Saturday Night Theologian
13 July 2003

Amos 7:7-15

In his book Foundations for Reconstruction, written in the aftermath of World War II, Elton Trueblood argues that the Ten Commandments can form the basis of a new society built out of the wreckage of the first half of the twentieth century. He entitles his chapter on the second commandment "The Necessity of Intolerance." He says that compromise is perhaps the greatest danger that Christianity faces today. The world is full of temptations to abandon God's teachings, but his faithful followers must resist the urge to do so. I don't like the word intolerance, because to me it connotes hatred and mean-spiritedness. In fact Trueblood does warn against cruelty, but he mentions the need for humility only in passing, almost leaving one with the impression that he is arguing for a militant version of Christianity (the rest of the book does not support this impression). Rhetorical exaggerations aside, however, his central theme is valid, if in need of restatement. The people of God are constantly being tempted to abandon the genius of their faith and compromise with views borrowed from the world, so that they might practice a syncretized religion and worship a God who barely resembles the God portrayed in the teachings of Jesus. It is not necessary that we be intolerant, but rather faithful. Instead of emphasizing the negatives of other people's beliefs, we should emphasize the positives of our own. When Amos saw God holding the plumb-line next to a wall, he realized that God was evaluating Israel to see if it measured up to what it was intended to be. A wall may be built straight but later deviate from the vertical. Had that happened to Israel? In Amos' opinion, yes. The religious and political leaders of his day didn't want to listen to him. "Go back home," they told him, "you have no business here." Amos famously replied, "I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet . . . , but the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" Amos had the courage and the conviction to speak for God when it was unfashionable to do so. In many quarters it is out of fashion today to speak for peace and justice and liberation, because it is considered unpatriotic. We're told that any criticism of the government is tantamount to treason, "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." We need to have the conviction of our faith, pure and unpolluted. We don't need to supplement our faith with nationalism (often misnamed patriotism), classism, provincialism, or xenophobia. The faith of the prophets and the faith of Jesus is sufficient in and of itself to transform the world. To quote Trueblood, "What the world needs . . .  is a burning faith which can change mens' [and women's] lives."

Psalm 85:8-13

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain, 
It's a land that's fair and bright, 
The handouts grow on bushes 
And you sleep out every night. 
The boxcars all are empty 
And the sun shines every day 
I'm bound to go 
Where there ain't no snow 
Where the sleet don't fall 
And the winds don't blow 
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
With the possible exception of arms dealers, everyone in the world shares a common view of an ideal world. It is a peaceful world, a world where justice prevails, people are kind to one another, and no one is in need. Following a plea to God for mercy, this psalm contains an embedded prophetic message, perhaps delivered by a priest or other leader in a public act of worship. God has been faithful in the past, and the prophetic voice assures the people that God's faithfulness will carry into the future as well. The psalm describes a land characterized by peace, covenant faithfulness, truth, and justice. Peace (Heb. shalom) is a word that means much more than the absence of war. It comes from a root that means to be complete or whole, and it envisions a situation in which everyone experiences fulfillment rather than need. Covenant faithfulness (Heb. ḥesed) can also be translated as "love," "kindness," or even "mercy" (it's the same word used in the repeated chorus of Psalm 136, "his mercy endures forever"). It carries with it the idea of a binding relationship, such as that between members of a family or between God and God's people. The Hebrew word for truth (Heb. ʼemet) is related to the word "amen" that people today still use in prayer, and it comes from a verb meaning to confirm or support. The concepts of faithfulness, firmness, and fidelity are bound up in the idea of truth. Finally, the word justice (Heb. tsedek) is a word that connotes both a proper outward relationship between one individual and others (justice) and a proper inward relationship between oneself and God (righteousness). All too often this word is translated by the English word "righteousness," and modern readers get the mistaken impression that its meaning is restricted to one's inner relationship with God. A contextual reading of the Psalms (and other books) will disabuse one of that notion. The world the psalmist describes is one in which people live in community with one another, respecting and loving each other. It is not a utopia, where no one is sick and no one dies, but it is a place where those who are hurting can find comfort and healing, where everyone is born with an equal chance to succeed, and those who lead are trustworthy. Any wrongs are quickly corrected, and no one lacks the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, access to medical care, and freedom to believe and express oneself. Though the world we live in does not match very closely the ideals of the psalmist, there are pockets of peace and faithfulness in various places. The church should be such a place. The ideal church should be welcoming, affirming, loving, giving, and caring. It should be a place of forgiveness and peace, where everyone has a place and can contribute according his or her gifts and abilities. Whereas the church may not be able to meet all the requirements of the ideal environment (e.g., few churches offer health care--but why not?), the nation should step in to provide a safe and just environment in which both citizens and resident aliens can flourish and prosper. If nations will learn to work together in a spirit of trust and goodwill, rather than a spirit of apprehension and exploitation, perhaps even the world itself can approach the ideal laid out by the psalmist. However, until the church becomes such a place for everyone who would venture through her doors, how will the world ever be transformed?

