I. “You Only Have I Known …”
In the 8th C BCE, Israel experienced an extended period of peace and economic prosperity. The middle class became wealthy, and the wealthy became super wealthy. It was a time full of optimism and hope. To draw on an analogy from last week, it was like a banquet had been laid out before Israel, more plentiful than any banquet they had ever seen. They ate, drank, and made merry, assuming it would go on forever. Yet in the middle of their merrymaking, the prophet Amos entered the banquet hall and ruined the party. The heart of his message is encapsulated like a fly in amber in Amos 3:2. Speaking on God’s behalf, Amos cries out, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you.”
The first half of Amos’ uncomfortable message would have been familiar and inviting to his audience. To say “You only have I known” was the equivalent to saying, “You only have I chosen.” Amos was employing classic election language – invoking Israel’s deeply rooted belief that God had uniquely set Israel apart as God’s treasured possession – the apple of God’s eye. When the crowd heard a line like “You only have I known of all the families of the earth …” they were used hearing that line completed with something like, “… therefore I will bless you” or “… therefore I will lift you up as on eagle’s wings high above the other nations.” Instead, Amos claimed that God’s special election of Israel has warranted special punishment.
What went wrong? And what can we learn from what went wrong, if anything? The fact that Amos’ writings were preserved and handed down to us by the very community whose party was disrupted by him suggests they felt that future generations could learn from their mistakes. Perhaps, even, they could avoid them.
We in America may have special reason to study the message of Amos, not simply because of certain parallels between his day and our own, but because America has traditionally understood itself as a “New Israel,” specially set apart by God. Regardless of whether you believe that America truly is a “New Israel,” the vision is so deeply a part of our story as Americans that it is part of our cultural genetic structure. Like our DNA, it may very well exercise greater influence over us than we ever imagine. In other words, as uncomfortable as the book of Amos is to read or study, it would be wise to listen carefully to his message. But first, let’s consider our American story.
II. A “City On a Hill”
One of the early proponents of America (or early American colonies) playing a special role in God’s vision for the world was John Winthrop. Winthrop was a wealthy English lawyer who led the first major wave of migrants from England to the New World in 1630. As the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 12 of its first 20 years, his writings and vision guided the development of colonial New England. In an early sermon in which Winthrop laid out his vision for the colonies, he described their mission as building a “city upon a hill” – a society that God had ordained to be set apart from others. Through its many special blessings, their society would serve as a shining light and beacon of hope to all nations. This vision influenced not only the government and religion of the Massachusetts Bay Colony but neighboring colonies as well. In fact, it would play a formative role in the emerging vision of America itself.
Winthrop’s vision of a society set apart and specially blessed by God was not original to him, of course. It came straight from the pages of scripture. Says Deuteronomy 7, for instance:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations …
This biblical understanding was taken into Winthrop’s vision of America and continues to influence us today. In the last century, presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan cited Winthrop as important influences. Many of us grew up under the assumption that America is a “New Israel,” enjoying “most favored nation status” in God’s eyes. Whether or not this vision is true to reality lies outside the purview of this writing. Yet my guess is this: that when it comes to divine favor, God is a bit like God is depicted in The Shack – a God who can look any of us straight in the eye and say with complete honesty: “I am especially fond of you.” All of us are chosen by God. We as individuals, and communities, and as nations, all have a special gift, mission and purpose that uniquely suits us to carrying out the work of doing “on earth as it is in heaven.”
To me, the danger for any nation is not that it sees itself as unique or special in some way. The danger comes when a nation forgets the responsibilities that come with blessing. The greater the gift, the greater responsibility. As Jesus himself insisted, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)
Jesus’ observation is as true for communities and nations as it is for individuals. John Winthrop knew this well. Winthrop may have considered the New World to be a City on a Hill, but his vision was not simply about special blessing. Here’s how Winthrop wrote about the special responsibilities that the City upon a Hill would have to its sisters and brothers (in modern English):
For this end we must be knit together. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give up our superfluities to supply others’ necessities …We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together … So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and … make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of later plantations, “May the Lord make it like that of New England.” … But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey [God], but shall be seduced and worship other Gods – our pleasures, and profits – and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good Land though we pass over this vast Sea to possess it.
Today we may not have a mechanistic understanding of blessing and curse. We don’t hold a view that God is in the heavens with a giant scoreboard, assigning a blessing or a curse for every action we make. (Actually, the ancients never held this rigid view either.) But many of us do understand that when we fail to take our responsibilities seriously, the blessings simply aren’t sustainable, no matter how much we believe we are entitled to them.
III. A Few Good Men (and Women)
To draw a little further on our banquet analogy from last week, we in America are standing in the midst of the most sizable banquet ever to exist in human history. We enjoy a far greater array of blessings and powerful opportunities than ever before. Heck, we can even watch videos on YouTube 30,000 feet these days on commercial planes … and replace limbs and organs with new ones when they fail. But the moment we assume that we are uniquely entitled to this veritable smorgasbord of opportunities is the moment we begin to lose them altogether.
Do you remember the film A Few Good Men? Released in1992, the film explored the relationship between blessing and responsibility in America. Jack Nicholson plays the role of Col. Nathan Jessep, commander of the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Jessep has made the mistake of ordering some Marines in his charge to illegally and violently haze a fellow Marine who isn’t passing muster. Due to an undiagnosed heart condition, the Marine dies from the hazing and the cover up begins. Eventually, Jessep must stand trial as a result.
