If there is any day on our civic calendar that approximates the religious ritual of atonement it would have to be the first Tuesday in November. While historians are fairly resolved on the fact that the legacy of our current president will be grim – perhaps the worst ever, according to an editorial by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof -- there is one bright spot that accompanies the conclusion of his term. George W. Bush has almost single-handedly transformed the nation's enthusiasm for voting from a ho-hum right to a secular sacrament. Already it appears that record numbers will turn out at the polls this week, and in nearly twenty years of teaching I have never seen college students so motivated to let their voices be heard. Some are concerned about the economy, some about the war, but more than ever there are those who are drawn to the one question that consumed the prophet Amos: When will we see justice?
I am currently teaching an introductory course in the Hebrew Bible and I have to say the timing this year is perfect: on Monday and Wednesday of this week we will be considering the Tekoan dresser of sycamores, the outsider and novice – "I am no prophet's son" (Amos 7:14) – who made his away into the shrine at Bethel to tell the priest, Amaziah, what exactly was on God's heart and mind. It is striking, I think, just how similar the social and economic conditions of Amos's day are to those that we have endured over the last eight or so years, both in the United States and around the world.
After breaking away from the southern Kingdom of Judah in 922 BCE, the kings of Israel made a quick study in becoming the kinds of rulers their predecessors had so despised in Jerusalem. The names Ahab and Jezebel will forever live in infamy as symbolic of the material excesses that marked the ninth century, and by the middle of the eighth century their apostasy would be recapitulated in the rule of Jeroboam II. At that time, Israelites were losing their land in droves and being sold into slavery. Wealth was becoming concentrated in the hands of an undeserving few while the many – namely, the Am ha' Aretz living outside of Samaria – were left with "cleanness of teeth," as the prophet describes it. Sound familiar? If a Bible teacher cannot draw some parallels between these socio-economic travesties and those of our own day, then maybe he or she should consider selling insurance.
Of course, Amos is not the cheeriest of prophets. One has to look hard and long to find any inkling of hope in his message (even his concluding words in 9:11-15 are considered to be a scribal gloss). His understanding of the pathos of Yahweh is closer to the wrath that we encounter in the early chapters of Genesis than to the faithful but guarded optimism we find later in Micah or Isaiah. To those whose expectation of the Day of the Lord included images of triumph and victory over Israel's enemies, Amos offers a disappointing insight into the way it's really going to be. With the Assyrian threat mounting to the northeast, he puts two and two together and arrives at a clear understanding of the imminent fate of the northern kingdom:
Alas for you 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 went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the Day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)
Amos is acutely aware of Yahweh's anguish in the face of the people's rote and therefore meaningless religious rituals. And what is most distressing is the way in which the Israelites assume that this is all that God truly requires of them: pomp and circumstance to the exclusion of covenant responsibility for the poor and marginalized. To this there seems to be only one solution: Let justice (mizpah) roll down like waters, and righteousness (tzedikah) like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 8:24).
I know what Amos has in mind here. Having lived in the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee, I have a very clear sense of what the prophet must have encountered among the wadis of his homeland on those occasions when the spring rains became less of a blessing than a burden to the land.
For years the people of Appalachia have experienced the kinds of social and economic conditions that so piqued the indignation of the shepherd from Tekoa. For much of the past century many of them were forced to suffer the ignominy of indentured servitude to the coal companies of the northeast. Now, with much of the "black gold" gone, the hollers and hills are being cleared indiscriminately of their valuable timber. With the mountains devoid of vegetation, there is little left on the slopes to absorb the rains when they come, so in effect the landscape becomes one huge funnel. The waters roar through the stream beds like a runaway train, taking with them whatever is unfortunate enough to be in their path.
Amos's allusion to the torrent of justice and righteousness was a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr., and is even inscribed on a monument outside the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The unthreatening waters that are usually associated with this reference, however, are a far cry from the flood of Noahic proportions that Amos called down upon the nation of Israel. In his mind, the tumult of chaos would soon be released on the wayward people of God, and it was not clear from his proclamation whether anyone, or anything, would remain in its wake.
I have to say that over the last eight years I have grown a little weary of this frontier brand of justice. And though I do not doubt that Amos believed God would mete out righteousness in this way, my reading of the subsequent prophets, as well as the inspiration I take from the life of Jesus, tells me simply that Amos was wrong about how God works in the world. There are many who still want to claim that this is how justice should be established on this planet – with "shock and awe diplomacy" and a "bring 'em on" approach to international relations – but I would like to think that there is by now a majority in the United States who have come to realize the futility of all this bravado. So let the cowboy ride off into the sunset; it is time for a change.
But what is this change going to look like? What should it look like?
This past Sunday was a picture-perfect fall day in Nebraska so I had a hard time not hopping on my bike and taking to the trails. I'm glad I finally gave in to temptation, because along the way I was inspired by the easily overlooked wisdom of my place. In the midst of so much seasonal transformation, I was moved to imagine a better way for justice to be unleashed upon the world.
As I observed the trees and plants around me – all well past their prime and just barely hanging on to the remnants of summer's vitality – my eyes were drawn to what first appeared to be a blemish on the landscape: little pieces of white fuzz everywhere, as if someone's down jacket had burst open somewhere upwind from me. But on closer inspection I realized that what I was seeing floating in the air, caught on the branches of trees, and strewn about so liberally on the dying grass, were the downy-white tails of thousands of milkweed seeds. What I had originally perceived as litter now looked suddenly beautiful. I took it as a sign of simple optimism in the midst of imminent death. Chances are that only a small fraction of these fluffy little miracles will ever take root – so many sown yet so few grown. But one seed carries within itself the potential for thousands more in another season as the cycle continues, and herein lies our hope.
There's not much in the way of shock and awe in all of this, at least not in terms of how it is measured by the standards of our day. In fact, it all seems to go on unnoticed. It is inconsequential to most passersby, and certainly far from compelling. But I can think of no better metaphor for a renewed understanding of how justice and righteousness might be dispelled amidst the chaos and confusion of our present context. I am wary, of course, of taking too much stock in what the democratic process can offer us in the way of true spiritual fulfillment, but it is my hope that on November 4 the old chrysalis of a lifeless past will burst open and release a new and transforming campaign upon the "shock and awe" mentality of the business-as-usual set.
While Amos's torrents of justice might appeal to our passion for vengeance in an overly violent milieu, the way of Christ offers a bold though seemingly ludicrous alternative: a gentle revolution of justice waged in hope, one seed at a time, each carried on the down of faith by the wind of the Spirit blowing where it will. This will not be breaking news, so don't expect to see a new band of "milkweed renegades" on your local television channels. No one will be watching. No one will be keeping score. But seeds will still be sown. It will not even be clear if, when, where, or how these tiny rudiments of righteousness will take root, but when they do they will most certainly carry with them the encouraging prospect of good fruit, and a return of as much as a thousand-fold.
And this will be "shock and awe" enough for the Kingdom of God.