I. Back to the Future
Thus far in our series, we have noticed a number of parallels between Amos’ day and our own. The similarities are rather remarkable, really, considering that we are separated from Amos by over 2,700 years, 6,500 miles, with a radically different cultural setting and immense differences in our understandings of science, philosophy, economics, and gender and race issues. The coming of Jesus even stands between Amos and us. You would think that issues plaguing 8th Century Israel would be unique to their era, not shared with ours. Issues like:
- A cultural context where extended prosperity bred a sense of entitlement by those who had benefited most, and an inflated assurance of God’s favor and blessing on their every action
- An economic system that freely gave to those who already enjoyed abundance and took away from those who had little – where even those who worked hard were among the “have nots.”
- A legal system that was actively manipulated by those in power to favor their personal interests over the public interest.
- A religious system that was more concerned with patriotism than piety, with serving the purposes of the State than God.
- A social milieu in which huge numbers of people felt like they were steadily being left behind by society; like a permanent and ever widening gap was being established between social classes that would soon be hopeless to transcend.
Kind of hard to imagine that this is a description of the 8th C BCE, not the 21st C CE, isn’t it? As Christians, we may be inclined to wonder why there isn’t a greater difference between then and now. After all, if Jesus’ coming was so fundamental to the future of the world, wouldn’t you expect things to be different once he came, especially in a predominantly Christian country?
Actually, things did change with Jesus. Historically, when Christians act like Christians, society doesn’t do so badly in the grand scheme of things. When Christians forget to act like Christians, that’s another story entirely. But if you step back and look at the world from a historical perspective, you find that in countries where Christianity has been the predominant religion, the citizens tend to move toward more democratic political structures over time, for instance. In fact, the map of world Christianity and world democracy is quite close to the same map.
Years ago, an African Christian activist friend-of-a-friend showed up at the harbor of a large coastal city in a decidedly undemocratic western African country. Law enforcement officials were carefully scanning the shipping containers being offloaded from the boats for illegal weapons shipments intended for the rebel militia. One container – the one he was waiting for – contained a very large shipment of Bibles. The officials allowed that shipment into the country without batting an eye. He broke out laughing when the shipment had cleared customs, knowing that the Bibles were far more effective weapons than the guns for replacing dictatorship with democracy.
Science also tends to flower in historically Christian countries. Even though our own country gets bogged down in the anti-scientific “creationist” debate, that’s a small side show compared to how science has advanced here and in other historically Christian countries. And even though our own healthcare system faces some formidable challenges, historically Christian nations tend to have the most advanced – and publically available – medical care. Just think of how many hospitals include the word “Saint” or “Deaconness” in their names. To this day in India, Christian missionaries are known more for their medical instruction than their religious instruction.
And while Christians have their struggles with gender issues and human sexuality, equality for women and LGBT persons tends to fair better in historically Christian nations (though exceptions do exist). Social services for the poor also tend to fare well. Throughout much of Western history, the major social service agencies were nearly all started by Christians.
So yes, Jesus’ coming did make a difference, at least when Christians have actually acted like Christians. The trouble enters when Christians begin to lose sight of their allegiance. When pledging allegiance to the flag is given equal or greater importance than pledging allegiance to Christ, the very ideals we worked so hard to gain begin to fray at the edges. And when we pledge allegiance to our stockholders over our Christ, the fray begins to tear.
By highlighting the benefits the world has gained when Christians act like Christians, I do not mean to downplay the benefits that accrue when people of other faiths are equally faithful. For instance, the same could be said of Judaism. In 8th Century Israel, the problem wasn’t that people weren’t Christians but that the Jewish population had stopped acting like Jews. If the Jewish people at the time had simply followed the laws that were given in the Torah, systemic poverty would have been a thing of the past. In fact, Jewish law concerning wealth and poverty is quite impressive. To this day, it is hard to find a more effective set of laws for eliminating long-term poverty for those who are willing to work. In the 8th Century, however, those laws were being manipulated and loopholes were being exploited by those who had most to gain from the working poor. Society began to come apart at the seams – at least for many.
