For those who want a change from the Gospel
Remembrance Sunday – Amos 5:18-24
When I found this passage set for Remembrance Sunday this year I was slightly surprised, as I had expected an earlier chapter of Amos. I have preached on more than one occasion to churches full of British Legion members and Veterans on a text from the previous chapter, 4:10:
I killed your young men with the sword,
along with your captured horses.
I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps,
yet you have not returned to me,’
declares the Lord.
But this reading seems to be more about the relationship between worship and social justice than war or conflict. How might it speak into today’s ceremonies of remembrance? As is so often the case, we can make so much more sense of the passage by reading it against the background of the whole book, which can be seen as being about ‘us and them’.
The situation is that the nation is enjoying peace and prosperity, at least on the surface. However underneath it is corrupt, with injustice rife, contempt for the poor rampant, and the rich élite enjoying life at the expense of the downtrodden peasantry. Amos is called by God to the unenviable task of warning the nation that God is not going to put up with this for much longer. In a masterly piece of rhetoric he begins with the surrounding nations, with oracles of condemnation for Israel’s neighbours. You can just hear the Israelites cheering as all those foreigners are cursed and their punishments predicted. Us and them, and ‘they’ are going to get what they so richly deserve. But then Amos comes closer to home, and predicts the downfall of Judah. This time the cheering is a little more nervous. ‘They’ are after all our hated neighbours the other side of the North/South divide, but at the end of the day they are still Jews, God’s supposedly chosen people. But then with a final dramatic twist of the knife, Amos pronounces a similar curse on Israel herself, the very nation who had seen themselves as superior to all those foreigners out there.
This piece of rhetoric sets the tone for the rest of the book, where those who felt themselves so superior to the others begin to feel the burning heat of God’s judgement on them. Our passage begins with a highly significant term: the ‘Day of the Lord’. In Jewish thought this was the coming time when God would ride into town and sort everything out, smashing up the foreigners and placing Israel back where they belonged as top dogs. They couldn’t wait! But Amos’ message was a startling one: when God does intervene, it will be to punish you, not to save you. In the ‘us and them’ battle, you are actually no better than them. You will be punished as violently as anything you wish on your enemies.
I have never been a pacifist. In my teenage years we had a minister at our Baptist church who had been a forces chaplain, and had spent some time in Belsen. I can remember, as clearly as the day he said it, that he could never be a pacifist because when he saw what Hitler was doing, he knew he had to be stopped. That has stayed with me, and although my own tangles with the Armed Forces were nothing more than a short-term RAF chaplaincy while the proper one was sent off to the Falklands War, I have always believed that sometimes war is indeed justified. But what is never justified is the superior ‘us and them’ attitude which so often accompanies war, the xenophobia which is hostile even without official hostilities having been declared, nor the racism which would like to see ‘them’ get their come-uppance while we prosper. The fact is, we are no better than anyone else: the fascism which exploded in Hitler’s Germany, for example, is not very far under the surface of our own nation at the present time. As a country we do well to imitate not the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, but the heart-broken sinner who realised much more clearly than did his theologically-informed oppo that actually we are all in dire need of God’s mercy, both ‘them’ and ‘us’.
So today, yes we shall remember, and we will give thanks for those who fought to save our country and most of the rest of Europe. But we should do so humbly, and in a way which acknowledges that the seeds of anger, violence and destruction lie buried within each of us, and sometimes not all that deeply buried. Perhaps this year it is a good thing that the pageantry of the Cenotaph procession will not be happening. Maybe it will help us to remember in a way which is more humble, more forgiving, and more wary lest we become the very thing against which our grandparents fought.