I have in my long career as Bible scholar and theologian rarely been reluctant to enter the weeds of controversy that forever spring up in the flower gardens of religious life in the USA. From same-sex relations to military service to the use and abuse of the planet, I have had my moments of quiet reflection and public statement that have not always been received with equanimity by some of my listeners. So be it. If one speaks in such a way as to please all, one has in fact said very little of any value.
The same is, was, and remains true concerning that infamous American claim of the “wall of separation” between church and state. That phrase, first written by Roger Williams of Rhode Island in 1644, and made famous by President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 response to a Connecticut letter asking him for his opinion concerning the establishment of religion, Congregational at the time in that state, has echoed in our discourse and in the opinions of the Supreme Court ever since. The first amendment to the constitution states that no religion may be established to the exclusion of any other, and that no religion may be privileged over any other or over any individual conscience. That certainly sounds like a wall of separation between the church and the state.
However, through the decades of American jurisprudence, myriad arguments, arising from actual cases of multiple kinds, has continually questioned and refined what Williams and Jefferson and James Madison among others thought they meant by those words. From artificial contraception and Catholic sensibilities with respect to the Affordable Care Act to the burning of the American flag, courts have parsed and clarified and, yes, muddied, what we should think about Article One. Since, as you can readily discern from these opening paragraphs, I am no constitutional scholar, I can safely and with a sigh of relief, leave that parsing to those who know far more than I.
Amos, that crusty 8th century BCE prophet of Israel, had no such qualms. He knew full well that when the state became entangled in the church, when the state became the employer of the church for its own ends, that separation wall needed rebuilding lest the church disappear, becoming merely an arm of the state. And if that were to happen, he reasoned, the YHWH he knew would vanish from Israel along with the justice in the land that YHWH demanded and assured. All of these crucial ideas are expressed in Amos 7, one of the Bible’s crucial statements of how we should view the relationships between the church and the state. Jefferson quite obviously sat very loose to the traditional tenets of Christianity (witness his astonishingly literal chopping up of the New Testament!), but he breathed the spirit of the old Bible nonetheless and found there full support for his suppositions. Despite the foolish blandishments, and so-called historical analyses of supposed historians like David Barton of Texas, our country was NOT founded as a Christian nation. Quite the contrary! It was founded as a free land where no single religion could ever hold sway and a land where no religion could be proscribed, no matter how fanciful or weird it may appear to a majority of believers.
Amos was a southern sheepherder from a tiny village near Jerusalem called Tekoa. He felt called by YHWH to become a prophet, a “mouthpiece,” the translation of the word, and to go north some few miles to the central sanctuary of Bethel of the kingdom of Israel (see ruins below), a separate nation from Amos’ Judah during his lifetime. We cannot be absolutely certain about the time of Amos’ preaching—a common guess is 750BCE—but we do know that Israel was a mere thirty years or so from its complete destruction by the might of Assyria in 722BCE. However, when Amos appeared in Bethel to preach, all seemed very well indeed with the comfortable and heedless Israelites. Their king, Jereboam II, was generally well liked since he had brought abundant prosperity to the land, at least to those who already had a fair measure of ease. The archaeology of 8th century BCE Israel tells a rather more mixed story. There were indeed splendid houses surrounding the even more splendid ivory-encrusted palace of the king on the hill of Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom, but the valleys below were filled with tiny houses for those less fortunate, those Amos calls the poor and the destitute, playthings of the rich. Those rich “trample the poor and steal from them levies of grain,” the better to build “houses of hewn stone” (Amos 5:11). The rich “afflict the righteous, take a bribe, shove the needy aside in the gate” (that is the court of law) (Amos 5:12).