II. Desperately Seeking Yahweh
This week we’re stepping back to pick up some material we passed over in Amos 5. Amos envisions a collapse. The collapse is so vast that Amos 5 begins with a funeral lament for the whole country. “Fallen, no more to rise is maiden Israel; forsaken on her land with no one to raise her up.” Amos doesn’t hold out much hope for these folks. Their only hope, he says, is to once again “seek Yahweh and live.” If they will once again remember that God’s story is supposed to be the master story under which our human story is to be subservient, not vice-versa, then perhaps there is hope for the few who remember.
Curiously though, as soon as Amos proclaims that turning to Yahweh is their only hope of survival, he proclaims in his very next breath that people should leave their most prominent religious institutions!
“Thus says the Yahweh to the house of Israel,” cries Amos. “Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile and Bethel shall come to nothing.”
Bethel and Gilgal were the two most prominent sanctuaries of northern Israel. Beer-sheba was the highly revered place where Abraham had lived for a time and the prophet Elijah had fled when the king of northern Israel was after him. “Don’t go to these places” says Amos. “Leave them!”
How, then, are people to seek Yahweh if they are to leave their religious institutions? This would be like a modern day prophet calling for America to return to Jesus while advocating in the same breath that we need close down all the churches.
Last week, we observed that the basic problem in Israel was not that there were all kinds of evil people running around seeking the best way to crush the poor. Israel was full of hard-working, good-hearted, primarily generous-spirited people. The evil that afflicted the country was more systemic than personal. The problem with systems is that nearly every link in the chain can be completely innocuous and raise no eyebrows, yet the effect of the system as a whole can be anything but innocuous. Unless you step back to see the forest for the trees, you can be completely blind to the evil you are a part of producing.
In Amos’ day, so many people were benefitting from the arrangement that there was little incentive to examine the system from a “big picture” perspective, much less challenge it. According to Amos, if you wanted to find Yahweh and live, you were called not only to step back and acknowledge the damage being done, but also to change the system fundamentally. The place to change the system was not the Temple. The Temple had long ago become simply a tool of the system. You may recall that when Amaziah, the priest of the Temple of Bethel, told Amos to go back to where he came from and never return, he justified his demand by stating that Bethel was “the king’s sanctuary, and the temple of the kingdom.” (Amos 7:13) Amos had the “funny” idea that it was God’s.
III. The Gate
No, if you were to change the system, you had to go to the heart of where the system was being most heavily supported yet most vulnerable. God called the people to “Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate.”
What is this “gate” God speaks of? Here is a typical Israelite “gate.” This photo is of the gate of the ancient city of Dan, the northernmost city of 8th C Israel. The city gate is where court was held. To the left is where there was once a large seat for the “mayor” of the city. The city elders sat to the right. In the book of Ruth, there’s a story of a court proceeding in “the gate” of Bethlehem. Boaz sought to purchase property from one of his kinsmen. They struck a deal in the presence of the mayor and elders and traded sandals as a sign of their legal agreement. You may recall from the first week of this series that Amos accuses Israel of selling the poor for “the going rate” and the righteous “for sandals.” It was Amos’ way of saying, “You are exploiting the poor and feeling no shame because you are doing it all legally.
According to Amos, if you want to find Yahweh, don’t go to the Temple. Go to the courthouse. Change the laws, and the political and economic system can no longer function to produce evil.
IV. Leaving Liberalism and Conservatism Behind
In our day, this message would fit in quite well with the message of liberal Christianity. Christian liberals have long recognized the demonic power that systems are capable of producing and maintaining. It is not uncommon, therefore, to hear liberal Christians sound a bit like Amos: “Don’t waste your time going to church. Jesus isn’t in church. He’s with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Even the Nazis went to church! So did those who supported apartheid in South Africa! What we need is to change the political and economic system. We need to fight for justice!” Yet the resemblance between liberal Christianity and Amos begins and stops here.
Yes, Amos does advocate doing justice rather than going to Temple. Yet to conclude that Amos didn’t care about religion would be a tremendous mistake. We must remember that in order for Amos’ message to have any power at all in his day, people first needed to agree that “seeking Yahweh” was their number one priority. Amos’ whole message rests on the assumption that people take their religion seriously. The liberal Christian message these days doesn’t tend to do this. Liberals tend to assume that the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and corporate worship are unimportant compared to the “weightier” matters of social justice. They may give lip-service to these disciplines, but it rarely goes deeper than that. Personal relationship with God has been replaced by corporate relationship. It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are doing good by working for justice.
