From “A City on a Hill” to “The Hill We Climb”

the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.

–Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

 

“We are where we are, with the huge bloody problem delicately referred to as ‘race relations,’ because of a history.”

–Charles R Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda, “We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action”

If you need some light in these dark and unsheltered times, go watch or re-watch Amanda Gorman’s performance of “The Hill We Climb” at the recent Presidential Inauguration. If the poem itself does not inspire, maybe the poet will. Watching that virtuosity and vision in a 22-year old gives me hope that we may be able to find a path forward.

But as we begin Black History Month, I am reflecting on how we understand the path forward in light of the past. That was a central theme of Gorman’s verse. It is also a perpetual site of conflict in our politics and culture. This tension is apparent even in Gorman’s words. Her poem is yet another entry in a long rhetorical tradition of American jeremiads.

The jeremiad is named for the Prophet Jeremiah, who warned the people of Israel of the consequences of failure to fulfill their covenant with God. From that scriptural origin, “jeremiad” has come to refer to a rhetorical denunciation of sin and the related call to reform.

The first American jeremiads originated in the Puritan sermons of early New England colonies. John Winthrop—in language that echoes in the title of Gorman’s poem—exhorted his Puritan congregants to consider, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

Within a generation, the Puritans were confronting the failure of their divine experiment. The jeremiad became a ritual means of purification, a coping mechanism for a religious community faced with its own moral failure and depravity. It consisted of three parts: 1) a scriptural precedent that established communal norms; 2) a condemnation of the current state of the community; and 3) a prophetic vision of salvation from moral failure that reconciles the discrepancy between ideal and reality. The jeremiad instantiated the American capacity for delusion and self-deception. It became an exhortation of low expectations:

“Even as the preacher exhorted, they knew enough about their listeners not to expect much from them…Theirs was a peculiar mission, they explained, for they were a ‘peculiar people,’ a company of Christianity not only called but chosen, and chosen not only for heaven but as instruments of a sacred historical design…In their case, they believed, God’s punishments were corrective, not destructive…In short, their punishments confirmed their promise.”[i]

The mutuality of sin and salvation purged the community of its guilt and implicitly encouraged its misconduct. The American jeremiad became a kind of rhetorical group therapy.  It required nothing more from its audience than faith in its narrative. Belief, not action, was the prerequisite for salvation.

An example? Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Consider this passage in which he absolves Americans of their moral responsibility by abdicating their agency to God:

The Almighty has His own purposes. If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln’s address satisfied a deep national yearning for a conciliatory moral narrative. His formulation followed the classic jeremiadic tradition by sublimating the country’s vice into virtue. God’s very engagement with American history was proof of its unique status. The horrors of both slavery and war proved the national march towards salvation. 

But this is just one kind of American jeremiad. Another, the African-American or Black jeremiad, grew out of enslaved Black peoples’ fiery denunciations of white oppression. This jeremiad was not blind to American injustice and depravity. It bore prophetic witness to it.

For Black people in America, obvious parallels with the biblical story of Exodus countered white supremacist arguments that Black suffering proved their inferiority before God. Slavery was instead proof that the African-American community was God’s chosen people. Their suffering and hardship heralded God’s greater plan for the future.[ii] Reformulating the Exodus narrative, the African-American jeremiad provided assurance of the Lord’s salvation and nurtured a communal identity as a divinely favored people.

The early form of this African-American tradition was similar to that of its Anglo-American counterpart. But the tone and content were entirely different. The White Protestant jeremiad was a ritual of purification, an unfailingly optimistic prophecy of redemption. The (white) orator always addressed a “we,” his partners in a failing community. By contrast, the African-American jeremiad was a warning to the white, oppressive other. It served ritual purposes for the Black community, but its intended effect on white audiences was to persuade and admonish, not to comfort. An example? Think of Dr. King’s adaptation of the negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” in which he exhorted President Kennedy to “Go down Kennedy, way down to Georgia land. Tell old [Sheriff] Pritchett to let my people go!”[iii]

For much of our country’s history, these two rhetorical traditions existed in opposition to each other. They offered mutually exclusive views of America. But if you watch or read Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” you will see elements of both. It is not wrong to find comfort and hope in the midst of suffering and failure. But we cannot ignore history or evade its call to action. Belief in a brighter day to come is no substitute for acting to bring it about. As Gorman said,

the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

–Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”


[i] See Sacvan Bercovitch. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin (1978).

[ii] See Albert J. Raboteau. A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. Boston: Beacon Press (1995).

[iii] See Keith D. Miller “Alabama as Egypt: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Religion of Slaves” in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse.

BC Law Student Groups Call for Impeachment of President Trump

Many BC Law students were outraged by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol. A number of student groups joined together to issue the following call to action to our elected representatives. It is presented here as a guest post.


