Walter Brueggemann: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Neighborly Covenant

With the rise of Kevin McCarthy to minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been thinking about a roster of McCarthys who have crossed our paths in public life. (Because I grew up in a rural community of German immigrants, I never knew anyone named McCarthy, or anyone with any name that sounded like that.) There have been a number of McCarthys in our public life, including Eugene McCarthy, the somewhat quixotic Minnesotan senator who boldly forced Lyndon Johnson out of the presidential race in 1968. Here I will consider only three McCarthys, to the disregard of many others. There is in scripture, as far as I know, no direct response to these various McCarthys. I did however think of these texts that seem pertinent in Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Charlie McCarthy. While some younger people may not recognize his name, anyone a bit older will happily remember that he was a puppet of Edgar Bergen who thrived in vaudeville and on radio for a very long time. Charlie was something of a smart-ass and enjoyed dialogic engagement with a number of celebrities including Mae West, Dale Evans, and W. C. Fields. Bergen was a quite successful showman and ventriloquist; he was much better on radio than on TV, because he made no secret of moving his lips when he gave voice to Charlie.

The defining feature of Charlie’s life was that he was a “dummy.” He had no life of his own and no true self. Most important, he had no voice of his own. Bergen was able to put words into his mouth and he spoke them obediently and unerringly. He did so to the delighted entertainment of many of us in my growing up years. I must admit that I appreciated his companion dummy, Mortimer Snerd, even more. We were (and are) easily beguiled and entertained by dummies who speak words other than their own (see Kukla, Fran, and Ollie!).

Joe McCarthy. The Republican from Wisconsin was a U.S. senator from 1947 to 1957 when he finished in disgrace. He was and remained an undistinguished legislator until he latched on to the post-war “scare” about “communism,” a scare that he was able to elevate to a high art. In his high days of national attention he claimed to have evidence of communists in the government including both General George Marshall and President Eisenhower. Of course he never produced any evidence for such treason; he kept his claimed evidence securely concealed “here in my briefcase.” And because we could see his briefcase, the evidence seemed viable, convincing and accessible to us concerning “enemies within” that threatened our democracy.

Except that it was none of those, not visible, not convincing, and not accessible.  He was, however, capable of transposing innuendo for a time into a political force that threatened and intimated many public persons. His demagoguery proved for a time to be most effective, as many public figures either supported him, or in their cowardice refused to challenge him concerning his unsubstantiated and unsupportable claims. My first exposure to television as a student at Elmhurst College was for the “McCarthy hearings.” Our beloved history teacher, Paul Crusius, allowed us to use class time to watch the hearings because he understood them to be politically and historically significant. And indeed they are of continuing significance, for they are a primary example of the way in which democracy can be transposed into obscene political theater.

McCarthy prospered politically for a time while many other political figures at least tacitly colluded with him. His popularity lasted until later, finally, some screwed up their courage and challenged him, exposing him as a fraud. That effort at exposure was led by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Happily that exposure brought a swift end to him; but that exposure did not produce a big roster of “Profiles in Courage.” His performance success made clear how vulnerable our democracy is to demagoguery that has no restraint for truth-telling.

McCarthy was said to be in private a likeable, normal guy. When he went public, however, he assumed a very different persona and spoke in a very different idiom. His voice was low, ponderous, and gravelly, perhaps to claim some gravitas for his fake claims. His voice of accusation was no normal human voice, but one derived from ideology and expressed through insistent demagoguery. This public self-presentation allowed for the voice of ideology that had no respect for the truth or for conventional norms of political civility.

This false voice of ideology in which McCarthy did his character assassination proved most compelling for many people. For many who knew better, his work proved to be convenient and useful for nefarious ends of their own. The dramatic collapse of McCarthy and his “crusade” came in a dramatic senate hearing when a pixie-like lawyer, Joseph Welch, asked him in front of the cameras:

“Have you no sense of decency, senator, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The answer to that question, made abundantly clear, was that Joe McCarthy had no sense of decency. His lack of decency led him to give voice to untruth and to play to paranoia and an imagined conspiracy that had no basis in fact, but depended upon phony charges and mean-spirited accusations that could mobilize public opinion in fear. As a result, he did damage to some of the most respected persons in public life. A durable outcome of his charade is that his name has been reduced to an “ism,” McCarthyism.

Nobody wants his or her name reduced to an “ism”!  But so it is for this senator in a dramatic, pathos-filled moment in U.S. history.

And now Kevin McCarthy. As the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, two factors seem important for Kevin McCarthy. One is that he lusts in deep, transparent ways to become Speaker of the House. The other is that his Republican caucus is notoriously unmanageable, as both John Boehner and Paul Ryan have learned. These two factors together require Kevin McCarthy to be inventively agile in managing his caucus, and equally inventive about his drive to become Speaker.

It becomes clear as we observe McCarthy’s agility that he has not yet settled on a reliable voice through which to exercise leadership. Thus he can on the one hand acknowledge that Donald Trump bears responsibility for the insurrection of January 6 and its violence. But on another day, he can glibly assert that “we are all responsible.” He can say that Marjorie Taylor Greene does not represent the GOP norms in the House, but then go to careful lengths to include her in the Republican caucus as (he hopes) an assured vote for his leadership. He flew to Mar-a-Lago for support; and yet had been rebuffed by Trump during the Capitol insurrection. The outcome is a highly volatile leader who has no reliable voice, seeking to be “all things to all people” in a most remarkable and dishonest way. All of that is an attempt to advance his claim to power and influence.

