I have been thinking a lot lately about what I wish every Christian knew. On my list: I wish all Christians, especially American Christians, knew the book of Amos.
My reasons are both personal and more than personal. Amos was responsible for one of the three major conversions in my life. Two were intellectual and religious: a conversion to the study of religion and an experiential conversion to the conviction that God is real. The third was political: from the conservative political orientation I absorbed while I was growing up to what I have learned from the Bible and Jesus.
Amos was the trigger. In my junior year in college in a political philosophy course, we spent a week on Amos. The encounter stunned me. Speaking in the name of God, he passionately indicted the powerful and wealthy of his time because they had created an economic system that privileged them and inflicted misery and suffering on most of the population.
Prior to that class, I had no idea that there was anything like this in the Bible. Yet I had grown up with the Bible and had memorized more verses than anybody I knew. But nobody had ever asked me to read Amos or any of the prophets. I knew of them primarily through isolated verses that we understood to be prophecies of the coming of Jesus. The prophets were “predictors” of events centuries in the future from their point in time. It had not occurred to me that Amos and the prophets in general might have had a message for their own time and place.
The effect of Amos is best experienced by reading the whole book thoughtfully and slowly and with several awarenesses. He was speaking, not writing; his speeches (commonly called “oracles”) are short, seldom exceeding six verses or so; they have a poetic structure and use language designed to be memorable in an oral culture. A few more: he spoke in the time of the monarchy in ancient Israel; his oracles contain both indictments (the reasons for his condemnation of the wealthy and powerful in the name of God) and threats (what will happen to them as a result – not condemnation to an afterlife in hell, but loss of their privilege and exile.
Within the space limitation of a blog, I can only provide a few examples.
Amos paints a vivid picture of the leisurely life-style of the wealthy and powerful and their indifference to the impoverishment of the many: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph [the ruin of the many]!” (6.4-6).
“They sell the righteous [the innocent, those who have done no wrong] for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the … poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (2.6-7).
“Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins [note what they are]— [ you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” (5.11-12).
Perhaps the best-known text from Amos indicts the worship of the wealthy and powerful. As often in the prophets, the “I” is God, for the prophet speaks in the name of God. “I hate, I despise your [religious] festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (5.21-24). Note what God does want: justice and righteousness. They are not two different things, but synonyms. The last verse is a classic example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism: the second half says the same thing as the first half.
Amos is not a solitary voice in the Bible. It is the voice of the exodus story of liberation from bondage to Pharaoh, of the laws in the Old Testament about land and debt, of Jesus’s passion for the Kingdom of God on earth. And of Paul’s proclamation of the lordship of Jesus over against the lordship of Caesar: a new creation, a way of being and living in this world brought about through life in Christ that is radically different from the lordship of Caesar, the lordship of domination.
For Christians, Amos and all of these voices are part of our sacred scripture. If we, especially American Christians, were to take them seriously, how would that affect our understanding, our vision, of what it means to be Christian?
They challenge much that is central to American Christianity and American politics today, especially our ethos, our ideologies, of individualism and exceptionalism.
Politically and economically, individualism is based on the conviction that the degree of our material well-being is primarily the product of how much we have applied ourselves and how hard we have worked.
But is that really true? Or is the decisive influence the way the powerful and wealthy have put the world together in their own self-interest? Is the cause of human misery and suffering primarily individual irresponsibility – or is it systemic? Have the powers that be, in the ancient world and our world, organized the system to create, enhance, and preserve their privilege? Is the cause of poverty in America and the rest of the world primarily individual failure – or is it systemic?
Amos and other voices in the Bible also challenge the notion of American exceptionalism – that we have been and are not only blessed by God but also chosen and favored by God. Polls indicate that more than a majority of Americans affirm that. So do a majority of American Christians, including those who are fearful that we might lose that status because of our deviation from God’s ways (fill in the blank as to what our sins are). The notion of exceptionalism means more than one thing, including that we are the best country in the world and that we would never use our power for anything other than legitimate purposes.
But, to use words from Amos, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” We as a nation are not chosen, not exceptional. Like every nation, every society, our future depends upon our present and how we shape our life together here and now.