I don’t suppose I should be surprised when Biblical texts present intellectual challenges, but Chris Gehrz’s recent post on “rally texts” for activist Christianity makes me remember my days in seminary when a text like Amos 5 was far less ambiguous. I’ve come to think that education, whether it means to or not, always involves establishing those educated as a differentiated class (think of Plato’s guardians, U.S. Marines at boot camp, or medical school residents), and seminary is no exception to that. When I was in seminary, the distinction between those educated and those to whom we imagined ourselves sent was a difference in awareness of social justice.
Despite caricatures and abuses, I really don’t think the urge towards social justice began as a window-dressing for activism without self-awareness or for the replacement of sexual moralism with economic and environmental moralism. I’m not going to be the one to deny that both of those have happened and likely will continue, but to make the abuses identical with the good impulse is to ignore what the Social Gospel movement and other social-justice groups stand to remind me about the Bible, namely that the Old Testament and the New Testament hold forth a reality that is nothing less than a re-ordering of human relationships, a true Way that stands in contrast to the murderous and duplicitous ways of the world (to use John’s language). When Amos in today’s reading calls for mishphat and tzedakah (justice and righteousness) to flow like water, these are divine expectations that encompass interior life, economic life, political life, and all other facets of human existence. There is no absolute separation between “individual” and “community” in Biblical thought; even when the individual must stand as prophetic voice for the sake of community, the prophet does so as one part to another rather than as an “us” crowing at a “them.”
Perhaps that’s why the first several verses in today’s Old Testament reading struck me as they did: Amos begins not by congratulating those who seek “the day of the LORD” but pointing out to them that divine judgment will not allow easy escapes. You might get away from the lion of state violence, but the bear of violence delegated to the consumer public is waiting there if you’re not watching. And you might just get snake-bitten if you consider the “house” of partisan allegiance, no matter what flavor, is a place where one escapes the clutches of injustice and unrighteousness. The Day of the LORD is all gloom; nobody should presume to stand apart from “those people” when the chips are down.
Certainly I don’t want to minimize the role of Christians in doing serious political philosophy and thinking hard about the inner workings of political parties and the policies of national leaders and such. But if Amos teaches us anything, Amos teaches us that self-congratulation is always about two verses away from divine retribution.
May our eyes for justice see our own sins as well.