts like the Chautauqua's, Indian Medicine Shows that were popular at state fairs, the legends of Davy Crockett and Tarzan of the Apes, Boy Scouts, national parks, homeopathic remedies, Gustav Stickley and the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, outdoor sports like hunting, camping and rock climbing, experiments with communal living in the 1960s, granola, the Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and Mother Earth News (1970), Carlos Castenada, and the sprouting of yurts, domes, and tipis in rural America.15 Each of these cultural phenomena contains simultaneously a vision of utopia and a jeremiad cataloging the sins for which society is guilty and must purge itself - the primary sin, according to the code of nature religion, being our overweening reliance upon technology.

The jeremiad with its insinuation of a broken covenant is also found in social novels like Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Walter Mosley's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and cinematic moral dramas like Norma Rae, Silkwood, Boyz N the Hood, Philadelphia, Boogie Nights, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich. Each of these stories singles out a social pathology, a disease of the covenant, and traces it to deeper causes in some combination of the seven deadly sins - greed, pride, lust, gluttony, envy, anger and sloth -with blame landing primarily on the powerful in society, not on those who contract the pathology. Similarly, the rhymes of hip-hop rappers like Grand Master Flash and Furious Five, Public Enemy, and Arrested Development offer a searing critique of social inequities, racism, and the spiraling causes of poverty and urban violence. After reciting a litany of social conditions that await a child born into a ghetto (derelict buildings, failing public schools, pollution, callous repo men, vapid daytime soap operas, drug alleys, gun violence, and demeaning jobs), "The Message," by Grand Master Flash and Furious Five, warns of God's disappointment: "A child was born, with no state of mind/Blind to the ways of mankind/God is smiling on you but he's frowning too/Cause only God knows what you go through/You grow in the ghetto, living second rate."16

Covenant and jeremiad are also common in the genres of post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies and fiction. Movies like Road Warrior, Waterworld, The Postman, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running, and novels like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz are stories about social visions gone awry, experiments in fiction that allow for some serious reflection on what essential aspects of human nature have been denied in order to allow such a world to come to be, and what basic human fault is responsible. They typically isolate a Sin that serves as the fulcrum for all other sins that have delivered us to apocalypse or dystopia. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example, Miller tells a story of how a scrappy remnant of the human race survives an all out nuclear war in the 1960s, and then seeks to expurgate itself of its sins by destroying all traces of learning from the centuries leading up to the development of the bomb. Frenzied mobs stoke book bonfires and hang the surviving politicians, scientists and scholars in an era remembered subsequently as "the Simplification," and civilization is plunged into a new dark age. Isaac Leibowitz was a nuclear scientist who survived the war, repented of the part he had played in bringing it about, went into hiding in a Cistercian monastery, took the habit, and became a priest. He made it the secret mission of his abbey to recover whatever books and documents escaped the burnings and conceal them in kegs buried safely in the ground.

As the centuries pass, Leibowitz is canonized, and an Order of the Brothers of Leibowitz is established to preserve the scraps of writings he and his companions had recovered - as relics at first, but, in time, as the seeds of a new blossoming of civilization. History progresses predictably through dark ages to a second round of renaissance, enlightenment, and modernity, to the point, 1,800 years after the apocalypse, when humanity is again in possession of nuclear weapons and the geopolitical situation has grown tense. Carrying the memory of the ancient nuclear deluge, members of the Order can see where things are headed, and their hym-nists compose a final liturgy for the human race ("Lucifer is fallen/Kyrie eleison"), while their abbot commissions a starship to be built to deliver a colony of the church to planet Centaurus. Religious, lay people and children are enlisted to board, and Leibowitz's literary memorabilia are stowed on the ship. As these preparations are made, the narrator laments:

Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon's slap, seek manhood, taste a little godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb:

Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens - and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn't the same.17

Once again, thermonuclear war breaks out, triggered by one state's detonation of a weapon in space to exhibit its atomic capabilities. Over a period of several weeks, between summits and negotiations, the major cities of the world are incinerated. Finally, a missile hits near the founding monastery of the Order of Leibowitz, and Abbot Zerchi, the spiritual head of the Order, finds himself half-buried in the rubble of the ancient abbey. Lucid, but unable to move and certain of his own death in the hours ahead, the Abbot initiates a conversation with a skull that has been dislodged from the crypt by the blast. He reflects on what flaw in the human condition has brought the species again to this pitiful end. "Bombs and tantrums, when the world grew bitter because the world fell somehow short of half-remembered Eden." For Zerchi, we have never recovered from being ejected out of Eden. Our efforts passing from generation to generation have been aimed at restoring the earth to its original state, a garden of pleasure, a paradise where no need is unmet, no desire unsatisfied. In our bleakest eras we were the most driven by this vision and made the greatest advances toward realizing it. But each time when we came close to realizing it, each time we managed to assemble beautiful, powerful and rich cultures, we grew more disgruntled because of our realization that the world would never, finally, fully attain what our memories of Eden tell us it was. There was always a shrub we could not make grow, or a tree out of place. Then we tore it apart in spite, so that we might "hope again in wretched darkness" - the desperate condition we seemed to prefer, judging from our behavior. The "root of evil," Zerchi concludes, is our craving for worldly security. He reflects on this:

To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law - a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.18

Longing for Eden, for absolute security and negligible suffering, the Abbot concludes, we will instead be cast out into the desert of outer space, prohibited from returning to the garden of the earth by a sword of flame with a virtually eternal half-life. Having failed yet again to make good on our covenant, we will be driven from the good land we had been given, and forever serve as a cautionary tale for others.

Tillich drew a distinction between moral faith and ontological faith. In the former, the holy is understood to enter the world through human acts of love and justice; in the latter, the holy is expected to be encountered through things that are beautiful and awe-inspiring. There appears to be a strong religion! undercurrent in American culture, arising on its own, favoring the moral type of faith. Outside of explicit religious communities, promoting justice and scrutinizing the conditions that resist it is done by many and recognized by most as worth doing. But that it is done in popular culture in the ways described here suggests that the Puritans' use of the covenant/jeremiad pattern as a form of social criticism lives on as a form of religion3. That does not, however, determine what conclusions these different artifacts of popular culture (social novels, moral dramas, nature religions, hip-hop, apocalyptic and dystopian fiction) will finally reach in isolating our obligations and transgressions. The jeremiad is essentially an open form, convinced that we have corrupted our obligations toward a providential order that surrounds us, but offering different alternatives for what it is that constitutes corruption, and what it is within us that persists in causing it.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment