That Ain't Right! - A Reflection by Dallas Nord
If your Facebook news feed is anything like mine, then you probably see endless posts, info-graphics, and videos that more or less all say the same thing: “That ain’t right!” There are so many voices calling out injustices—both real and perceived. There are those protesting racial inequities and police brutality (very real injustices), to which they say, “That ain’t right!” Then there are counter-protesters shouting back, “That ain’t right!” Republicans and Democrats are endlessly screaming at each other, “That ain’t right!” Conspiracy theorists are saying that the whole world ain’t right. Anti-maskers are saying that masks ain’t right; others are saying that opening schools, churches, and businesses ain’t right. There’s so much going on that just ain’t right!
When online (or in-person) debate ignites in regard to these issues, some well-meaning Christian inevitably says something like, “Keep God out of politics” or “Everyone just needs Jesus.” Statements like these seem to imagine that God has nothing political to say—that Jesus is only a spiritual savior with no interest in our humanly debates.
But that ain’t right!
God is not a neutral observer watching the battlefields of American political and social forces. God did not set the world in motion and then walk away. No, God has always been intimately involved in creation. God has always had something to say about the decisions that humans make and the manners in which they treat each other.
God most definitely has something to say about things that aren’t right. God takes sides. When slaves in Egypt cried out, it was Yahweh who heard them and acted in history to liberate them. God did not sit on his heavenly throne, uninvolved, saying there were “many good people on both sides.” No, God entered the scene. God took a side and chose to act on behalf of the oppressed.
And God still takes sides today. Of course, this can be a dangerous idea. Many kings, oppressive regimes, and abusive leaders have tried to justify their actions by claiming that God is on their side. This is what Walter Brueggemann calls “static religion”—when God is used to put a stamp of approval on whatever a ruler does.* But the biblical witness is clear: God always sides with the orphan, widow, and alien—not with unjust rulers.
Amos 5, one of the key texts for this month, offers a clear example of what it looks like when God takes sides. Through the prophet Amos, God condemns Israel for its evil ways. What exactly were those evil ways? Taxes on the poor, oppression of the innocent through bribery, and a corruption of the truth in court (5:10-12). These are what we might today call systemic injustices. Because of these injustices enacted toward the vulnerable in Israel, God says,
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps (5:21-23).
God cares very little about religious observance if there is no observance of justice.
Imagine for a moment that there is a river on which a dam is built. The dam interrupts the flow of the river, creating a large beautiful lake. The builders of this dam can now control how much water is released and when it is released in order to maintain the lake. Now imagine that the water represents justice and the dam stands for our political, economic, social, and even religious structures. Over the course of history, we have dammed up justice so that those wielding power can control when, how, and to whom to grant it. But God hates the things we’ve put in the way of justice. To the dams we have created, God says, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).
God’s justice cannot be contained by any dam—it will roll on like a river. And when the dam breaks, not all will rejoice. When God sets things right, Pharaohs lose their slaves, kings lose their thrones, emperors lose their empires, and the rich lose their riches. As God says through Amos, “There will be wailing in all the streets and cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail. There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst” (5:16-17).
It is no wonder that the calls for racial justice in our country today are met with such resistance. Those who have something to lose hear the cries of the hurting as threats, but God hears their cries and moves to restore the flow of justice. The builders of the dam see the cracks growing in the walls and fear they will lose their lake. Those who suffer a lack of justice see the cracks in the dam and rejoice. Virgilio Elizondo has said, “If the good news sounds bad for some, it is because it draws attention to something amiss.”** It is the poor, hungry, and weeping who receive the good news of the Kingdom of God, but that good news won’t sound so good to those for whom our systems and structures have been built to benefit.
When you look at our country and society right now—when you see the division, hatred, injustices, and lies—keep in mind that God has something to say about all of it. God is not watching from a safe distance while we bicker and scream at each other. I suspect that God has already been present on the streets of America. For where there is a hindrance to justice, God will be found with a strong arm and an impatience for oppression.
And if you go searching for God in our streets, don’t bother looking at any political rallies, organizations, or lobby groups. God is not subject to the parties we form or the lines that we draw. Look for God where the cries of injustice are coming from. Follow their voices and there you will find God alongside the orphan, widow, and alien. God takes sides with the child left orphaned when the cops shot her dad. God takes sides with the woman who was widowed when her husband overdosed. God takes sides with the immigrant child still sitting behind a chain-linked fence alongside dozens of others.
There are a lot of voices shouting across streets, across aisles, and across the internet today. But don’t forget that God has a voice too and it just might be saying, “That ain’t right!”
I encourage you to read all of Amos 5. Pay attention to what God says “ain’t right” in Israel.
Now imagine that Amos delivered the same type of lament and call to repentance in Fresno or maybe in Washington D.C. What do you think he would say? What injustices would God take issue with?
Take a moment to think about the fact that God sides with the orphan, widow, alien, and oppressed. Does that feel like good news or bad news to you?
* Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 28-29.
** Virgilio Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (New York: Orbis Books, 2000), 119.