For other discussions of this passage, click here or here.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long, rambling sentence in Greek. Its syntax is strained, its organization is confused, its rhetoric is substandard, and it is quite simply one of the most moving passages in the entire Bible. The author (many scholars consider the letter to be deutero-Pauline) begins with a doxology, then finds it impossible to stop once he starts describing the wonders of our relationship with God through Christ, for by just being Christians we have already been blessed immensely, and God has something tremendous planned for each one of us: holiness and righteousness, forgiveness and grace, and we have insight into the very mysteries of God, mysteries that we can only begin to understand, even with the wisdom bestowed by the indwelling Spirit, and not only that, but we are also heirs of a great inheritance, one that doesn't start in the distant future in the great by and by but begins as we live our lives in such a way that God's glorious name is praised, which inheritance we received when we responded to the true word, the good news that brings deliverance, with faith. When was the last time you were so excited by your relationship with God that you burst into rapturous praise and thanksgiving? To borrow a phrase from a Wolf brand chili commercial, "That's just too long"! Our salvation is something to rejoice over, but it's also something to share with others. It's important to note, however, that the author does not dwell on the heavenly reward of the believer. Instead, he focuses on the here and now. We have been delivered from hopelessness and despair, from greed and selfishness. In a word, we have been delivered from ourselves. Verses 5 and 11 contain the word "predestined" (softened in the NRSV to "destined," though the prefix is present in the Greek), a word that has caused great consternation and debate through the centuries. If some are predestined for salvation, are other predestined for condemnation? The debate raged between Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Arminius, Particular and General Baptists, and Presbyterians and members of the Church of Christ. In many ways, the discussion was academic, because it argued over what was in the mind of God. Only when predestinarians begin to exclude certain groups of people from God's love, or when Christians use predestination as an excuse not to share God's love, does the matter become problematic. When we shift our focus from salvation in heaven to salvation on earth, the issue becomes much clearer. Surely everyone is entitled to the deliverance promised by God in this life. It is meaningless to argue over divine knowledge, since we don't have any way of accessing it. Instead, all followers of God who have experienced God's grace in their own lives should proclaim God's benevolence to all who will listen. God has done so much for us. What is he waiting to do in the lives of your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend?

For other discussions of this passage, click here and here.

Mark 6:14-29

Every president since Gerald Ford has issued an executive order banning political assassinations by the U.S. government. The order says, "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." Bill Clinton made an exception to this order in 1998 by issuing a directive that allowed the use of lethal force against Osama bin Laden, although of course it was never carried out, since bin Laden couldn't be found. After September 11, 2001, George W. Bush expanded the exceptions to allow the U.S. government to engage in "lethal covert actions" against any terrorists associated with al-Qaida, arguing that the ban on political assassinations does not apply during wartime. They carried out their first political assassination in Yemen on November 5, 2002. An alleged al-Qaida operative was killed, along with five others. That the U.S. is not legally at war (since war hasn't been declared by Congress, as dictated by the Constitution) does not bother the administration, nor does the obvious breach of the principle of the right to a fair trial. The U.S. government has arrogated to itself the right to be judge, jury, and executioner, and other nations, such as Israel and Russia, are following suit. These contemporary acts of political assassination have an ancient pedigree, going back to the time of Herod Antipas and beyond. Herod was upset with John the Baptist, because the latter had castigated him for marrying his brother's ex-wife, so he threw him in jail. This punishment was not sufficient for Herodias, the wife in question, so she connived to have John murdered to slake her wrath. Assassination is just a euphemism for murder. Just as Osama bin Laden and his minions murdered thousands on September 11, so the U.S. government murdered six people while they were driving in a car in Yemen. If a drone can locate criminal suspects, why can't real human soldiers or policemen effect an arrest so that the accused can be put on trial? As in Herod's day, it seems that the law doesn't apply to the powerful. If an ordinary citizen murders someone, he or she is put on trial and is usually convicted and sentenced. If a political leader decides to kill someone, however, the murder is justified as a legal "assassination." Shakespeare (through the character of Juliet) said that that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In the same way, garbage by any other name will still stink. Calling murder "assassination" doesn't make it right, nor does it demonstrate our moral superiority to terrorists. Quite the opposite: it turns our government into terrorists. After Herod had killed John, he saw in Jesus someone who shared John's spirit, but even more so. Similarly, our government may kill one terror suspect or another (often along with innocent bystanders), but they will see others rise to take their place, with a vengeance. Moreover, they will also be confronted with other governments who use our abrogation of international law as a pretext to assassinate their political enemies. The U.S., as the only remaining superpower, needs to lead the world as a moral force. Followers of God need to remind them to do so and rebuke them when they do not. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was a huge embarrassment to the Kennedy administration. Will the legalized murder of untried terror suspects (and others in their vicinity) be an embarrassment for the Bush administration, or will Christians sit idly by and watch the rule of law fall by the wayside?