Why white Christians need to listen to Amos and Isaiah

Why white Christians need to listen to Amos and Isaiah May 1, 2015
"Mr. Speaker," Dick Vos, Flickr C.C.
“Mr. Speaker,” Dick Vos, Flickr C.C.

“But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24 is a verse that gets thrown around a lot in times of protest like the most recent unrest in Baltimore. Taken by itself, this verse is pretty innocuous. Who’s opposed to the idea of justice and righteousness? But it becomes a very different message when we read it in context, starting with verse 21:

I hate, I despise your 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 ever-flowing stream.

Do you hear what God is telling the Israelites through Amos? He hates their worship. He hates their inspiring, accessible sermon series on Biblical living. He hates it when they go on and on about how much he deserves to be praised. He hates their relevant pop culture video clips. He hates the way that the pianist plays softly under the preacher’s prayer. He hates their smiles and their Jesus jukes. He hates their exhibitionist false humility.

Why does God hate these things? Because they have not produced justice. Old Testament prophets like Amos are unanimous in their declaration that worship without justice is a mockery to God. Isaiah 1:12-17  says the same thing:

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

What if God is actually angry, just not for the things we want him to be angry about and not at the people we want him to be angry at? Many Christians who like to talk about an angry God define sin in such a way that they could never be the objects of God’s wrath. But what if God is angry at us, the people who love to sing happy songs about him and talk about how grateful and humble we are? What if the rage in Baltimore this past week is part of how God is articulating his wrath against the church that’s supposed to be fighting injustice? If Amos and Isaiah were alive today, they wouldn’t have any qualms about naming the Baltimore riots as a sign of God’s wrath.

I’m not saying that the individuals who burn down buildings aren’t committing sins by doing so. But I do believe the collective rage that has exploded into violence is an expression of God’s wrath. When truth and human dignity have been violated repeatedly in millions of ways as they have in the lives of our country’s black community, God’s wrath is kindled.

To understand this, we have to recognize that God’s hatred of sin comes from a place of solidarity with victims, not sanctimony about law. That’s what Jesus teaches us over and over again in his debates with the Pharisees. God does not hate imperfection and rule-breaking on account of his ego as a lawmaker. God hates it when our collective idolatry and selfishness cultivate a world order that crushes the most vulnerable. Worshiping God is supposed to help us get over ourselves and purge our hearts of the idols and selfish agendas that make us aloof to injustice.

The problem is that worship for privileged people too often becomes an indirect form of self-congratulation just like it was for the people Amos and Isaiah were yelling at thousands of years ago. The more that I go on and on about how good God is, the more likely it is that I’m doing it to show other people how good I am at talking about God’s goodness. Even sitting through “tough” sermons about sin can make me feel even more satisfied with myself for having a dour, sober perspective about the wickedness of humanity rather than convicting me personally into true repentance and humility.

If worship is doing what it’s supposed to do, it’s supposed to melt me. It’s supposed to leave me the opposite of self-satisfied. It’s not supposed to produce a snide scoffer, but a heart that is wounded by God’s mercy and burdened by the need to share it with others. I wonder what Amos and Isaiah would say about the self-satisfied scorn that so many white Christians have been spewing out into social media in response to the rage in Baltimore. What would they say about the efficacy of our worship? Would they tell us to “trample [God’s] courts no more”?

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  • jtheory

    such a great post and description of what sin really is.

  • Rust Cohle

    >the Baltimore riots as a sign of God’s wrath

    So was Hurricane Katrina.

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina_as_divine_retribution

  • This post reminds me of the observation I made awhile back. That God spends a lot more time talking about sin to those who believe in him and claim to worship him than to those who are outside. I feel this is often overlooked today and instead we simply focus on condemning those outside of our belief structures and leave those on the inside, particularly those who think a lot like ourselves, with free reign.

    The only thing I’m uncertain about is your contrast of God’s wrath being more about solidarity with victims than sanctimony about law. I wonder if it is not both. The sanctimony of law includes loving neighbors, being fair in our dealings, pursuing justice, and taking care of the poor and marginalized even in the Old Testament. I wonder if the bigger problem is that we focus in on certain aspects, usually very private piety kind of things, but miss the forest for a few trees and create victims. We think we’re upholding the sanctimony of law, but are instead trampling all over it and those around us, which is why God then hates our worship. As you said, it is not producing justice. Your thoughts?

