“But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Karl Marx is infamous (or perhaps famous depending on your perspective) for his observation that “religion is the opium of the people.” As you can perhaps guess, he wasn’t a fan of it. That disdain lives on in our culture today in a variety of places including the church on occasion. It is trendy for some churches to talk about how religion is bad, but a relationship with Jesus is good. In this passage from Amos, God seems to agree. Let’s talk about why and what’s really going on here.
It is easy to pick on religion and religious people as a major problem in our world. Just look at the number of stories in which they serve as the evil villain. From The Three Musketeers to the Handmaid’s Tale, religious people have been runiing the lives of the innocent for hundreds of years in their quest to grab hold of and preserve their power over the unsuspecting fools who willingly give it to them because of their pathetic need to believe in something…anything…beyond themselves.
Yet as much as someone whose religious practice is genuine and humble might loathe this characterization that is far more often a caricature rooted in animus than something grounded in reality, there have been not a few religious movements and leaders who have given much ammunition to these critics. The abuses of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, for instance, are legendary. Honestly, they have fueled much of the modern picture of disdain for religion. Voltaire, the great critic of the Church in the Enlightenment, gave inspiration and form to much of this.
The harder truth, though, is that anytime religious people have gotten their hands on political or institutional power, they have shown themselves to be no different from people who don’t claim any religious affiliation in their willingness to go to whatever lengths are necessary to maintain that position and the perks that come along with it.
This applies equally whether we are talking about Hindus (look at the way India is increasingly treating non-Hindu religions—and especially Christians—whose voting preferences might threaten their power base) or Muslims (you pick the Sharia-controlled nation) or Jews (consider the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day) or Catholics (the Middle Ages…) or even my Baptists (just think of the egg on the face of Southern Baptist leaders and evangelicals generally over the last few years in their willingness to throw out any meaningful ethical guidelines for their favored political leaders).
It almost seems like Voltaire or Marx or any of the New Atheists from what is now almost a generation ago were right in their criticisms. Sure, they went rhetorically overboard on occasion (especially the New Atheists as led by the so-called “Four Horsemen” of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and the late Hitchens), but the heart of their critique was right. Religion causes more harm than good. We would be better off without it.
As I said a second ago, even a few prominent Christian leaders have gotten in on this anti-religion bandwagon. A popular preacher from a few years ago, Erwin McManus, liked to stir up groups of Christians he spoke to by saying that it was his mission to bring about the end of the Christian religion in the world. The better and more Biblical alternative, he argued, was to encourage people in the direction of a relationship with Jesus.
When you read through Amos 5, and in particular the verses we talked about yesterday, it would seem to give these critics a lot of material to use in forming their arguments. God, through Amos, was thundering against the religious practices of the people of Israel. Remember it? “I hate your feasts.” “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” You could almost imagine Amos today bursting into the worship center of a megachurch and shouting something similar. “Stop this awful show!” “I can’t stand your performances any longer!” “Everyone leave here and shut this place down!”
So then, is religion really the problem?
The short answer is: No.
Religion is not and has never been the problem. All religion is is an organized system for connecting with the divine. Humans have always sought to connect with some person or power higher than us and which has some amount of control over the world and our lives. The belief that we are not alone in this world, but that there are beings or a Being of immense power presiding over the whole affair has been absolutely persistent throughout human history. As soon as we have tried to bring some organization or systematization to our efforts to make contact with and honor this power (in hopes of appropriating it to make our lives easier in some way) we have had religion. That’s normal and natural and it’s not going away no matter how much these various critics wish that it would.
No, the problem is not religion in general. The problem is with religion that chooses as its focal object someone or something whose character is unworthy of such adulation and devotion. When this happens and because we become like what we worship, those religious systems magnify and multiply this unsavory character resulting in a mess for everyone except those who have managed to gain power for themselves in whatever the system happens to be. The real trick here, though, is that it is extraordinarily easy for people committed to a bad religion like this to disguise themselves as devotees of a more noble system and by their machinations gain even greater power for themselves, spread the harms of their false system even further and to more people, and greatly diminish the reputation and standing of the systems they have corrupted.
Throughout the Scriptures God often thunders against these kinds of false and bad religions. They have uniformly been an ugly stain on His world. They have corrupted hearts and ruined lives everywhere they have gained a following. He hates this stuff with a passion that far eclipses even the fiercest modern critic. At the same time, though, God doesn’t take the lazy approach of these critics in stopping short at merely trashing the system, dropping His mic, and going home with the adulation of crowds still ringing in His ears. Neither does He create yet another equally false system to clean up the mess of the one that came before it that itself will one day be replaced by another false system as some critics have also done. Instead, He points us to what is right.
And what is right?
The solution to bad religion is not no religion, it is good religion. Do you mean to tell me there is such a thing? Absolutely. We find pointers to it all over the Scriptures including right here. When religion has the right object as its focal point, justice and righteousness flowing like water will be the result. As Jesus’ brother, James, would later add, it results in the poor and vulnerable being cared for with compassion and intentionality. It results in lives that are unstained by the sin of the world. It results in men and women who speak the truth and who bring life by their words.
All of this can only come, though, when it is consistent with the character of the object of our worship. Well, in all the world, there is only one person who has a sufficient character to carry this load: The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures. No one else is worthy of our worship as He is. No one else has the character truly worth emulating in our lives. No one else will make us into the kind of people who make the world a better place by our being in it. Only the God who revealed Himself most fully in Jesus Christ fits this bill. No one else will do. If our religion is pointing us in His direction and leading us to reflect His character more, it is good and worthwhile. If not, it isn’t. It really is that simple.