Proper 24C / Ordinary 29C / Pentecost +22
October 20, 2013
This hopeful verse comes toward the end of the Book of Jeremiah, known as the “Book of Consoling”. These chapters of Jeremiah (30-33) radically change in tone from from previous grief and condemnation of the “weeping prophet”, and put forward a new vision of life after the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. This passage envisions a new covenant with the people of Israel, which “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord” (vv.32).
The formational covenant with YHWH (and Moses) that bound the Israelites to their God and to their land, and gave them their national and personal identities, had been shattered with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. But out of that destruction will come something new and hopeful. Commentator Howard Wallace observes that the ‘new’ is not a frequent theme in the Hebrew Bible until it emerges with the prophets following the exile” (Year C; Pentecost 21; Jeremiah 31:27-34). This newness lies within a renewed relationship with the individual, and specifically his/her heart (which, Wallace points out, was the seat of judgement for the ancient Jews, not the seat of emotions and sentimentality – ibid.)
In 1985, sociologist Robert Bellah wrote the book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. In the book, Bellah uses the metaphor of the heart in a similar way that Jeremiah did, as a symbol of the political identity of Americans in a democracy. For Bellah, the “Habits of the Heart” that made American democracy possible were the interpersonal, day-to-day interactions that were “anchored the ethos and institutions of the face-to-face community of the [small] town” (pp.19). When I used this book in my Senior Thesis, I commented on the current state of American “Habits of the Heart”, in which “Its citizens feel increasingly marginalized in a political economy dominated by giants, and thus relinquish any sense of civic responsibility, in turn leaving the political/economic arena increasingly polarized and bereft of public support” (Cooperative Living and the Crisis of Liberal Individualism, pp.3). This was in 1989, before even Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America and the impeachment of President Clinton.
Fast forward to the year 2013. The government has narrowly averted a catastrophic default on the national debt, and has survived 16 days of a partial government shut-down. For 16 days, the Departments, offices and civil servants, who take the democratic will of the people and make it a reality, were shuttered. The Rev. Jim Wallis sums up: “we let a few dozen of our own representatives — the people elected to promote the common good, or ‘general welfare,’ as the Constitution calls for– hold the nation’s economy hostage for the sake of their political self-interest” (“Weathering the Storm on Capitol Hill,” Huffington Post). Our national identity as a democracy is in jeopardy. We desperately need new “Habits of the Heart” that can transcend the atmosphere of protracted Congressional gridlock and exasperated public apathy.
While some may believe that our “Habits of the Heart” should go back to the “good old days,” when “we” all worshiped the same God, had the same mythic version of American history (with minority voices conveniently left out) and a public sphere that was the domain of men (with women tending hearth and home). However, like the Jerusalem Temple, that “idyllic” version of America is gone, and is not coming back. Our chief problem is not that we now have a cacophony of “special interest minorities” clamoring for attention. It is that we are a diverse, pluralistic society, needing a careful, nuanced local and national political dialogue, and better-educated citizens who can conduct it … and the resources with which to construct that dialogue and education are eaten up by super PACs and representatives who can buy and sell democratic institutions at will (thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision). The public sphere has been successfully privatized and bought by corporate interests.
I do not have a ready-made, sweeping solution to this problem. I wish I did. I think that our only hope may lie in the fact that technology is now making mass dialogue (over millions of people with the click of a button) a reality. I am hoping that a new, electronic commons may emerge – carefully mediated and tended – where all citizens can make their voices heard and help shape governance that is genuinely of, for, and by the People. I am hoping that we can form new “Habits of the Heart” into a new national dialogue, because if we don’t, the alternative is too terrible to contemplate (and we came close to seeing it over the past few weeks). As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community” (1967. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? pp.191).