    • I do think that God defends the truth for the sake of truth. What I would disagree with is the idea that God has some sort of “honor” that has to be defended by punishing rule-breaking.

  • Frank

    “But I do believe the collective rage that has exploded into violence is an expression of God’s wrath”

    How is this view any different from those that say AIDS is Gods punishment for homosexuality?

    • Chris

      The obvious difference is that one the former (rage) is expressed through people who have a mind and a will, and the latter is inanimate and would have to be forced to action by God. If the enraged people are in fact made in the image of God and therefore have a sense of justice, then such rage could very well be an expression of God’s wrath in a way that AIDS cannot. One flows naturally out of injustice, whereas the other is an ad hoc reaction to a perceived “sin.”

      • Frank

        There is nothing perceived about the sin of homosexual behavior. And there is nothing about true justice in the rioting.

        • Chris

          Not sure what you’re trying to say. If you’re trying to take a hard line in saying that being gay is a sin no matter what, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

          As for the rioting, I still condemn the riots at least in part. Violence in the pursuit of justice, if at all justified, ought to be focused and meaningful rather than sporadic and random, or else innocents get caught in the crossfire. My explanation is merely to explain the (fairly obvious) difference between AIDS and riots in terms of God’s judgment.

          • Frank

            Homosexual behavior is sinful. No changing that ever.

            I know what you were trying to do but you weren’t successful.

          • Chris

            Well I disagree and think you’re quite wrong. Usually what happens in these sorts of situations is that both sides will give their reasoning in what is called a “discussion”.

            In my case, I think you’re just parroting Southern civic religion, though it’s possible that you’re Catholic, which would present a different set of reasons. Based on your temperament, however, I doubt that is the case. It’s more likely that you are a Southern protestant trying to intimidate me with how firm you are in your beliefs.

            But given that I need to know what your reasons are before I can argue against them, I’ll let you have your say.

          • Frank

            If you feel intimidated it’s very telling and it has nothing to do with me.

            You are welcome to try to make a scriptural case that any homosexual behavior is not sinful and condoned and blessed by God. Many have tried, all have failed. But if you can actually back up your beliefs we might be able to have a discussion about them. I won’t hold my breath.

          • Chris

            No, I don’t feel intimidated, but it does seem like you’re grandstanding in an attempt to say that it really isn’t up for discussion. Anyhow, you’ve made it clear which anti-gay stance you take (the Catholics use Natural Law arguments), so I can more adequately address your issue with Scripture.

            From my point of view, there is nothing inherently special about Scripture so much as there is that to which Scripture refers (God, namely). Scripture is a fallible thing, demonstrated in part by its numerous unethical laws and its demonstrably false account of the origin of same sex attraction in Romans 1.

            I’m with you at least in saying that attempts to reconcile same sex marriage to Scripture are misguided, but I place the fault with Scripture, not SSM.

          • Wow Frank somehow manages to hijack every conversation in order to go back to talking about The Gays. This post had nothing to do with that. Keep trolling like a boss! I’ve often wanted to ask you. Is this your full-time job? I hope you don’t do it on the clock at a different job. Just remember I’ve got your IP address every time you comment. 🙂

          • charlesburchfield

            I think trolls get an adrenalin hit from living in their reactivity. In some i’ve noticed by tracking their disquis profile that they have been binge posting bile for days around the clock. It is sad and alarming to me when an addiction takes over and runs a person. Yeah the behavior is annoying to me but how tragic to have no future, & no involvement in real relationships.

          • Chris

            If this guy is a regular who posts stuff like this, I’d just have deleted his comments =)

          • otrotierra

            “Frank” has already burned through multiple Disqus accounts due to getting banned at numerous Patheos Christian blogs such as Susan Cottrell, Benjamin Corey, John Shore, Kimberly Knight, Fred Clark, and others. Regular commenters at these blogs will reveal all you need to know about Frank’s frothing vitriol.

            Mean spirited trolling must be acceptable at Frank’s home and church.

          • Frank

            They’re Ruth cannot be changed by more discussion.

            As expected you have provided zero support for your fallacious opinions.

