I. The Plumb Line
Our focus this week in Amos (Amos 7:7-13) concerns the use of a particular tool that isn’t commonly used these days: a plumb line. When we were discussing the passage in the Darkwood Brew planning team meeting this week, someone asked if a plumb line was the chalk-covered string you hold tight between two points and snap to create a perfectly straight blue line. That’s a chalk line. A plumb line is a cord with a weight attached to the end (called a plumb bob). You use it not only to make sure that what you’re building is straight but that it’s vertical with respect to the center of gravity.
In ancient times, they used plumb lines for building walls. This was especially important because building materials tended to be crude and heavy. If a wall made of mud brick or stones wasn’t perfectly vertical, gravity would eventually do its work. Leaning walls tended to fall. And kill people.
The seventh chapter of Amos contains a vision in which Amos sees God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in God’s hand. God asks Amos a rather obvious question: “What do you see?” Amos responds, “A plumb line.” God then says, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel … the high places of Isaac shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam [king of Israel] with the sword.”
Apparently, God has been playing the role of a divine building inspector, checking the craftsmanship of Israel’s walls and finding it to be shoddy. Dangerous even. So dangerous that the walls can’t simply be given extra reinforcement or repaired. They’ll have to come down completely and be rebuilt.
II. The System
Of course Amos’ vision isn’t about literal walls. The vision concerns systemic evil in Israelite society that God isn’t very happy to find. Systemic evil is far more insidious than personal sin because it creates a complex system in which each small activity within the system can seem perfectly right, even virtuous, but the overall output of the system is evil. One of the greatest problems with systemic evil is that each participant in the entire chain of activities that produce this evil output feels that the contribution that he or she is making as an individual is good and right.
This kind of evil is what produced Nazi Germany. For the most part, the evil it created worked through perfectly legal means and public policies. The process that produced the horrific gas chambers of German concentration camps, for instance, involved a lot of very good, hard-working people who manufactured shower nozzles, laid tile, erected walls, paid bills, supervised work, and so forth. Jews were brought to concentration camps on trains and in trucks, sent there through legal, public policies. Seen from an individual perspective, no one except for those who actually put the Jews in the gas chambers and turned on the gas was doing anything wrong. Yet each person in the chain played a critical role in producing a holocaust.
The great moral pitfall of systemic evil is that as long as no one is stepping back and taking in the Big Picture, each individual person within the system feels perfectly just and righteous about what they’re doing. Unless they pull back and see the “big picture,” they will never wrestle with their conscience or lose a wink of sleep at night over the horrors they’re creating. And if people finally do wake up and view the whole, they can always eschew any sense of personal responsibility claiming, “the system made me do it,” as if they are independent of “the system.”
III. The Vision
Nearly all the prophets of ancient Israel were “big picture” people. Literally “big picture” people, as in they talk about receiving visions from God. These days we talk a lot about vision. Companies create vision statements. Churches create vision statements. Individuals create personal vision statements. We’re chock full of vision! Yet our understanding of “vision” and that of the prophets was quite different. What we mean when we talk of vision is we’ve sat around in a committee drinking far too much coffee and eating far too many donuts as we came up with a statement concerning our “vision” of what we want to do.
Any run-of-the-mill Israelite would have called us crazy. Visions come from God, not people. You can’t just sit around in a committee meeting and ask, “What do we want to do together” to come up with a vision. In their view, that would be like building a wall without a plumb line – without any vertical reference point. If you get lucky, your wall might stand. But what looks straight to you might actually lean and collapse. You can hurt people by coming up with your own vision.
In their understanding, our role as humans is not to create a vision but to discern one. Discernment has to do with noticing – noticing what God is already up to in the world and giving voice to it. The ancient prophets were seen as particularly good at noticing, and voicing, God’s vision for society. They didn’t watch television. They weren’t rushing from meeting to meeting. They weren’t running kids to soccer camp before hitting the gym and getting to the office. They took long walks in the wilderness. They meditated, prayed, reflected. They moved with the rhythms of the earth, wind and rain. Most of all, they reached out on a soul level to God, surrendering themselves into whatever God might show them no matter how much it rocked their preconceived notions of what they might see. And they developed myriad ways of testing their visions, sifting out what truly identified the vertical dimension of God from mere figments of their imagination or egos.
IV. The Rule of Love
The prophets weren’t perfect, of course. As human beings, their egos could get in the way. Sometimes they could even “absolutize their own hysteria” as Ann Lamott says most of us do once in awhile. So when we read the prophets, we have to apply the same filter we should be applying anywhere in scripture: Augustine’s Rule of Love. Do you remember the rule of love? We should all tattoo it somewhere, really. To paraphrase: “If any interpretation of Scripture contradicts Jesus’ basic commandment to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength [known in Judaism as The Shema], and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then the interpretation – or the Scripture itself – is to be held suspect.”
Often when I read the book of Amos, I’m tempted to invoke the Rule of Love to throw out something Amos has said. I’m thinking specifically of those wrathful parts, like in our passage today where God is promising that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (Amos 7:9)
Yet I’ve been using the Rule of Love for many, many years. In that time I’ve found that more often than not it’s my interpretation that needs to be held suspect, not the scripture itself. Case in point: Amos’ message of doom and gloom.
