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Politics of Scripture

Prophetic Truth Telling as a Christian Witness

The God we meet in Amos and John demands righteousness, solidarity and justice as the foundations of faithful living. Neutrality scuppers justice. When we drift away from God, our fellow human beings and the life-giving environment, prophetic truth-telling tempered with an imagination for a different world becomes a necessity.

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; 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.” Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “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 a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Amos 7:7-15

For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:18-29

Truth speaking and pursuing justice are a dangerous vocation. You could literally lose your head. When powers and principalities are confronted with truth that contradicts how they view themselves, the immediate knee jerk reaction of the powerful is to eliminate the truth speaker, assuming that truth will be exterminated. But it couldn’t be further from reality. In the lectionary reading we encounter two prophets, Amos and John, doing what they have been called by God to do: speak truth to the power.     

Firstly, the passage from Amos (7:7-15) paints an apocalyptic picture, the high places made desolate, and sanctuaries laid to waste. The people of Israel abandoned God’s will in their religious and political establishment, due to their twisted morality and their failure to live up to God’s righteousness. Amos prophesied God’s judgement. God sets it out that the people of Israel were formed by justice and faithfulness, and when they have failed and warped their perceptions, God holds them accountable. Amos gave voice to God’s anger at the injustice meted out to the most vulnerable, imperial manipulations that victimised powerless, and religious authorities who trampled upon the defenceless. God’s patience has run out. God promises that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos stood by the high altar of the temple in Bethel to proclaim God’s judgement and to confront their transgressions spurned by privileges. In that instance Amos not only irritated Jeroboam, the king, but the high priest Amaziah as well. Amaziah interestingly turns to the king and not to God, he prefers to serve the king and not God. The religious authority legitimising imperial ambitions. Amos offers a critique of the idolatry of human power, which results in injustice and unfaithfulness. God has heard the cry of the vulnerable and will act decisively.   

Secondly, in our second text, as a precursor to Jesus’ encounters with colonial power, Mark’s Gospel (6:18-29) offers a brief narrative of John’s violent death. Although Herod considers John as a righteous and holy man, he nevertheless decides to please Herodias rather than do justice to an innocent man. John became a political threat to Herod Antipas through his subversive promise of a new political order. John not only challenged the adultery of Herod and Herodias but questioned Herod’s political expediency of his actions. Markan description of the dinner invitees by Herod clearly captures the colonial collusion of military, government, economic and religious elites. Even though Herod knows John to be a righteous man, he resists and rejects John’s message of repentance and turns his life around.  Herod, in order to please Herodias and his immediate constituencies, sends a clear message to anybody who questions his political project and authority; they will be dealt with and eliminated! The execution of John functions as a widow into the colonial world of violence, corruption and lust for power. Ched Myers commenting on the political nature of John’s killing, states:  “Mark’s account of the death of John is scarcely apolitical! A more sarcastic social caricature could not have been spun by the bitterest Galilean peasant! Yet it stands well within the biblical tradition that pits arrogant kings against truth telling prophets.”[1]

In this story, the young girl is manipulated by the powerful to save their own dignity. As is the case among many,  it is the most vulnerable who are scapegoated for the survival of the powerful. By dwelling on John’s violent death, Mark invites his readers to reflect on the butchery of innocent lives at the hand of the powerful. In John’s case death seems to have had the last word.    

The prophetic radicalism of truth speaking embodied by Amos and John assumes importance in the face of temporal colonial powers and religious authorities that stifles life, not just human but life in all its manifestation. What these two stories capture is the confrontation between political power and prophetic faith. The lust for power and domination underpins the actions of Jeroboam and Herod. However, the actions of Amos and John is a pursuit of Justice. Often power resists truth because truth sheds light on every nook and cranny. Truth exposes bad-faith actions because it is often the most vulnerable who pay the price for it.

How can we make sense of such a prophetic truth telling?  

Recently, Raoul Peck produced a hard-hitting and gut-wrenching documentary series called Exterminate all the Brutes. It is not for the faint hearted. Peck does not pay any obeisance to the empire, but rather captures its genocidal underpinnings through the words “civilisation, colonisation and extermination.” Peck visually links various historical events, starting from Columbus’ discovery of America, which led to the slaughter of indigenous people and later fueled transatlantic slave trade. Through crude and impeccable storytelling, Peck connects some of the major social events to lift the ‘horrors’ of empires. The people who set sail on Mayflower in 1620 from Plymouth in England may be known as freedom loving and hardworking ‘Pilgrim fathers’, but they certainly consolidated the position of settler colonialists, which brought destruction to the native American communities. The bottom line is that much of modern Enlightenment history is deeply shaped by the claims of white Christian European superiority and the resulting conquests. In other words, the colonial and settler-colonial tendency to inflict genocidal extermination needs to be read as part of that history. Peck summarises his broad overview of history and its contemporary relevance, “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust; what needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”

