by Berry Friesen (June 25, 2015)
If Not Empire, What? claims “Jesus’ faith was nurtured and supported by the prophetic tradition” of Israel. That tradition “grounded him in YHWH’s generous mercy, love for righteousness and justice, and determination that all people have the opportunity to experience shalom” (page 237).
To get acquainted with the prophetic tradition, we could start with the book of Amos. It contains the words of a herdsman who spoke 650 years before Jesus during a time of great prosperity for the northern state of Israel (Ephraim).
Amos harshly criticized that society’s oppression of the poor, its eagerness to make money and its willingness to use exploited labor, bribery and fraud to get rich. He expressed contempt for Israel’s religious life, saying YHWH did not accept its penance and phony worship. He mocked the self-indulgence of the rich and their feigned ignorance about where their wealth came from. “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory . . . who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-7).
And Amos predicted that as a result, YHWH’s judgment was coming. The nation would be destroyed and many people taken away like fish on hooks (Amos 4:2-3).
“If you like Amos, you don’t understand him,” is how one Bible scholar put it. It just has too much judgment and bad news.
But wait! Bad news for whom?
This thought takes me to Martin Luther King, exulting in the words of Amos on behalf of those suffering under the oppression of racism and classism: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). King obviously saw something very hopeful in Amos; he saw deliverance from injustice. He saw good news!
When we say a text such as Amos is gloomy and negative, we are saying as much about ourselves as the text. Judgment is very good news for someone who has a boot on his neck, but it is very bad news for the one wearing the boot.
So Amos brought good news for the oppressed, but not for the self-indulgent and the comfortable. Of course, the imperial elite in today’s world do not like this subversive message; it erodes their legitimacy and gives hope to the poor.
But why do Christians so often join in disparaging the prophets? Jesus didn’t. His mission statement was borrowed from another prophet, who said “the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18).
The first Jesus followers didn’t join the bad-mouthing of the prophets either. When debating whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could join their synagogues, they found in Amos the good news that enabled them to say “yes” (see Acts 15:16-17).
It is the witness of the Bible’s prophetic tradition that empires are destined to fall under the judgment of YHWH. If that sounds like bad news, maybe we should spend time getting better acquainted with the US-led empire and its many victims around the world.