Friday, May 20, 2011

Chosen, but also called

Another writing that has influenced me: the book of Amos, in the Old Testament.

After reading Eugene England’s “Good Literature for a Chosen People,” this quickly became my favorite book of the Old Testament.

England explains the context and appeal of this book far better than I, so here we go. This is specifically written to Latter-day Saints but relevant to everyone.

VERY EARLY IN OUR HISTORY, we Mormons began to identify ourselves symbolically with ancient Israel as a chosen people….But being "chosen" seems not so much being choice, better than others, but rather being called or selected and then asked not only to live better than all the others, but to try to be a blessing to all those others too. The Israelites had trouble with this complexity. They liked the choice part of chosen and often forgot the called part.

Perhaps the central burden of the so-called literary prophets of the Old Testament is to remind Israel that they are chosen by God in order to serve him in a special way so they can bless others, that rather than favoring or excusing them, he holds them especially accountable.

The classic example is Amos, a "herdsman" from the hills just south of Jerusalem, who about 750 B. C. was called by God as a prophet to preach repentance to the Israelites, the chosen people. He went to Bethel in the Northern Kingdom, whose people thought themselves, because chosen, not only superior to the non-Israelites, but also better than their cousins, the people of Judah in the south.

In what might be called the "Amos strategy," the Lord through his prophet uses the people's pride in being chosen to set them up to be especially affected by his message of repentance.

God first condemns the Gentiles for their idolatries: "For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof" (Amos 1:3), he declares, and then he continues the refrain to condemn all the Israelites' pagan, idolatrous neighbors, Gaza, Ammon, Tyre, Moab. We can imagine the crowd murmuring its agreement: "Amen, brother Amos, amen."

Then the Lord condemns their neighbor Israelites: "For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments." We can imagine the shouts of assent at the threatened punishment of their hated relatives: "I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." (Amos 2:5)

But now the prophet, at the height of the chosen people's self-satisfied judgment of others, turns the judgment of God on them: "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor" (2:6-7).

Being chosen, in this view, means being the ones known and taught by the Lord and, thus, the ones most responsible to keep his commandments and to be punished if one does not. It does not mean being better than others, by definition more righteous and blessed. It does not even mean simply knowing the correct forms of worship and having special priesthood power to perform them as the core of one's religion.

The Lord makes this painfully clear by saying, through Amos: "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offering, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take you away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. .. . Woe to them that are at ease in Zion .. . That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall.. . but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph" (5:21-24; 6:1, 4, 6).

In other words, religious worship, even in the approved forms and with authority, is an offense to God if it is not accompanied by intense social morality— that is, by aggressive caring for justice and mercy in society, by compassionate grief for the afflictions of the poor and exploited.


We [Mormons] are satisfied with the one part of chosen, where, for instance, God calls us "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I . . . am well pleased" (D&C 1:30), but we forget the other part: "Ye only have I known among the nations of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).

Our best writers, I believe, address themselves to both parts of chosen, our specialness and our special responsibilities. They both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and, at their best, do the comforting in part to be more effective at the afflicting.

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