“Do not trust deceptive words, saying ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these [stones]’.” Jer 7:4, my translation
Sometime in the outgoing seventh century BCE, God sent Jeremiah to the temple in Jerusalem to warn the Judeans that, unless they changed their behavior, God would unleash the Babylonians to conquer. The venue for Jeremiah’s message proved to be as significant as the words themselves. Early in the sermon Jeremiah apparently quoted a ‘praise chorus’ popular in temple worship at the time. This chorus, which Jeremiah described as “deceptive words,” celebrates the idea that the temple was God’s chosen dwelling place. As such, the chorus seems to suggest, God’s presence there implied God’s protection on the building, the city, and, indeed, the whole nation. To the contrary, however, Jeremiah warned that God’s presence among the people required them to fulfill their obligations under the covenant. Election does not mean license. In fact, Jeremiah admonished the people to remember events earlier in their history when the tabernacle resided at Shiloh under the supervision of the priest, Eli, and his sons. Because of their flagrant misbehavior, God had peculiarly arranged for the migration of the Ark of the Covenant to Beth-Shemesh after the equally peculiars death of Eli and both of his sons on the same day (1 Sam 4-6).
The sermon had such a profound effect that the book of Jeremiah records it twice (chaps. 7 and 26). The second version reports the people’s response. To the ears of some, Jeremiah’s threat against the temple in Jerusalem sounded like treason, at best, or even blasphemy. How dare he suggest that anything or anyone could harm God’s holy sanctuary! The Judeans of Jeremiah’s day had conflated God, nation, king, and country, trusting in their status rather than their character as evidence of God’s favor. Incidentally, when Jesus cleansed the temple a few centuries later, he quoted Jeremiah’s sermon and, like Jeremiah, incurred the anger of the people and their charges of blasphemy (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; John 2:13-22)
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice…When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear – we are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great mean and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we will be protected by God…A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. Donald J. Trump – January 20, 2017
I fear that these lines and others like them from President Trump’s inaugural address reveal the same confidence in penultimate matters, in broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jer 2:13), expressed by the praise chorus in Jeremiah’s day. First, of course, it is impracticable. What if the other nations of the world assert the national egoism implied in the “American first” cry and respond, as an unnamed Mexican diplomat reportedly did just today, “Mexico first!” “England first!” “China first!” “South Korea first!” Let the cacophony begin.
What is “a total allegiance to the United States of America” except idolatry of the “love it or leave it” variety? Too often in human history, the call for such allegiance has been the preamble to the demand for blind loyalty. Too often, those who call for country first have meant conscience second. Too often, such hyper-patriots have equated criticism with treason or, yes, even blasphemy.
By its nature, such total(itarian?) allegiance cannot fulfill the promises made in its name. America first, America best, America most-favored of God thinking cannot heal divisions or end prejudice. By its nature, such thinking fuels forces of conformity, not unity. On the global scale, it sends the message that all the other nations of the word should simply accept the idea that their lot can never rival America’s. Believers and the church, as the body of believers, must focus, not on an idolized and idealized nation, but only on loving God “totally” and on loving others – as much as we love ourselves. Seen through the eyes of Christian faith, greatness lies not in wealth, military power, or world dominance (cf. Mark 1:12-13; Matt 4:1-11), but in lowly service.
Incidentally, the Babylonians plundered and destroyed Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem within two decades of Jeremiah’s warning; the Romans plundered and destroyed Herod’s temple in Jerusalem within three of Jesus’ cleansing.