Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Keeping Quiet In Evil Times, Revisited

Years ago, I wrote a post about an enigmatic statement in the book of the prophet Amos.  Amos was a righteous redneck who came roaring out of the sticks to proclaim God's anger at the social and economic injustices of eighth century Israel.  He condemned the corrupt and the self-serving, those in power who used power only for their own gain, and did so with bold, relentless sharpness.

Embedded in his book of prophetic challenge are these words, in which he describes times when greed and power control the reins of justice:

Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.  Amos 5:13

It's a statement that I and my Bible study class revisited recently during our study of the Minor Prophets, and we puzzled over it again together.

What does that mean?  Here, an ancient voice known for their rhetorical and physical boldness, who was willing to walk right up to the temple of the King of Israel, and to challenge it.  Here, a prophet whose vocal indictment of the corruption of power was enough that he was put on the eight century equivalent of a watch list, as a known enemy of the state.

And he's counseling...laying low and saying nothing?

On the one hand, that's certainly what wisdom, understood as a Biblical virtue, suggests.  Be careful what you say.  Be wary with whom you share your thoughtsIn all things, be circumspect, and do not speak if your speech might compromise you.  

When evil is dominant, your survival and that of your family can depend on remaining silent.

On the other hand, speaking truth in a time of oppression is terribly necessary.  To do so requires a different mindset.  It's not simply "being prophetic," because standing against injustice is not itself a prophetic act, no matter what they say in the fading progressive seminaries.  Unless you are driven like a ship before a wild wind, by dreams and visions and the power of God, you're not a prophet.  Prophets don't really have a choice in the matter.  Amos didn't.

Not everyone is a prophet, no matter what our egos tell us.  But any one of us can be a witness.  The prophet does put their lives at risk, but being a witness ain't safe, neither.  Nor is it wise, not in the most craven definition of prudence.

When you see and name an obviously broken thing, or refuse to sing along with the lies that rise from hatred, you call attention to yourself.  You are noncompliant.  You are subversive.  It doesn't matter if you refuse the path of violence, or you refuse to hate.  You threaten power.

When you threaten power, it goes hard, as it did for Jesus.  It was equally rough on so many early Christians, who insisted on being honest about their commitments and about what they believed was radically true.  In the common Greek spoken in the Roman Empire and used in the New Testament, the word for "witness" is μάρτυρα, or "martyr."  Unpleasant things happen when you speak truth in a time when falsehood reigns.

Yet that's what we're asked to do, if we're disciples of Jesus.

Given where we are in the long painful moral collapse of our republic, being imprudent may go hand in hand with speaking the truth of one's witness.