Meanwhile, they worship up a storm at Bethel, that sacred site where the patriarch Jacob had his famous dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder pitched up to YHWH. Now the worshipping place of Bethel has taken on a very different look. Amos trundles in the door and first sees gigantic baskets of summer fruit festooning the altar, a sign of abundant harvest and portending a joyous and raucous feast to come after worship. “Summer fruit” is in Hebrew qayits. Amos takes one look and thunders out qets, which means “end;” the end has come for these people, he says. Their worship is not of YHWH, he implies, but of themselves and their own prowess and power. Amos caps his loud denunciations with words that have become justly memorable:
I hate, I detest your feasts;
I find no delight in your grand assemblies.
Though you offer to me whole burnt offerings and bundles of grain, I will not accept them;
your shalom offerings of fatted beasts
I do not even see.
Take away from me those cacophonous hymns;
I refuse to listen to the clanging of your harps. Instead, let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like a perennial stream.
And with that, the high priest of Bethel, Amaziah by name, has had enough. Perhaps even before the loud mouth shepherd has darkened the door of his sanctuary, he has written a letter to his king, saying precisely what so many toadies of so many monarchs down through the ages have said, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land simply cannot bear his words. For this is what he has said, ‘Jereboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from its land’” (Amos 7:10-11). It is no coincidence that when J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI began a file on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and began to tape record his every conversation, he rapidly concluded that King was a dupe of the Communist party and
quickly shared that ridiculous belief with succeeding presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Those who confront the state and its power will always be accused of conspiracy. In King’s case, his conspiracy was with his God and that God’s demands for justice for African-Americans.
Then Amaziah confronts Amos directly. “O seer (a possible slam term meaning something here like “soothsayer” or “crystal ball gazer”), go back to Judah, earn bread there (you are obviously working for someone!), prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, because it is the king’s sanctuary; it is the temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13). Amaziah’s speech is remarkably revealing. He first belittles Amos as a “seer,” a psychic, an obvious mountebank, in the employ of someone, sent north to attack the popular king of Israel and to defame his land. Yet, his most revealing comment comes at the end of his attempted rebuke. Amos must never again speak at Bethel, because Bethel is the temple and sanctuary of the kingdom. It is not, employing Amaziah’s own words, a house of YHWH at all. It is Jereboam’s house, an arm of Jereboam’s kingship, a puppet in his royal hands.
And here, exactly, is the reason that the separation wall between church and state must be kept high and fixed. Once that wall is breached the church will lose its rightful function in a free land, namely as the conscience of the state. If the church is no more than a mouthpiece for the desires of the state, then it is nothing. By the same token, if the church is no more than a place of comfort for the old and weak, a sanctuary for those who cannot survive on their own from the depredations of the state, then it is nothing more than a spiritual country club whose members huddle together in terror and can have no impact on whatever a state wishes to do.
Amos will not allow that to happen. He retorts to Amaziah that he is not and has never been a “prophet,” a star-gazing shill for YHWH, but was merely a shepherd who one day heard the call of YHWH and answered it. You tell me, Amaziah, not to prophesy against Israel? I tell you this: “Your wife will become a whore in this city, and your sons and daughters will die by the sword, while your personal land will be parceled out to the conquerors. You, Amaziah, will die in an unclean land, and Israel will go into exile” (Amos 7:17)! Brutal and bitter words! Little wonder that we do not know Amos’ fate, but if he continued to speak like that, it would not be surprising that he was one day crushed by the power of the state he reviled.
But he was free to speak in the power of YHWH, and so he had to speak as he did. No genuinely free state finally dictates what the church can and will say. Neither can the church dictate what exactly the state will do in terms of policy. However, if the church acts in a country where the wall of separation remains high, it can perform its God-given task of holding the country’s feet to the fire of divine justice and righteousness. Whenever the state begins to act in ways apart from the call of God’s justice, the church must speak. But whenever any one church begins to intrude into the lives of all of the citizens of the country, demanding that all follow their will and way, the state has the duty to call that church into the most serious question. There lies the vast importance of that wall. May it remain high and sturdy for all time!
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