Liberal Christians were dead right when they recognized that “loving your neighbor as yourself” lies at the heart of our commitment as Christians, and that loving our neighbor means fighting the systemic evil that afflicts those who are most vulnerable. But they misjudged entirely the power of the system itself. Systems take decades of sustained work to change. You can work extremely hard and see very little actual effect for your work. The only thing that truly sustains that kind of work over the long haul is when your soul is connected to it – not simply your “good intentions.”
On the other end of the theological swimming pool, Christian fundamentalism has seen its own share of problems. Fundamentalist Christians are dead right when they recognize that loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength is our highest priority as human beings and the surest way for a Christian to make authentic change. Yet by emphasizing personal faith and individual piety above all else, fundamentalists have been slow to recognize the systemic nature of evil. Evil thrives when the work of “good” Christians provides solid links in the chain of an unjust system. Fundamentalists can get so fixated on loving God that they forget to love their neighbor as themselves (unless they are trying to convert their neighbor!).
It is always dangerous to make broad generalizations like these, of course, because there are invariably significant exceptions. It is nevertheless true that, in actual practice, a fundamentalist Christian is 50 times more likely to attend prayer retreats, Bible studies, and worship services than a liberal Christian. And a liberal Christian is 50 times more likely to be found campaigning for social justice liberal Christian is 50 times more likely to be found campaigning for social justice or equal rights. That’s because one group sees evil as primarily personal, while the other sees it as primarily systemic.
V. What Would Jesus Do (and Not Do)?
Jesus said that the most important commandment is to ”love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” That’s the message of fundamentalist Christianity. Yet Jesus also said there is another commandment that is just as important: to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the message of liberal Christianity.
As long as these two messages are kept separate, no real change takes place. The “Three Great Loves” – God, Neighbor, Self – are meant to go together. Jesus never said that a satisfactory alternative is “Two outta three ain’t bad.”
Despite the fact that many Christians these days have stopped acting like Christians by disconnecting one side of the Great Commandment from the other, I am cautiously hopeful. These days, Christianity is shifting at its very foundation. For years, people have been leaving the liberal Church in droves, and they are now leaving fundamentalist churches just as quickly. Yet from the ash heap of liberal and conservative Christianity, a new Convergence is taking place.
Those who have left their native traditions, who have been out “wandering in the wilderness” for years, are beginning to find one another. When they join together on their journey of faith, both sides of Jesus’ message come together. Former fundamentalists and evangelicals may have left their native traditions, but they still understand the importance of “loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Thus, they continue to value the importance of a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, maintained by basic disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and corporate worship. Former liberals may have left their native traditions, but they still recognize that unless you are actively loving your neighbor as yourself and working for systemic change (not just personal), all religion is bankrupt in God’s eyes.
This is why I have great hope for churches that are embracing and reflecting this Convergence energy. We are still living our way into uncharted territory, exploring ways of “being church” where there are no clear models for just how to do this, but we are increasingly committed to the journey itself. Day by day, month by month, year by year, we are discovering what it really means to “seek God and live.”
Am I just a lone dreamer? Will the converging streams of refugees from Christian fundamentalism and liberalism reconnect Christianity with its soul – with loving God, neighbor, and self – in a such a way that the world benefits once again from Christians who act like Christians? Only time will tell. But of one thing I am absolutely convinced: Our society – and our world – is facing greater challenges than it has faced in some time, if ever. Yet if you look back on history, you find that with every challenge, new energy arises to meet those challenges. It is nothing less than the energy of the Holy Spirit – working not only among Christians, but in people of all the major faiths. Among Christians, the Holy Spirit is working to remind us of what it means to be Christian, whether you call this phenomenon Convergence or any other name. History shows that when Christians remember what this means, good things happen. Justice happens. Righteousness happens. Science flourishes. Healing happens. Equality becomes more than a theory.
So without question, God is calling upon God’s churches to call its people home. God is even calling some churches to lead the way. Is one of these churches your church? The answer is not simply in God’s hands, but in yours.