Many advocates of church growth argue that politics and controversial social justice issues should be kept out of church pulpits and classrooms because they will produce conflict and drive prospective church members away. The resulting prosperity gospel/cheap grace messages may indeed increase attendance in the short run. Praise services that resemble rock concerts more than worship services entertain attendees and may produce a feeling of spiritual euphoria, but do they also challenge participants to examine their lives, confess their sins, individual and corporate, and deepen their faith in ways that address human need in relevant and effective ways? That seems to me a question the Jesus I know would want us to ask ourselves regularly.
Those who argue that political and social issues don’t belong in church simply have not taken seriously the Hebrew prophets, the liberation history of God’s people from slavery and political oppression, nor Jesus’ own confrontation of the powers and principalities of Rome and the established religious authorities of his day.
A clergy colleague of mine told me recently about his experience at a 50th high school reunion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Asked to offer a prayer before the reunion dinner, he took the opportunity to reflect briefly on how much the world had changed since he and his classmates had graduated. Among other things he pointed out that the total population of the world has doubled in the last half century. So far so good, but then as they say he stopped preaching and went to meddling. He said, “That means there are a lot more poor people in the world that we who have been blessed with a good life and good education need to be concerned about.” While some of his classmates appreciated that observation, many others were upset and expressed anger that he had spoiled their celebration by asking them to think about unpleasant things.
I don’t know what my friend said in reply, but here’s what the Hebrew prophet Amos says God would say to them: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).
The Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat,” a much more inclusive term than what we often mean by our English use of the word “justice.” We have departments of justice, and we talk about justice being served or people getting their just desserts, all of which are about retributive justice or retribution, i.e. getting even for a wrong that has been committed against a person or society. The Judeo-Christian concept of justice, however, is also about distributive justice, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of life’s necessities to all of God’s children. Those necessities include not just material items required for survival, but basic human rights. It is both kinds of justice that human nature at its best strives for in memorable words to live by like “liberty and justice for all” in our U.S. pledge of allegiance and in Jesus’ Golden Rule encouraging us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” (Matthew 7:12).
Like all important matters, concern for justice requires balance. Many years ago I heard Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa preach a sermon on the need for a balanced approach to theology and how we do church. His advice is even more relevant 30 years later. The image he used that has stuck with me all these years was of a bird with one wing. He said that a church that emphasizes either evangelism or the social gospel to the exclusion of the other is like a bird with one wing that simply goes around in circles.
As main line churches decline in membership at a frightening rate there is understandable concern for the survival of the church. But concern must not be allowed to grow into panic that clouds judgment. Desperate people do desperate things, and far too many desperate churches and church leaders water down the gospel to the point of irrelevance in an ill-advised attempt to survive and “grow.” My mother used to say that the church is only one generation from extinction, and while there is some wisdom to that observation, Amos reminds us that God is more concerned about the quality of our faithfulness to God’s will than the quantity of church members or the size of our church buildings or budgets.
Church growth advocates will argue correctly that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the vast numbers of people in our nation and world who have not heard or have not responded to it, but it is the whole Gospel that is needed, not the one-winged bird of either extreme in the theological debate between liberal and conservatives within the church. All of us, regardless of our theological or political convictions need a personal relationship with God that casts out our fears in whatever form they take. That’s the assurance of personal salvation for all eternity offered in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the first meaning of the cross and the foundation of Christian faith upon which the rest of the household of faith must be built. But the foundation of a house is not a whole house, just a necessary first step in a much larger process.
Assurance of eternal life is such a powerful promise that the temptation to embrace that gift and stop there on our faith journey is very strong. The desire for heavenly peace alone is the false hope and danger that Amos points out for those who are eagerly awaiting “the day of the Lord.” In a classic “be careful what you wish for” warning, Amos offers these ominous words: “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.” (5:18-19).
Why such harsh condemnation? Read the earlier chapters of Amos to understand why Amos believes God has lost all patience with Israel and other nations for their disobedience to God’s will and especially their unjust treatment of the poor. Is Amos exaggerating to get Israel’s attention? Is he like an exasperated parent who loves a wayward child so much and fears for his/her well-being so deeply that emotions overflow?
Context is always critical in Scriptural interpretation. The Hebrew understanding of the nature of God in the 8th century BCE was far more legalistic and judgmental than the God of grace Jesus proclaims 800 years later. But let us not be lulled into a cheap grace sense of complacency by an overreliance on God’s mercy. I am as grateful as anyone that the God revealed in the New Testament grades on a curve, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Gospel makes very serious demands on anyone who wants to follow Jesus.
Amos warning that a just and righteous life is expected of us is not discounted by Jesus in the least. Jesus invites any disciple to “take up a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27). The cross of the resurrection is also the cross of sacrifice and service on behalf of God’s kingdom and God’s children here and now. (The examples of what this looks like in Jesus’ teachings are too numerous to mention here, but would certainly include the difficult standards of loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43, Lk. 6:27), turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39), forgiving 70 x7 (Mt. 18:22), “what you do to the least of these you do unto me. (Mt. 25:45), and if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well (Mt. 5:40).
Righteousness is the other quality demanded by God in Amos 5:24. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and all creation. That’s raising the bar very high. In fact none of us gets there. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God” (Mk. 10:18 & Romans 3:10). So if Jesus can’t even meet that standard, what hope is there for the likes of you and me? Are we asked to do the impossible? That would be an unjust request, and we do not serve an unjust God. It’s also why we all stand in the need of grace. But what it absolutely does not mean is that we throw up our hands and give up. Our own human limitations are not an excuse for ignoring the hard parts of the Gospel but a reminder that we can and must do better than we are doing when justice and righteousness are but a trickle instead of an everflowing stream.
We Americans live in the richest nation in the history of the world and in one where 10% of the people control 75% of wealth. No one but the 10% could possibly consider that just. President Kennedy once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible we make violent revolution inevitable.” We are seeing rumblings of such revolution today in the streets of Hong Kong. Students of history know about labor riots inspired by injustice in our own country in the 1890s (Google the Haymarket riot or the Pullman strike, or Coxey’s Army). Our economic history is like a roller coaster of bust and boom cycles because we fail repeatedly to learn the lessons Amos was warning us about 3000 years ago.
Someone smarter than I will have to figure out the economic and political details, but what I do know is that as long as the driving values of our lives are comfort and prosperity and not justice and righteousness, we’d better not be longing for the day of the Lord/judgment day/the second coming.