  • charlesburchfield

    I think when jesus said ‘forgive them, father, they know not what they do.’ he was in a place to say it from the perspective of suffering in his immediate circumstances. I think god forgave as per jesus request but this does not mean anything was going to happen to subvert the consequences of the injustices promoted by the romans and jews bc of their collective injustices. Ultimately the seeds of evil bore fruit that was their own distruction. I think the miracle is that one hears the irony in the lord’s voice as a warning to change course and one is given the grace & faith to be able to ameliorate some of the systemic consequences of ones intolerance, violence & pride but not every harm is irradicated by faith and grace: windows remain broken, loot is never returned, bodies carry permanent injuries & not one stone is left on top of another at the hands of those who carry a pattern of empire still hardining their hearts!

  • Hi Morgan.
    I just discovered your blog.
    Theologically speaking, I’m pretty progressive since I not only reject Biblical inerrancy but also believe that the Bible isn’t necessarily always more inspired than books outside it.
    I’m also completely disgusted by the obsession of Conservative Evangelicals with homosexuality while they find it perfectly fine that poor children do not receive a decent healthcare from the State.
    (A concept I developed here https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/on-biblical-inerrancy-and-the-priorities-of-fundamentalists/ ).

    I completely agree with the general principles about social justice you evoked.

    I’ve also no doubt at all that a strong anti-black racism among American law enforcement officials is still alive and well in 2015.

    But I fear that often times Western liberals can be as callous, self-righteous and harmful as Conservatives.

    One perfect example is their widespread belief in the legitimacy of collective punishment which is a logical consequence of their belief in unconditional positive discrimination, the idea that a female person should always be favoured over a male person and a black one over a white one, regardless of the background of the two individuals in question.

    As I explained, I think this can lead to quite wicked decisions if their respective well-being isn’t taken into consideration.
    I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor man against a wealthy female because the former isn’t born with two X chromosomes.
    I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor white person against a wealthy black person because the former isn’t born with the genes responsible for a black pigmentation.

    I strongly believe that liberals defending the morality of these actions are NOT “fighting injustice” and rescuing the oppressed.

    I believe that if there is to be any positive discrimination at all, it should be based on wealth and well-being and not on factors the individuals aren’t responsible for.
    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/rethinking-affirmative-action/

    American scholar Richard wrote a long paper about this:
    https://tcf.org/assets/downloads/tcf-abaa.pdf

    Another related liberal injustice is the systematic refusal to recognise the existence of racial hatred against white people and/or to condemn it.

    While I cannot speak about modern America, I can say that acts of racial violence targeting innocent white folks are very real in France.

    I think that the very worse thing liberals can do is to justify these unjust states of affairs by misusing such tragedies affecting black people as a justification of the suffering of innocent white persons.
    Western liberals need to listen to the prophet Ezekiel who reminds us that “the child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”
    By acting in this way, they’re upholding a vicious circle of hatred and planting the seeds of the destruction of us all.

    What frustrates me enormously is that some liberals I explain my views to call me a “white supremacist” even if they know absolutely nothing about me.

    I’m a Germanic Frenchman and after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I loudly said that many Muslims find this appalling as well and that we should absolutely overcome the temptation to lump them together with militant fundamentalists.
    I often stand for the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf in the public sphere and in enterprises if they choose to.

    I hardly know any “other” white supremacist who acts in such a manner.

    I find it a real pity that instead of challenging any ideas getting in the way of justice, political progressivism has degenerated into the unconditional adherence to a set of dogmas with no tolerance towards heretics such as myself.

    I did not write all these things as a criticism of your blog post but rather as an expression of my frustration with the progressive movement as a whole .

    I find that the ideas you convey here are really excellent and I’ll surely take a look at other posts you wrote.

    My only concern would be the choice of your title.
    I agree that white American Christians are more likely to ignore problems of social justice than Christians with an Afro-American background.

    But is it really true that, on a worldwide scale , white Christians tend to neglect their duties towards the poor much more often than non-white Christians (keeping Jesus’ parable about the poor widow in mind)?
    I haven’t seen any evidence showing this.

    Finally, it is worth noting that my criticism of liberal biases is not akin to downplaying the extent of the atrocities American blacks still suffer from.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. The title was my weakest point. I wasn’t sure who needed to read Amos exactly. I think we all do.

      • Thanks for your quick answer!

        I understand you had very good intentions. I think this might unfortunately lead to prejudices against white persons not having this despicable mentality.

        I greatly appreciate your humility.
        Be blessed.