At the climax of the trial, Col. Jessup is subjected to heavy questioning by a brash young lawyer, Daniel Kaffee – played by Tom Cruise (Watch the scene here). When Kaffee puts the pressure on, demanding straight answers from Jessep about his involvement in ordering the illegal hazing, Jessep explodes in righteous indignation:
JESSEP You want answers?
KAFFEE I think I’m entitled to them.
JESSEP You want answers?
KAFFEE I want the truth.
JESSEP You can’t handle the truth!
(The courtroom is silent)
JESSEP (continuing) Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? Lt. Weinberg? [Kaffee’s assistant] I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago [the man who died] and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me there. We use words like Honor. Code. Loyalty. We use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I’d prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to.
In Col. Jessup’s eyes, Kaffee is like a spoiled brat who is happy to feast at America’s banquet table of blessing yet who has no concept of the responsibilities that come with blessing. In his estimation, Kaffee is happy to skim the cream off the milk but wants nothing to do with milking the cows or maintaining the pastures. He doesn’t like dirty work, so he’s shirking his duties. He’s so thoroughly spoiled that he even looks down upon those who are, in fact, committed to doing the dirty work that ensures and protects the blessings he feels he’s entitled to.
Can’t you feel the righteous anger of Col. Jessep in your gut? If so, you know precisely the anger that Amos claims God had for ancient Israel – God’s own people – in the 8th Century. (Can you imagine the reaction of the banquet goers?) Given the many parallels with our day, Amos would likely claim that God’s attitude toward us in America is like that of Col. Jessep toward the young, entitled attorney.
Oh, didn’t you pick up on the parallel between the God of Amos and Col. Jessep? It’s not obvious because Jessep’s understanding of the hard, dirty work that protects social order and secures its blessings is not the same as God’s understanding. According to Jessep, the dirty work is picking up a gun and holding a line against an enemy that seeks to destroy us. Honor and Loyalty are related to a Code that insists that our duty is to do whatever is necessary to hold onto and defend the privileges of our City on a Hill against any and all threats.
In the book of Amos, God seems every bit as concerned with Honor, Code, and Loyalty as Col. Jessep is, but the kind of dirty work that God demands be done is nothing like Col. Jessep’s. God insists not picking up a weapon to defend Israel’s economic boom-time prosperity. Ensuring Israel’s physical protection and survival isn’t high on God’s priority list in Amos. In fact, in Amos, God is the biggest threat to their survival!
The dirty work that God commands of Israel is to protect the poor and vulnerable of society – to ensure that each person who honestly desires it may come and eat at the banquet table. In ancient Israel, the middle class and wealthy had become like spoiled children, feeling entitled to feasting at the greatest banquet Israel had ever experienced without attending to God’s most basic, bedrock Code of Honor and Loyalty: to protect and defend the most vulnerable in society; “to let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:25) If you want to know what God of Amos thinks of a society that blames the poor and vulnerable for their plight without distinction and fails to address the systemic evils that keep them that way, just look at Daniel Kaffee through the eyes of Col. Jessup and multiply the anger by a thousand times.
Of course, if you’re familiar with the film, you also know that Col. Jessep has his own problems. Similarly, this view of God that Amos conveys has problems as well. As Christians, we read scripture through the lens of Jesus. It colors our vision in a particular way, revealing aspects of God’s nature and character that may not be apparent apart from the view that Jesus provides.
In response to our assumption that the elect of God are entitled to the greatest banquet that the world has to offer, we find in Jesus someone who said that if we want to become great in God’s eyes, we must serve others, not be served by them. In response to our assumption that those whom God considers special are entitled to take the highest place in society, Jesus took the lowest place. And in response to our insatiable desire to grab everything within our reach at the table of plenty and desire more besides, Jesus modeled what it is like to live into our fullest humanity by providing table fellowship to those excluded from that very table. And, most importantly for all of us, in response to those “chosen people of God” who did not fulfill God’s most basic requirements to love their neighbor as themselves, God in Jesus went to the Cross. God broke God’s own body and shed God’s own blood – not for the righteous, but for all of us.
The truth that we can’t handle is that when it comes to defending the rights and privileges we feel we are entitled to as God’s “chosen people,” we prefer Jessup to Jesus. We want someone who will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the party goes on, the banquet continues, and our particularly high estimation of ourselves in relation to others goes unchallenged. But when it comes to defending the actual values God displays throughout scripture – values that define Honor, Code, and Loyalty in terms of defending and protecting the poor and vulnerable of society and making a place at the table for all – we hope and pray that God is not remotely like Jessup.
The God revealed in Jesus is not Colonel Jessup projected onto the heavens. God in Jesus went to the Cross for Colonel Jessup. And for Daniel Kaffee. And for you. And for me. God’s love has been poured out for all. The responsibility that comes with this blessing is to take up our own Crosses and follow. The route to new life is not through conquering our enemies, but through surrendering to a love that is beyond our wildest imagination to conceive and loving our neighbor as we have been loved.
In this respect, John Winthrop knew quite well the Code we are to Honor to which God commands our Loyalty:
For this end we must be knit together. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give up our superfluities to supply others’ necessities … We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together … So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.