Addressing US Individualism & Exceptionalism (Ken Pennings) 01.14.18

Audio version of sermon – January 14, 2018

The last verse of the passage I’ll now read from Amos was often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. It appeared in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and is included in his memorial in Montgomery.

Amos 5:7, 21-24     

Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


I want to thank the members of the Progressive Christianity Discussion Group, which met last Wednesday, for giving me this sermon. We were discussing a couple chapters of Marcus Borg’s book, Convictions, which I thought were rather ho-hum. But the members of the group disagreed with me. They thought Borg’s message was of huge importance for this church.

One member shared, “Many of us do the deeds of mercy and justice, but don’t really understand and appreciate the Biblical and theological basis for why we do what we do.”

Marcus Borg definitely helps us with that by directing us to the book of Amos in Hebrew Bible.

Borg came from a family of religious and political conservatives. As a sophomore in college, Borg became president of the Young Republican Club and conservative political columnist for the college newspaper. Then he took a political philosophy course in his junior year, where the students spent a whole week reading and discussing the Old Testament prophet Amos. It was a revelation! Amos led him to realize that the Bible had a dimension that he had never seen before. Amos was about God’s passion, desire, dream, yearning for the transformation of this world toward greater economic justice. Borg became more and more convinced that what he saw and heard in Amos was central to the Bible and Jesus. It was one of the convictions that shaped his understanding of what it means to be Christian.

Borg now urges all Christians to do a multisession study on Amos to begin to discover how the Bible from beginning to end is a sustained protest against the domination systems of the ancient world. (pause)

The book of Amos is a collection of Amos’s oracles put into writing a generation or more after his death. Putting them into writing involved not only collecting them, but also arranging and editing them.

Amos spoke in the northern kingdom of Israel near the end of the long reign of King Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE). The kingdom of David and Solomon had divided in two at the end of Solomon’s reign in the late 900’s. The north, with its capital in Samaria, continued to be known as Israel. The south, with its capital in Jerusalem, was known as Judah. The two kingdoms were often enemies and sometimes at war with each other.

From that time, we jump ahead a couple hundred years to Amos, who prophesyed in a time when the wealth and power of the monarchy and ruling class greatly increased and the condition of most of the population deteriorated. Often in fierce language Amos articulates a formidable social critique; he both indicts and judges the wealthy and powerful, and advocates the cause of the poor in the name of God.

Amos’s strategy is brilliant. His Israelite audience heard him pronouncing God’s judgment on all their traditional enemies, Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, and no doubt heard him gladly. But then he directed the indictment against them!

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,

And lounge on their couches,

And eat lambs from the flock,

And calves from the stall;

Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,

And like David improvise on instruments of music;

Who drink wine from bowls,

And anoint themselves with the finest oils,

But are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph (or the ruin of the poor) (6:4-6)


He called the wives of the wealthy and powerful in the capital city Samaria sleek and fat “cows:”

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” (4:1).

And then to all Israel, both men and women, Amos prophesies:

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way (2:6-7).

Notice here that the “chosen peoples” are treated like all other peoples, subject to the same requirements and marked for the same judgments, without exception for any special status.

Imagine an American preacher doing the same thing, hooking his audience by indicting other nations for their injustice and violence – perhaps Iran, North Korea, Cuba, China, or Russia, and then indicting the United States for its injustice and violence. That is exactly what Amos did.

Amos seems to be saying, “You can’t oppress the poor and needy, and get away with it. You will be judged.” And judgment did indeed come to Israel with the onslaught of the Assyrians, who terminated the northern kingdom in 721 BCE.

Eventually, Marcus Borg came to see was that Amos was not a solitary figure in the Bible speaking against the powerful and violent ruling elites of the domination system. He saw the same courage in Moses, the prophets in general, Jesus, and Paul. Their passion was the transformation of the domination systems of this world into a world of fairness where everybody has enough and no one’s human rights are violated.

What we hear in Amos and other major biblical voices challenges much in American politics and Christianity. The US has the greatest income inequality in the developed world, and is the product of the political ideology of individualism – the belief that how our lives turn out is largely the result of our efforts as individuals. If our lives have turned out well, it is because we have worked hard and deserve to keep what we have made. It has a cruel corollary: if our lives have not turned out well, it is largely our own fault because we failed to make use of our opportunities.

As an ideology, individualism is the foundation of conservative politics and economics. The political passion of conservatives is primarily about the behavior of individuals, especially issues related to sexuality. Income inequality, economic justice, and a strong commitment to peace are not priorities for most of them.

The alternative to individualism is a politics that takes seriously “the common good.” It is grounded in a the realization that none of us is self-made, however disciplined and responsible we may have been. We benefited from what previous generations did for “the common good,” including universal education, civil rights, gender equality, government-created infrastructure, and so forth.

In addition to the ideology of individualism, a second ideology affects politics and Christianity in the US: American exceptionalism. This is the notion that we are the greatest, best, and most generous nation in the world and that we have been especially blessed by God.

There is much to admire about our country, and there is nothing wrong with being grateful to live here. But as an ideology, American exceptionalism is about hubris more than gratitude. Hubris is about puffing oneself up beyond appropriate size, whether as an individual or as a country.

Our African American brothers and sisters have experienced the sharp sword of American exceptionalism.

In his 2003 sermon, entitled Confusing God and Government, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, preached: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme (and I would add “and she is exceptional”). The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”

Many of us will recall that Dr. Wright’s “God Damn America Sermon”–as it came to be known– was used by political conservatives to question the patriotism of his parishioner, Barak Obama, during the 2004 presidential campaign. (pause)

Amos challenged and chastised the exceptionalism of his time. Many people, perhaps most, in ancient Israel believed that they had been chosen by God and were thus God’s special people.

American individualism and American exceptionalism go together. Amos and much of the Bible challenge both. We need Amos!

And we need Dr. King, whose vision for guaranteeing the civil rights of African-Americans extended more broadly to guaranteeing the value, worth and human rights of ALL people, whom he called “the beloved community,” “the world house.”

And despite some of his outrageous and offensive remarks over the years, we need modern prophets like Jeremiah Wright!

Why do we, in this church, give such high priority to acts of mercy and justice? Because we follow in the train of the ancient & modern prophets who inspire our witness and motivate us to be change-agents in our world.

It was important to our discussion group, and it has become important to me this week, to help this congregation understand that the political issues of the Bible, which are also religious, are about economic justice and fairness, peace and nonviolence.

The youngest member of our discussion group shared how as a teenager he would come out to his peers as “Christian,” but would always qualify, “But I’m not Christian in the spirit and politics of the religious right.” He shared how meaningful it is to him to have grown in his faith and understanding to be able to define his Christianity not only by who he is not, but by who he is…a Biblical Christian whose political and religious issues are about economic justice and fairness, peace and nonviolence.

Some of us may be shy about identifying ourselves as Bible-believing, Christ-centered Christians, because of how the religious right has co-opted such terms. Through this message, I’m hoping more of us gain confidence in declaring ourselves to be both Bible-believing and Christ-centered…the kind of Christian whose politics and religion is about building a more just and peaceful society above all else.




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