Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Politicians, Prophecy, and the Rhetorical Construction of God

By Dr. Andre E. Johnson

The tragedy that hit Aurora, Colorado has brought with it many responses that examine the gruesome shooting from a religious lens. We have collected many of them for the blog here. While many of these responses have been consoling, comforting, asking for pray and to mourn with the victims and their families, there have been others who, by adopting “prophetic personas,” would proclaim for us the real reason behind this massacre. In short, in their version of prophetic rhetoric, they proclaim we have a sin problem and that since we took God out of the public arena (schools, government, etc.), we should not be surprise when “all hell breaks loose.”

Proponents of this belief, Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas and former presidential contender, governor, and ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, argue that since we (Americans) have kicked God out of the public arena, it is as if we are telling God that God is not wanted and we can do by ourselves. Therefore, they and those of their ilk invoke the traditional jeremiad to get us to repent and call us back to the covenantal agreement that this country has with God. Therefore, the guy with the guns and ammo is really not the problem—the problem is that we have turned from God and if we would just turn from our wicked ways, God will heal the land.

Nevertheless, there is a problem with invoking the jeremiad in the Gohmert/Huckabee way. First, they based their premise on a lie—God may be many things, but out of the public arena is not one of them. Matter of fact, I can make a persuasive argument that we have more God in the public arena, more God shaping public policy, more God determining whether we will begin addressing Climate Change, more God shaping and informing our economics, more God shaping other problems that face us, than ever before. One cannot run for any office in this land without invoking how God has shaped, formed, and transform one’s life. Members of Congress stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and invoke God; senators do the same. God is all over the place because we Christians, (the dominant religious group in America) make sure that put God front and center in all that we do. Moreover, the God we tend to talk about and invoke for blessings on our way of life is a profoundly Christian God and any other conception of God for many Christians is an invalid one. Just ask the representatives in Louisiana who equated the word "religious" for "Christian."

Therefore, despite what we have heard from the religious right and those who support their views, that God is gone from the public arena, God is still here informing us and dictating to us from on high and we are bless to have prophets such as Gohmert and Huckabee around to proclaim “what doth saith the Lord.”

However, I would agree with them that there is a problem—a sin problem as they would say. It is not that God is gone from the public arena; the problem is the God that is in the public arena. In short, the problem is how we talk about and construct God. For many of us, the God that many of us serve, regardless of faith tradition, grounds himself (and God is always he here) on power, wealth, oppression, and violence. The fact that we cannot have a real discussion on guns and gun violence, no matter how many are gunned down at public “safe spaces,” is not only the power that the NRA has and the how they strong arm our representatives in voting for things against our own interest. It is also the fact that many feel that having a gun is not only a political right, but also as Rhetoric Race and Religion contributor Giovanni Neal says, "a God given right" and that any infringement on that right is infringing on “sacred rights” guaranteed by a “sacred constitution” and a holy God. The God most of us serve is a God who is concerned with the rich and not the poor, the powerful and not the oppressed, the strong and not the weak, the secured and not the marginalized.

How we see, interpret, talk about, and construct God in the public arena is of utmost importance. If we really see God as loving, peaceful, caring, and concerned about community and the people living in them, we as people of faith can come to the table and have reasonable discussions about guns. However, if the dominant notion about God prevails, this tragedy will pass like all the others with no meaningful talk about guns or gun violence. Until we see God differently, it's “bless the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

Image: via the Flickr photostream of Mike Licht,

Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies t Memphis Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee. He is also the editor of the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog.

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