The anger of God of Amos is directed at the system more than the individuals. Yet it does seem clear that Amos’ goal was to awaken individuals to critical roles they were playing within the system. Amos sees God standing with a plumb line – which in the Old Testament represents the standard of God’s “justice and righteousness” and finds the whole system has produced walls that are leaning dangerously and even toppling over on people. The whole building needs to be taken down and rebuilt.
We hear Amos’ words of violence and cringe. We imagine, or would like to think that Amos is referring only to a primitive, judgmental God of anger and wrath in contrast of our Christian God who “loves us beyond our wildest imagination.” If this is your feeling, you may want to consider this: If an entire system is crushing huge numbers of those God “loves beyond their wildest imagination,” is it loving to sit on the sidelines and watch it happen? And what if that system shows no signs of abating because each of the individual parts of that system are not looking at the whole but their own individual role in it and thus feel absolutely no moral obligation to change what they are doing?
V. The “Great Awakening”
Amos comes to northern Israel to preach a fiery message of doom and gloom on a fundamentally unjust system, and does so a full forty years before the whole system collapses. In other words, Amos’ words did not announce what God was already doing. Amos was warning Israel well enough ahead of time that they could change. Systemic change tends to take a long time to effect. God was giving them a long time to work it out.
In the end, they did not work it out. They kept sleeping as the system kept churning. What was lulling the people to sleep in this setting were two things primarily:
First, the tremendous prosperity they were experiencing kept them sleeping. We’re all susceptible to it. When the sun starts shining on your life for more than ten minutes, you tend to think that whatever you are doing, you are doing right. You’ve finally figured out what life is about and how to get on top of it. You tend to overestimate your abilities and underestimate your weaknesses. And you become highly change averse. Change of any sort threatens to undo that positive juju you think you are experiencing. If you were wearing a red bandana then your team pulled up from behind and won the game, will you choose the red bandana or the green one next time around? The problem Israel was having was that their “red bandana” was produced through “sweat shops.” It was their “green bandana” that was produced through “fair trade.”
There’s a curious irony here. When society experiences a large influx of wealth, it is in the best possible position to eliminate systemic poverty. Yet when such an influx occurs, that society becomes the most conservative. I don’t mean it necessarily becomes politically conservative like we mean it today. By conservative, I mean it becomes change averse. It doesn’t want to change a thing, lest the flow of wealth stop. Of course, the flow of wealth always stops. Often it collapses. Then society has the highest motivation to change the system but the least ability to do it!
The second factor that kept Israel from seeing the danger it was in is found in the second half of our passage for the day. To me, it’s the saddest passage in all of Amos. The high priest, Amaziah, of the temple at Bethel – arguably the most important sanctuary in all of northern Israel – hears Amos’ message and takes offense. He lashes out, “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 the temple of the kingdom.”
Who’s sanctuary is it? The king’s sanctuary? Amos apparently assumed it was God’s sanctuary. And what kingdom does the temple serve? The kingdom of Israel? Amos apparently felt it was God’s Kingdom.
In times of economic prosperity, it is a natural impulse for people to assume that God is blessing their every action. And it is just as natural for people to believe that God approves of the political leadership. If the people don’t believe this naturally, the political leadership itself is more than happy to take on the mantle of religion to help people make the connection clear: “God is blessing you, O people, because God loves me, the king.” Those religious leaders who buy into the message are blessed by the king. Those that don’t? Well, let’s just say that Amos faired fairly well.
Pretty soon, any offense to the State is presumed to be an affront to God. Patriotism is equated with piety, and piety with patriotism. What’s particularly disturbing about the equation of piety with patriotism is this: If systemic evil is being produced in a society, where all kinds of perfectly good people are doing perfectly good and legal things that, as a whole, produce great evil, what do you suppose is the main mechanism of the system? The state. The state makes and enforces the laws. The state decides and maintains the policies. If the vision of religion is no higher than that of the state then who has their eyes on the “big picture” – God’s plumb line of justice and righteousness?
At Darkwood Brew, we regularly make reference to the Phoenix Affirmations – those twelve points of agreement that progressive clergy, laypeople, and theologians from across denominational lines and around the country identified fundamental to their faith. Affirmation 7 reads this way: “Christian love of neighbor includes preserving religious freedom and the church’s ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of church and state.
As someone who sat around the table with many of these folks as the Phoenix Affirmations was going through its 27 major and minor revisions, I thought I would close by relating a couple interesting pieces of background to this particular affirmation. For one thing, it was the very first of the 12 principles to be identified and it hardly changed throughout the revision process. That may give you an indication of the importance ascribed to it and the level of agreement it found. Second, this Affirmation was inspired primarily by two sources: (a) It was inspired by the Barmen Declaration, which was a statement of opposition to the Nazis made in 1934 by some of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century. One of the Barmen Declaration’s six main points was declaring its resolute resistance to the commingling of church and state; (b) It was inspired by the prophet Amos. The clergy and laypeople sitting around the table in 2004 and 2005 saw clearly that we are not so different than they were in Amos’ day – that good and honest and upright people are capable of supporting systems that crumble like leaning walls when the church gives up its role of discerning where God is holding the plumb line and speaking about what they see.