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Essays, Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Amos 7:7-15

One of the reasons why Amos made people squirm in his day and why Belhar irritates us in our own is because those of us used to being in charge have little practice in and less patience for listening to people whom we deem to be our inferiors.

This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.

In this era of the burgeoning need for creative employment of clergy, we can look back at the prophet Amos as perhaps the first instance of bivocational ministry. A generation ago, Robert R. Wilson gave us the enormously helpful insight which distinguished between insider prophets attached to the royal court and outsider prophets who lack clear access to public power, the latter of which Amos was the chief Biblical exemplar. We know from other societies of the Ancient Near East that prophecy was a highly esteemed profession, one in which the government took great interest, and the biblical portrayal of prophets like First Isaiah and Jeremiah clearly demonstrate this as well. Insider prophets were advisors to the king, whose value is intimated in the synonym for prophet, which is “seer,” used in this week’s lectionary passage in 7:12 The seer is supposed to discern what is coming around the corner, either 1) to advise that good-fortune lies ahead, 2) to determine propitious moments for action, such as going to war, or 3) to warn the king and court so that evasive action might be taken in the case of impending disaster. Amos is an outsider prophet and so his word of coming judgment is received by the religious establishment, not as the advice of an expert, but with a mixture of disbelief and consternation. The insiders question his motives, thinking first that he may be in it for the money (7:12), but want him to cease and desist whatever his motivation, for such talk as Amos brings, of destruction and exile, is never what the establishment wants said of it in the streets.

Amos’ outsider status was further solidified by two other important markers. For one thing, his status as a “lay” prophet also distinguished him from the priestly elites, who are seen here managing the shrine at Beth-El, one of holiest sites in the biblical story. At least it used to be, before the arrival of the present crop of compromised clergy. Max Weber’s distinction between prophetic and priestly religious figures is useful here, for it demonstrates the gap, even in a common tradition like that shared by Amos and his northern counterparts, between settled ritually based piety, represented by Amaziah, and a charismatic, preaching-based piety, represented by Amos. This distinction is further exacerbated by the fact that he is from Judah, prophesying in another country, Israel, thus making him the first biblical missionary, but also giving more reason for antagonism among his hearers.

The most important line in the passage, the unguarded admission by the priest to the king, that “the land cannot bear all his words,” demonstrates the asymmetry between Amos’ status as a “nobody” in comparison to the fear and dread which falls upon those who hear his oracle. Even the land itself can’t bear it, which is reminiscent of the Levitical warning that Israel would be puked out of the land if it neglected holiness. In the case of Amos it is the refusal to do justice that is the offense, not purity codes, but the nauseous response of the land is the same, the land being, not a passive object, but a fully alive partner with a vested interest in the maintenance of righteousness.

I spent the last week in Pittsburgh at the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly, at which I was assigned to the Committee on Confessions. Last year, the PCUSA voted in its 173 presbyteries on whether to add the Confession of Belhar to its Book of Confessions. It required a supermajority of 116 for approval, but only received 108, so it was brought back again this year once again in order to begin anew the arduous six-year process of adding another question. We listened to hours of presentations and comment from all quarters, and although I had heard much of this in the presbyteries in 2011 when it was debated the first time, it was still amazing to listen to the convoluted reasoning as to why Belhar should not be affirmed as one of our confessions. Like Amos, Belhar is the voice of outsiders reminding the elites in charge about the core of their common faith. Belhar was written in 1986 by black and colored (the legal terms at the time) Reformed South Africans to their white Reformed brothers and sisters. At the height of apartheid, the mother church was chastised by the daughter for ignoring the unity of the Body of Christ. As it was with Amos, however, the intended audience for Belhar ignored it and the system it represented was ultimately swept aside by history.

Amos is a model for prophetic action at the margins, one that may lack adequate funding or proper education, but which possesses what society needs most, which is the truth. But this text also provides a model of what to do when one is confronted with the truth coming from an unlikely quarter, or perhaps what NOT to do. One of the things my committee was repeatedly reminded of in considering the adoption of Belhar was that 65% of the members of the Reformed theological tradition, the children of Calvin, now resides in the Global South. One of the reasons why Amos made people squirm in his day and why Behar irritates us in our own is because those of us used to being in charge have little practice in and less patience for listening to people whom we deem to be our inferiors. Yet the witness of scripture is replete with examples of God’s delight in using such “jars of clay” to carry the truth to the smart and strong. As the center of gravity shifts in global Christianity, over the next generation, the basic storyline of a marginal prophet carrying the word of God to the corridors of ecclesiastical, economic and political power will likely be a recurring theme. The thoughtful European or North American pastor will be preparing his or her congregation for that almost certain eventuality, helping them to gird themselves for a new season of listening for God’s word, rather than always being the one who declares it.

Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology and a member of the national committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.  He is also the Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.

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