Proper 21 • Amos 6:1–7 • September 26, 2010
by William Carr
Where Are You Resting?
For exegetical details, see Lessing, Amos, Concordia Commentary (CPH, 2009), 388–409. His treatment of language-oriented matters, especially morphology and syn- tax—sorely lacking in most other commentaries—is important. Another decent choice is Andersen and Freedman, Amos, Anchor Bible 24A (Doubleday, 1989), 544–569. This commentary focuses on a possible poetic structure and offers solid arguments for the unity of the text.
These helps are being prepared in early June, 2010. Will current events and situ- ations, in the U.S. and around the world, change over the summer and, consequently, render these helps obsolete by September? It’s possible, in certain details, but probably not in terms of essentials.
Almost no reader of these helps is likely to think—actually think—that the United States is “Zion.” And yet there are certain “zionisms” that prevail in our nation today. In her essay on “Technophilia,” Karen Pärna reported on the religiosity of Internet rhetoric, which contains, “characteristically religious notions: transcendence, salvation, and a strong belief in the power of one’s object of admiration to transform one’s exis- tence. Above all, the trust in the great potential of this technology fulfilled a basically religious function: it presented a frame of reference for making sense of the world.”1
I don’t check polls, but I suspect the sitting American President is no longer viewed so messianically as he once was; nevertheless, people are expressing frustration and even outrage that he has not personally rescued the Gulf coast from the envi- ronmental catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon. That people actually think he should be capable of such deliverance is, in my view, an example of American zionism and American messianism, a contemporary application or illustration of the Amos 6 text. “Mountains of Samaria” may be compared to corridors of Wall Street or American military might—any locus of power in which Americans invest their trust.
Amos warned the people of his time who lived cushy lives, who had on blind- ers, and who thought their nation was insulated or exempt from catastrophe. To shake them out of their national complacency—and their theological or religious compla- cency—he told them to look around at others whose city-states had collapsed, probably overrun by Assyrian conquest. Today’s invaders such as national bankruptcy seem more internal. Yet, Israel’s susceptibility to external invasion belonged to its internal corrup- tion; I doubt that our vulnerability is anything else.
There is no explicit gospel in this text. “Woe” governs the passage to its conclu- sion, the consummation or fruition of the woe. The preaching of judgment leads either to recalcitrance or to contrition, and the prophet doesn’t appear to feel obliged, at this point, to remind the contrite where to look for help—and the recalcitrant might also hear and say, “See, I told you so.” Therefore, we have to reach for the gospel.
The theology of place was strong in Israel (and Judah), but in the time of Amos it had become distorted. A different kind of economy, one that exploited the land and its inhabitants, had replaced an understanding of the land as a gift.
America is our place. As Christians, we accept—at least cognitively—that we are “strangers and sojourners” in it. But in large part we, as much as any, have lost track of seeing it as a gift; rather, it is something that we (and our ancestors) acquired on our own (cf. Dt 8:11ff.). Since we do not see it as a gift, we do not see that we can lose it.
Our place, wherever it is, has a kind of sacramental dimension. It is not a sacrament: it does not forgive sins, give faith or bestow eternal life; nevertheless, it signifies the promise of the place that our Lord is preparing for us (Jn 14) until we actually receive it. The place we receive now is as much a gift as water and bread and wine, a gift whose proper use is—or should be—important to us. Wendell Berry wrote in 1983, “That those who affirm the divinity of the creator should come to the rescue of his creature[s] is a logical consistency of great potential force.”2
How much more for those who affirm that the creator himself, in the person of his Son, came to the rescue of his human creatures! We affirm that he did so, every time we confess that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven …” or, in the Apostles’ Creed, “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”
Our attitudes and behavior toward the first creation (people and things) are to be informed, therefore, by sensibilities and understandings that emerge from our new-crea- tureliness (2 Cor 5:17f.). But it needs to be noted that we are the only ones on whom this transformation from old-to-new creation has been bestowed. The rest of the first creation languishes, according to God’s purpose, until the redeemed are revealed (Rom 8:19ff.). It is interesting, now that I think about it, that Christians bear a kind of sac- ramental dimension toward the rest of creation: to treat it kindly, as its creator would, until it is set free from its bondage to decay.
In another 1983 essay, Berry began by describing a conversation between him- self and Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute. They were trying to define an economy that would be comprehensive enough to counteract exploitation of the land. A money economy cannot because it tries to monetize everything; and whatever cannot be monetized has no value in such an economy. Berry suggested an energy economy, but Jackson rejected it as still not comprehensive enough. “‘Well,’ [Berry] said, ‘then what kind of economy would be comprehensive enough?’ [Jackson] hesitated a moment, and then, grinning, said, ‘The Kingdom of God.’ ”3
The prophet declared woe to a people who had forgotten their true heritage: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” said the Lord (Am 3:2). They had come to think of themselves and their nation as irrevocably bound to God—or, perhaps more accurately, God bound to their nation. The same temptation comes to us: to think of ourselves as Americans first and as Christians (God’s people in and because of Christ) second. That’s wrong. We need to remember—we need to be reminded—that we are God’s people twice: by creation and by re-creation. Our ease, our security, is not in the Zions we imagine, but in the God who gives himself and his gifts lavishly to us.
1 Karen Pärna, “Technophilia” in Technology, Trust, and Religion, ed. Willem Drees (Leiden: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 58–59.
2 Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 293.
3 Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” The Art of the Commonplace, 219.