On behalf of the Boston College Law Democrats, we respectfully ask Congress to bring articles of impeachment against President Trump at the next meeting of the House of Representatives. President Trump’s continuous undermining of the democratic process culminated today in acts of violence and a seditious occupation of the United States Capitol. The President’s inaction and implicit encouragement amount to high crimes against the Constitution. The evidence is clear that the President is not capable of upholding his oath of office, and thus should be impeached and removed from office.

Over the past four years, President Trump has repeatedly and clearly demonstrated that he is incapable of leading our nation. He has threatened our national security, the stability of our democracy and the fundamental principles of our Constitution. Instead of uniting this country, he has fanned the flames of discord. The violent insurrection on the sixth of January, 2021 was a direct result of his actions and he must be held accountable. While protesters stormed the steps of the Capitol building to prevent the peaceful transition of power, the President did not act. Instead, he incited chaos and relished in an attempt to undermine the institutions of our democratic process. As a direct result of President Trump’s incitement, the lives of duly elected members of Congress and hundreds of civilians were unnecessarily put at risk. The United States of America should no longer be forced to endure this existential threat to our democracy.

The President must not be allowed to subvert democracy with impunity. Congress must act to protect our institutions of government and ensure that President Trump will not be able to undermine them again. The President has violated his oath of office and continues to pose a threat to our democracy.

For the reasons above, we respectfully urge Congress to act.

– Boston College Law School Democrats

Cosigned by:

The Boston College Law School American Constitution Society

The Boston College Law School Latin American Law Students Association

The Boston College Undergraduate Democrats

The Boston College Law National Lawyers Guild

The Boston College Law School If/When/How Chapter

The Boston College Lambda Chapter

The Boston College Public Interest Law Foundation

Related content: BC Law professor and American Constitution Society chapter advisor Kent Greenfield drafts a letter calling for Trump’s removal from office. The letter was signed by more than 1,000 legal and constitutional scholars.

A Letter to the Class of 2019 from the President-Elect of the LSA

Editor’s Note: Alex Porter will serve as the President of the Boston College Law Students Association for the 2016-17 academic year. Much like his predecessor, Alex embodies the very best qualities that BC Law students have to offer. As a member of the Boston College Law Review alongside him, I know for a fact that as incoming students you will be in very capable hands. Without further ado, I am very pleased to present his welcome letter to the Class of 2019.

The_Four_Alexes[1]

President-Elect Alex Porter (second from right) along with three of his classmates.

Congratulations on your admission to Boston College Law School!

This August, you will become the newest (and most celebrated!) members of our truly extraordinary community.  It is a community that eschews one-size-fits-all happiness because we choose instead to value the whole person.  Here, it matters that you were the captain of your track team in college, or served as an aide to the Secretary of Transportation, or had first-hand knowledge of tort law due to an unfortunate car accident.  Here, whether your family came on the Mayflower or whether you just stepped off the plane from Bangalore, your classmates will want to know – and will value – your story. Please understand that this doesn’t mean an easy ride; you will work harder than you ever have in your life, and you will be challenged to achieve more than you thought possible in the classroom and beyond. But you will do it in a supportive, caring environment that lifts you up so we all get there together, rather than tearing you down.

Friendly competition can be a great thing, but cutthroat competition is not, and we won’t stand for that here.

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If You’re Reading This You Should Commit to Boston College Law School

Editor’s Note: Nirav Bhatt is the incoming President of the Boston College Law Students Association. Much like his predecessor, Nirav embodies the very best qualities that BC Law students have to offer. As his classmate, LSA colleague, and intramural basketball teammate, I can personally attest to the ways he pushes those around him to better both themselves and the BC community as a whole. In keeping with the Drake theme of this post’s title, he is and has been Steph Curry with the shot in all conceivable situations. Without further ado or musical references, I am very pleased to present… 

If You’re Reading This You Should Commit to Boston College Law School

by Nirav Bhatt, President, Boston College Law Students Association 2015-16

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A Letter to the Class of 2018 from the President of BC’s LSA

Editor’s Note: One of my very favorite parts of attending BC Law is the constant interaction with classmates who push you to be better. They motivate you to set goals that would have seemed unthinkable on the first day of 1L year, and inspire you to exceed even those heightened aspirations. Although she would never admit it herself, Lainey Sullivan is the living, breathing embodiment of this type of BC student. I reached out to Lainey and asked if she had the time to write a brief welcome letter to next year’s incoming students, and what she sent back blew me away. Per usual. Without further ado, I am very pleased to present…

Why I Will Miss BC Law and Why You Shouldn’t Miss the Chance to Be an Eagle

By Lainey Sullivan, President, Boston College Law Students Association

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