Having Ears to Hear: Moving Towards Sympathy (Amos 8)

As you are all well aware this past weekend a not guilty verdict was handed down to George Zimmerman acquitting him of the murder  of Trayvon Martin, the teenage african-american boy he shot last year. Martin had been walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of skittles and some iced tea.

I, along with many others, are heartbroken by this Martin/Zimmerman pronouncement. But my sadness isn’t that I wanted to see Zimmerman face the death penalty, because to me the death penalty would only further perpetuate the cycle of violence. This isn’t simply a story about white and black America, nor is it a story that doesn’t really matter much to us because that kind of thing only happens in places like Florida and in the South.

This is symbolic of a much deeper issue and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Whether we realize it or not, we all lost last Saturday, even George Zimmerman. Just because he walks free from a death sentence, he loses, and we lose, because we live in a society that is tilted out of balance, one where laws protect some individuals while leaving very vulnerable others. One where prejudice, hate, and suspicion of others runs rampant. One where, as Amos says, the needy are trampled, and ruin is brought to the poor.

I’ve noticed that where these tragedies happen our deep separations and rivalry emerge from just below the surface.

Us and them…

What tends to happen, and those of us in the church are just as susceptible to this (if not more), is that in the moments of anxiety and challenge we tend to move towards group belonging. We look for a scapegoat or scapegoats to cast the blame on, and we fortify ourselves against the scapegoat.

There is a popular feeling in our culture today, whether it comes from our political persuasions, our convictions about religion, or just basic life experiences, that goes something like this: “if my enemy is for this, then obviously I should be against it.”

When we do this we make God a function of our group. We make God subject to our own prejudices. In this system, God becomes a rallying point for our group to be right over against that other group.

James Alison puts it like this:

One of the strongest ways of maintaing the unity of the one group loyal to its one God is to be able to detect and proclaim ways in which the group is being victimized…thus…identify[ing] ways the wicked “they” is making life impossible for true believers, thus rallying people around their interpretation of what makes the group whole and pure (Alison 21).

Don’t we see this kind of thing happen all the time? Once we can identify the “wicked they,” those who truly make our lives impossible as the true believers, then we can rally people into our group over against others.

This plays itself out all over society and the the Martin/Zimmerman trial was no different.

There is one group who feel justice should be a guilty verdict for Zimmerman – this group may denounce the courts, the jurors, and Zimmerman himself. There is potential to create a group identity around those against Zimmerman.

And there is a group who believe either in Zimmerman’s ultimate innocence, or that he was within his rights to do what had to be done – this group will cast blame and hate in the other direction.

Some of this is a natural response, and some of this is in fact necessary, some the things need to be challenged, I don’t personally believe justice has yet been served, but the deeper question here is this:

is there a way in which we might go about challenging and bringing about justice that includes the other group rather than fortifying ourselves against them?

The challenging part, for those who feel there is an injustice with last week’s trial, is that we are not to define ourselves over against the Zimmerman’s of the world, but rather recognize that “They” really are “We.” That injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And whether we recognize it or not, violence, rivalry and pitting one against another costs all of us something.

We have all victimized the “others” of the world, and if I haven’t personally pulled a gun out on a young black teenager, I have secretly harbored anger, resentment, or ill-feelings towards any number of “Them” out there. I am guilty of creating the “wicked they” repeatedly.

Jesus and the Victim

What Jesus reveals both in his life and on the cross is completely opposed to this unsympathetic creating of little us and them teams.

Notice that on the cross Jesus did not victimize others, he didn’t even victimize himself, nor did he say to the disciples who were left behind — [John Wayne accent] “Hey Johnny, Hey Peter, mark these men and take them out for me – you know, stand your ground.”

What did Jesus say?

“Father Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

 He told the guilty criminal, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

He also said, and I think this is key, “It is finished.” Now I believe that the “it” here is in reference to the underlying thread of violence that we humans use to control society and out of which we get this building up of this rivalistic us vs. them.

Now it’s not that Jesus said there would be no more violence ever again, but that this violent rivalry is shown in his life and death to be the very source of the problem. And that we, in following him, can step outside of that “trampling and ruining” one another, and create a different world.

What Jesus did on the cross was to create a new sense of group belonging that doesn’t depend upon the existence of a “wicked they,” because it is rooted in a radical love of God that moves toward humanity with a sympathetic understanding.

The movement of God into the world in the person of Jesus shows us that love does not remain neutral or uninvolved, rather it seeks to turn the “them” into a “we.”

In the community of Jesus the stranger becomes our neighbor, and the enemy a sister. The table of fellowship is to continue to grow not because we work to rally more people into our group belonging but because our very perception of God and who belongs to God continues to change.

Towards Sympathy

Amos gives us some answers to our questions about how we might respond to this in our own times.

His message is harsher than we tend to like, but you’ll notice it is not directed at the “wicked they,” the bullhorn is pointed at the “we.” In the midst of comfortable and prosperous, symbolized by this basket of fruit, Amos says you will experience a deep famine. And it will come in the form of silence from God.

Jesus’ message was directed largely at those within Judaism – he did not come preaching judgement against others, he turned the bullhorn back on his own community.

If we dare to stop listen to God – we will be asked to be self-critical and reflect on our own concern and attention to those trampled and ruined, to the needy and the poor, and to others who fill in for us as the “wicked others.”

When we listen we can expect to hear from God words that will move us toward a deeper understanding and true sympathy with those for whom we have encountered as other.

Howard Thurman writes:

Very often we use the phrase “I understand” to mean something kindly, warm, and gracious. But there is an understanding that is cold, minute, and deadly. It is the kind of understanding that one gives the enemy, or that is derived from an accurate knowledge of another’s power to injure. There is an understanding of another’s weakness, which may be used as a weapon of offense or defense…Of course, there may be pity in it – even compassion, sometimes – but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place (Thurman 67).

Amos invites the people of Israel to move towards sympathy.

He wants them to imagine themselves in the shoes of those who live day in and day out feeling as though God has passed them by. Those who are “trampled and ruined” have grown accustomed to feeling the silence not only of their fellow humans, but also of God. For this, Israel is told to remain silent. They too will experience famine in the midst of abundance.

Jesus taught us to move towards sympathy by becoming like us, walking among the trampled and the ruined, those who were treated as the “wicked other” in their time.

The Good Samaritan moved towards sympathy when he stooped down to one who was known to be an enemy.

The father moved towards sympathy when he stepped toward his lost son.

The centurion moved towards sympathy when he as a Roman citizen approached a wandering Jewish prophet for prayer and healing.

To move towards sympathy is to try and understand the “other” from their shoes.

When we move towards sympathy we try and recognize something of me in this other person. We look for the backstory, a crack or crevice that helps us reinsert human dignity back into their story. We ask – what if that was me?

When we move towards sympathy we break down the walls of exclusion, of judgement, of injustice so that “they” might become a “we,” all gathered by the deep affirmation that we are all children of God.

Who are we being asked to move towards today?