Two reflections:

Firstly, the residential school genocide of children by the church authorities in the name of cultural assimilation and integration goes far deeper into the psyche of colonisation. As we watch with shock the excavation of unmarked graves that tells the stories of atrocities committed by the catholic church to young indigenous children in Canada, it brings to light the role of churches in enabling and entrenching the worldview of settler colonialism. As the stories from the past are catching up with us, the re-education camps for Uyghur children and men are silently being played in the background, along with the alarming conditions migrant children find themselves in El Paso Texas.  We have been here before, in our living memories: the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Occupation of Palestinian territories, and too many acts of Ethnic cleansing to name. At the heart of all this human cruelty is the lust for power, control and domination, and the desperate search of millions for a better life.  All colonial tendencies cannot be left at the door of white Euro-American colonisers. Ask me, a Dalit: we don’t need white men to come, dominate and exterminate us. Our immediate colonisers were even more sophisticated in their thinking. The wretched Dalit existence is a divinely ordained graded social organisation called Caste system in the Indian subcontinent. 

Secondly, the climate catastrophe is also an outgrowth of this colonial tendency to dominate and exterminate. Colonialism instrumentalised and rationalised the extraction of natural resources that has resulted in the catastrophic environmental breakdown. Never before has humanity had such an awareness of the unfolding climate disaster. We also recognise the power to impact any change and hold back the crisis. However, the recently concluded G7 leaders’ summit in the UK responded to the climate emergency through an interestingly named ‘green revolution’ plan. This plan fails to acknowledge the extent of work that needs to be done. None of the leaders committed to shifting their economies from fossil fuel dependency or reducing greenhouse gas emissions or safeguarding carbon sinks in natural ecosystems. As the wealthiest economies, these modern-day empires did not commit themselves to restructuring either their domestic economies or international cooperation to address the climate crisis or work towards a sustainable future. Such a stance assumes significance in the UK, especially with the forthcoming Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow.

The civilising project of colonialism is deeply entrenched in our modern societies. We are not free from the colonial worldview that commodifies humanity and nature, primarily defining its value based on our consumption.[2] A consumer driven, success oriented neo-colonial economic model is stifling life out of every living being. The global political class is simply aiding this self-destructive journey. The church largely seems to have been playing the role of a bystander. The global pandemic has clearly exposed these gross socio-economic inequalities.

Part of the truth telling is systematically deconstructing the fundamental theological paradigms that continue to exhibit colonial underpinnings and perpetuate neo-colonial tendencies. Just as Amos and John demonstrate, we need to bring in hermeneutical creativity driven by justice that opens up fresh perspectives in the task of decolonising the dominant theological narratives and holding our political leaders accountable.  Truth telling is an urgent task for the church of our times in the embodied and lived experiences of people in the neo-colonial context, where the impact of colonial legacy lingers on. In the context of the climate crisis, we need to speak louder about the sacred relationship and bond between people and the environment. In the process we need to shed light on the stripping and trampling of this sacred relationship of biological connectivity, played out within the boundaries of the church. Structural colonisation may have happened in varied ways, however, the fundamental characteristics of colonisation, such as erasure, plunder and exploitation of local culture and lives are consistently manifested across the world.

These two stories of prophets confronting kings, invite us to think critically and deeply, especially its implications for Christian witness in our globalised world, where neoliberalism and necrocapitalism is still part of our social reality. As an antidote to our colonised views of God and by extension our theological perceptions, Amos and John offer a view: what God requires of us. It is important to speak the truth, The Word of God. At the heart of the prophet’s critique was a desire for a repentance that leads to renewal. What we require is a different worldview that does not operate on an extractive logic that causes violence to humanity and the environment alike. Instead, the God we meet in Amos and John demands righteousness, solidarity and justice as the foundations of faithful living. Neutrality scuppers justice. When we drift away from God, our fellow human beings and the life-giving environment, prophetic truth-telling tempered with an imagination for a different world becomes a necessity.       

I don’t want to leave you in despair. The psalm (85:8-13) from our lectionary reading gives us a glimpse into how we, the church, can embody hope and inhabit a new worldview here and now. In God’s promised future, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky”. The emphasis of the psalmist is that the reassurances of God’s favour and fullness of life Shalom are realised in community and in solidarity, when life-giving sacred relationships are restored.  

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the strongman, Orbis, 2008, p.216.

[2] Jione Havea, edt, People and Land: Decolonising Theologies, Fortress Academic: London, 2020

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