Amos, Amaziah, and American Christianity

Amos, Amaziah, and American Christianity July 19, 2019

Recently, we’ve heard the chants of “send her back” and “go back to where you came from” at rallies, on tweets, and in conversations with the press. These “love it or leave it” mantras remind me of a similar encounter recorded in scripture, this one, between the prophet Amos and the court priest Amaziah, in which Amaziah tells the prophetic critic Amos to go back to Tekoa, in the Southern Kingdom, and stop troubling his Northern Kingdom siblings. Though Amos was of the same ethnic background as Amaziah and King Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom, he was also considered an outsider, unqualified to challenge economic injustice in the North.

Amos’ stark message of ethical monotheism, that is, the belief in God that compelled persons and nations to embody just economic and social practices, made enemies in the religious and political spheres of Northern Israel, most significantly Bethel, the royal sanctuary. No doubt, the priests, politicians, and economic leaders, wanted to expel Amos when he proclaimed God’s judgment on their neglect of the poor and vulnerable.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21, 24)

After hearing Amos protest the Northern Kingdom’s injustice, the priest of Bethel, the leading spiritual leader of one of the nation’s holiest places, the site of Jacob’s dream of the ladder of angels, challenged Amos’ right to speak and told him to go back where he came from.

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (Amos 7:10-13)

According to a Pew Center Report, nearly 70% of white evangelical Christians support Donald Trump’s policies. One can estimate that the majority of those attending Trump’s recent rally in North Carolina and shouting “send her back” were conservative Christians, caught of in the frenzy of a political revival meeting and believing any critique of the current administration’s policy bounded on treason, worthy of deportation. In their estimation, loyalty to the president and his policies trumped any affirmation of the First Amendment, respect for diversity of opinion, commitment to the democracy of ideas, or Christian charity.

While it is not my intent to conflate any particular politician with the prophet Amos, I must remind Christians that at the heart of Christianity and the origins of our nation is a profound restlessness in light of the moral arc of the universe. The prophets denounced the status quo and proclaimed an alternative vision of reality, grounded in God’s dream of Shalom, wholeness and justice. Perhaps the founding parents of the USA were inspired by the same moral restlessness in the political realm, as they sought a “more perfect union,” recognizing that our nation and its leaders are finite and fallible, and thus the current state of affairs must always be judged in terms of ideals that were even beyond our founding parents’ reach or our current achievements.

Recognizing the reality of sin, both institutional – the primary sin noted by the prophets – and personal, today’s Christians would do well to listen to the critics in our midst. No administration can claim to fully embody the realm of God. No politician is beyond critique from the perspective of God’s vision of Shalom, which cannot be mandated in a pluralistic society, but must motivate Christians to seek justice, wholeness, and economic and political equity. Indeed, Christians need to beware of absolutizing any political viewpoint or baptizing any political leader as a flawless embodiment of God’s will. Amaziah tried to shout down the prophet, and in so doing, the Northern Kingdom risked a “famine of hearing God’s word.” (Amos 8:11-12)

Prophets are always told to go back home, but beneath the critique of prophets and political activists, including the critiques made by Representatives Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley, are truths we need to hear. As people of faith as well as those seeking to support authentic forms of USA greatness, we need to have an uneasy conscience in relationship to the traumatizing of children separated from their parents on our nation’s borderlands, sword rattling in the Middle East, economic policies that benefit the wealthy while putting the poor at risk, climate denial placing profit over clean air, water, and children’s well-being, racist rhetoric from the White House, and the approximately 600,000 abortions occurring yearly.

Whether political or religious, prophetic pronouncements are unsettling, and prophets are often jailed, assassinated, or exiled. We want them to go home, but we would do well in the congregational and political spheres to listen, even if we don’t agree or if their words challenge our way of life and values. We need prophetic voices to remind us that we can do better, that the moral arc demands more of us politically and personally than we have currently achieved, and that our best practices, even those of which we can often be proud, require constant critique so that we might approximate that “more perfect union” and the realm of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including “Spiritual Decluttering: 40 Days of Personal Transformation and Planetary Healing,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” and “Become Fire: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective.”

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