So begins the paper I wrote for Amos and Ethics, the Maymester course I took this summer that continues to shape how I look at the ways faith and politics intersect. I’ve posted that paper in the Smartypants section of the blog, and I encourage you to read it, not because it’s so brilliant but because it begins that process of working through exactly what we as Christians should do with our political power.
Because here’s the deal: Nonengagement is not an option.
By virtue of the democratic republic in which we live, all voting-eligible citizens hold political power, and willingly giving that power up – by not voting, for example, or refusing to stay informed – is itself a political act with practical ramifications. Sorry, folks.
So we adult citizens of the United States of America have political power. But we Christians living in the United States have not only political power but the power of majority. As I cite in the paper, nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian. For all the talk about post-Christian societies and all the fear mongering about impending secularization and persecution, the reality remains: If you are Christian in America, you are most likely comfortable, accepted – and extremely powerful.
The question, then, is what do we do with this power?
If we are following Jesus, then the cliché answer is we give that power up. That’s what he did, after all. But that doesn’t really help us. I didn’t ask to be born in the United States, and I am glad to be a Christian, but I cannot give up my right to vote nor can I ask to become a member of the minority. Doing the former would itself be an exercise of power and the latter is simply impossible – I’m a straight white male Christian American, and none of those things is about to change.
This is where Amos comes in so handy.
Because Amos is talking to a society in which God’s people wield tremendous political power. The monarchy of Jeroboam II is enmeshed with the religious structures of Yahweh worship. The nation is ostensibly a theocracy, as it’s been since Jeroboam I established altars to Yahweh at Bethel and Gilgal somewhere around 920 B.C.E.
But now it’s a century later, and Amos has come to deliver a stunning message: God’s people are misusing their power. They are oppressing the poor and using the needy to enrich their own lives. Amos in effect accuses them of idolatry. They call the god they worship “Yahweh,” but because their lives do not reflect the priorities of the true Yahweh, the god they worship is false.
Amos never once cites the law codes of Moses in condemning Israel. Rather, he condemns the society for its treatment of the most vulnerable within it. To snap this back into the 21st century, Amos’ problem isn’t gay marriage. It’s consumerism, endemic homelessness, shady lending practices, proposing tax cuts for the rich while slashing unemployment benefits.
In fact, when Christians spend more than $1 million on initiatives banning gay marriage in California and North Carolina while millions of American families go to bed unemployed, hungry or homeless every night – that is exactly the problem Amos has with the use of power by the people of God:
For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment,
because they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way. …
They stretch out beside every altar on garments taken in loan;
in the house of their god they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. (2:6-8)
“Come to Bethel—and commit a crime; multiply crimes at Gilgal.
Bring your sacrifices every morning, your tenth-part gifts every three days.
Offer a thanksgiving sacrifice of leavened bread, and publicize your gifts to the Lord;
for so you love to do, people of Israel!” says the Lord God. (4:4-5)
Doom to those who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear;
or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
Isn’t the day of the Lord darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?
I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food — I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:18-24)
In each of these passages, Amos contrasts the practical effects of the power wielded by God’s people with the hypocrisy of their worship. In the initial condemnation, their worship is financed by their oppression. In chapter 4, God mocks them for their ostentatious worship that he likens to criminal activity, and finally, God rejects entirely their attempts at worship while they suppress justice and righteousness in their very own society.
This tension between religious activity and political power comes to a head in chapter 7, when Amos receives a series of visions, in the middle of which is a confrontation with Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, the chief religious figure in the country. As such, Amaziah wields immense power and could with a word radically alter the nation’s posture to the poor. Instead, he responds politically.
Amaziah’s initial response to Amos is telling. He reports to Jeroboam in starkly political terms a laughably reductive version of Amos’ oracles. He seems unable or unwilling to comprehend his own role in the religious oppression the prophet condemns. Telling, he also quotes the words of Amos, not Yahweh. Then, confronting Amos personally, he tries to deal with the problem by ordering the prophet back to Judah.
The reason for the prohibition on prophecy, however, is particularly enlightening: “For it is the king’s holy place and his royal house (7:13).” The corrupt monarchy has usurped the cult and extended the injustice, exploitation and oppression into the house of worship. The mingling of church and state makes it that much easier for Amos in his response – in which “both kingship and cultus are attacked together.”
Chapter 7 opens and closes with depictions of power. It opens with Amos receiving a pair of visions in which Yahweh is using locusts and fire to destroy Israel. Both times, Amos intercedes for the powerless nation, presumably at some risk to himself. It closes with Amaziah seeking to protect his power, which he has used to enrich himself at the expense of the poor.
When we as Christians look at our own power structures, what is our response?
When we see politicians propose to further “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” as a way of paying for increased military budgets and tax cuts for the wealthy, what is our response?
When we see political parties use “pro-life” as a slogan rather than a consistent driver of policy, what is our response?
When preachers and pundits claiming the name of Yahweh use that name to justify further oppression and stigmatization of the marginalized communities among us, what is our response?
Like it or not, we Christians in America have been given a great deal of power. That rightly makes many of us feel uncomfortable, and it leads many of us to simply refuse to use it, as if that choice is any less an exercise of power than those who use it wrongly. The lesson of Amos, however, is that when God’s people are given the power to help others, even if that power is political in nature, we must use it. For that is the only way we are truly worshipping the Yahweh who sides over and over and over again with the downtrodden, the oppressed and the voiceless.