This summer I'm teaching one of my favorite courses, Prophets and Prophecy. We're currently studying the 8th century BCE prophets in the Bible: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. While there are earlier prophets in the Bible such as Moses and Elijah, these four prophets in the eighth century were the first to have biblical books named after them, and they set the standard for later biblical prophets. They define the genre. At their most basic level, they all share a two part theme, one I don't care for, the other I love.
The first theme is theodicy, literally "judging God," but it basically tries to explain the problem of evil and general badness. To clarify, I love the study of theodicy, especially after Katrina and the suffering I've witnessed, but what I don't care for is Amos et al's solution. The 8th century prophets and/or their later editors all need to explain how Yahweh would allow the destruction of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrian Empire. The prophets are not about to accuse Yahweh of being unjust, so they blame Israel's religious infidelity, likening God to a faithful husband and the people of Israel to an adulterous wife. Then, God being just, He just has to destroy the Israelite kingdom, and he uses the Assyrians as a tool to accomplish this. I personally disagree with this explanation, and believe that bad things do happen to good people, and vice versa. I'm not alone in this view. The author of Job would agree with me, as would the prophet Habakkuk, who profoundly asks why God is silent when the wicked prevail over the righteous (1:13). And besides, if God gets so jealous because some people in Israel had an "affair" with Baal that He decides to kill the nation, well then, God probably wasn't such a great husband to begin with. There are laws today that protect spouses from such violent behavior, and rightly so.
The second theme I enthusiastically embrace, as it pertains to social justice. Israel not only sinned because of religious infidelity, the 8th century prophets argue, but they sinned by exploiting the population without resources. Amos claims that God is angry with the people of Israel "because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted" (2:6-7). Amos further argues that this sin of social injustice is multiplied because of divine election. It seems everyone was running around Israel believing that because they were Yahweh's chosen people, they would be safe from harm. Amos argues that no, in fact, because of God choosing Israel, they would be judged with greater severity, because divine election increases responsibility. I tell my students that their university education similarly increases their responsibility.
Today I was trying to get my students to understand how 8th century BCE prophets such as Amos impact our lives today. Sure many Americans believe that God is implementing His will through the U.S. government and military. But I don't, so I avoided that. Instead I wanted to focus more on social justice, and how societies in antiquity were judged on how they took care of "widows and orphans," the disenfranchised. I asked the students about presidential candidates and their platforms. They knew that Barack Obama wanted to increase health care coverage to those who currently can't afford it. They understood that was social justice and was impacted from Amos. They also knew that there are real differences between McCain and Obama pertaining to the Iraq war, with Obama favoring a more immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. But both McCain and Obama are impacted by prophets such as Amos, even though their policies differ. Obama argues for troop withdrawal because of social justice, the war was unjust to begin with, and it is unjust to create so many widows and orphans when U.S. troops die in Iraq. McCain argues the troops should stay because of social justice, because many poor and disenfranchised Iraqis would die violent and unjust deaths if we pulled out too soon. McCain argues Obama should visit Iraq to see how the surge is promoting social justice, and Obama invited McCain in last night's speech to visit urban areas to see the lack of social justice.
But in the end maybe it is all talk. If modern America is about anything, it is about making a profit at any cost, or in Amos's words, "selling the righteous for silver."