These three McCarthys are very different from each other:

§  Charlie was a dummy who had no voice of his own.

§  Joe was no dummy, but he settled on a voice of conspiratorial demagoguery that had no connection to reality.

§  Kevin, in his cynicism, has no settled identifiable voice, but keeps many different voices operative in his opportunistic thirst for power.

These three McCarthy’s are not very different about their voices:

§  No voice at all;

§  The voice of demagoguery;

§  No settled voice, a fake trumpet, a fake cadence.

They are, moreover, all related to a practice of secrecy. Edgar Bergen tried to keep secret his lip movement but his lips moved anyway. Joe kept his list of traitors secret in his briefcase, never opening the roster. Kevin is all out in the open with his unconcealed opportunism, hoping only to keep secret his unmistakable self-contradiction. Not one of them has arrived at a capacity for truth-telling, not Charlie because he never got to decide, not Joe because he was bereft of principle, and not Kevin because he wants to keep his options open.

There is in scripture, as far as I know, no direct response to these various McCarthys. I did however think of these texts that seem pertinent. First, Isaiah mocks the careless speaking practices of Jerusalem’s leadership (Isaiah 28:11-16). God has promised rest and repose (v. 11). But the mindless chant of the leaders is to the contrary:

Do this, do that, do this, do that, rule on rule, rule on rule, a little more, a little more (Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1-39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary; Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 423.

That is, such talk is non-committal gibberish. For such speech they can only “fall backward” (v. 13). These “scoffers” have made a “covenant with death,” in this case, a covenant with the Assyrians who will invade the city (vv. 15, 18). In the end, says the prophet, God will counter this stammering company with fresh initiatives of steadfastness, righteousness, and justice (vv. 16-17).

In his famous temple sermon, Jeremiah reprimands the leaders of Jerusalem who engage in pious liturgic chatter:

Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (7:4).

Such a popular mantra is perhaps not unlike the often reiterated slogans of patriotism among us today.

Jeremiah saw that such piety simply provided cover for actions and policies that violated neighborly covenant.

All the while, during such recitals, they

steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offering to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known (7:9).

Their end, says the prophet, can only be a complete obliteration, not unlike that of Shiloh centuries before (vv. 14-15). Empty talk serves no useful purpose and one must not be misguided by such utterance, not by a puppet, not by a demagogue, and not by an opportunist.

If we juxtapose these three McCarthys and their failed speech with the statements of Isaiah and Jeremiah about such phony speech, we can draw a conclusion that pertains to our public matters.

It matters if such speech is phony. It matters if such speech is demagogic.

The prophetic alternative to such speech is truth-telling that pertains to the rule of God which is not allied with any ideology; such speech concerning the rule of God, moreover, is characteristically speech about the common good, about neighborly good that embraces all the neighbors. A study of these three McCarthys presents a demanding either/or for us, either self-serving calculation or the public good.

It is an either/or that has nothing to do with party politics or with being liberal or conservative. Rather, it has to do with the kind of speech (and therefore the kind of public conduct and public policy) that will foster a viable covenantal, democratic society. Thus we can watch as Edgar Bergen moves his lips for Charlie; or we may ask who moved their lips for Joe’s words, or who now moves the lips of Kevin’s duplicity. We may be prompted by the questions of Joseph Welch concerning decency, the decency of neighborly respect that makes civil society possible.  

It turns out that biblical faith has from the outset understood that speech that is demagogic, duplicitous, or cynical is toxic for shared human life. On the one hand, Israel’s wisdom teachers, drawing on a long common legacy, see that such speech has no future:

A false witness will not go unpunished,and a liar will not escape
(Proverbs 19:5).

A false witness will not go unpunished,and a liar will perish
(Proverbs 19:9).

On the other hand, Moses is terse and uncompromising:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20).

This is a conviction sharpened in the Sermon on the Mount:

Let your word be “Yes, Yes,” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:37).

Patrick Miller, in his wisdom, has seen the deep and wide import of the Sinai prohibition:

"With the commandment against false witness, the covenantal requirements for living with one’s neighbor move from dominant concern for actions to an explicit focus on words and speaking. It would be a mistake, however, to see this movement as one from more serious matters to lesser concerns. Quite the contrary. The prohibition against bearing false witness is not so much a general rule against lying as it is a guard against the capacity of words and speaking to endanger one’s neighbor in various ways, or indeed, to bring about violation of the commandments that precede this one. Telling the truth is thus a neighbor matter. It is a form of the love of neighbor and a significant aspect of upholding communal relations. Safeguarding the neighbor by safeguarding truth is an inevitable sequence to the protection of the neighbor’s marriage, life, and property, for lying against a neighbor creates a domino effect undoing the other safeguards. Truth or consequences is indeed the choice in speaking about one’s neighbor" (The Ten Commandments, 343).

The McCarthy options of puppeteering, demagoguery, or opportunism present an important challenge for truth-telling, a work upon which a viable common future surely depends. In the face of such options, those of us entrusted with truth-telling may need to move beyond our usual caution and cowardice to be bold truth-tellers in the name of the truth-telling, truth-performing, truth-requiring God.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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