Who does God consider a Christian?
As our look at the book of Amos continues, a question about the wealthy
Imagine you were a Christian senator, who spoke regularly about your faith and your fear that America was turning away from its Christian values.
When it came to light that America was ripping children from their parents its Southern border, you might be concerned about the religious implications — after all, this is the God who literally burned up entire cities with fiery sulfur for their mistreatment of immigrants, and who includes “refusing to care for the stranger” on his most prominent list of reasons to send people to hell.
Or, if you’re Mitch McConnell, you might try to block any sort of settlement payment to the parents and children affected by this cruel policy, on the grounds that this might “reward” the children you kidnapped for being undocumented. (The fact that many of the children were asylum seekers who were in fact following all the rules is apparently irrelevant.)
What might God say to you?
If you’re just joining this series of blog posts, we’re looking at the book of Amos, one of my favorite prophets in the bible.
Amos is no stranger to the situation I described above. As a Judean farmer he certainly would have been familiar with the difficulty of subsistence living and the potential for abuse by the powerful. When God called him to preach in Israel (a rival country), he found himself forced to navigate life as an immigrant called to speak truth to powerful people who did not want to hear him.
These men and women wrapped themselves in the Jewish religion in every public way imaginable — Amos mentions festivals, songs, and burnt offerings as examples. But their love for God didn’t extend into love for the people God loved the most. Israelite’s poor were starving, but the rich would not give up any of what they had to feed them. Even worse, many were actively cheating workers out of their wages and selling fraudulent wares, but the courts were too corrupt or impotent to step in.
Amos brings the relatively balanced “biblical” take we often hear from the pulpit, making sure not to take sides between the powerful and the powerless. He praises the wealthy’s theological orthodoxy while gently reminding them that care for the poor is important and perhaps they should stop by a soup kitchen once or twice a year.
(Oh, sorry, that isn’t what happens at all.)
Amos immediately declares that God hates everything about Israel’s wealthy, including their worship, and places them firmly outside the “people of God” category. He lists in great detail every single reason God hates them, from the the place they worship (definitely confusing as a modern reader) to their indifference towards the marginalized to their hypocrisy in publicly praising a God whose values of solidarity they don’t share.
By the end of the book, Amos is giving an excruciatingly detailed first-hand account by God of how he will destroy the apathetic rich:
Not one will get away,
none will escape.
Though they dig down to the depths below,
from there my hand will take them.
Though they climb up to the heavens above,
from there I will bring them down.
Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
there I will hunt them down and seize them.
Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea,
there I will command the serpent to bite them.
Though they are driven into exile by their enemies,
there I will command the sword to slay them.
I will keep my eye on them
for harm and not for good.
Other than soaking in just how extra Amos is (and how gorgeous his poetry is at the same time!), what are we supposed to do with this today? I have two thoughts. (Unfortunately since I’m not an Evangelical pastor they are not super catchy and don’t start with the same letter.)
Repent if You Need to Repent
I tried to phrase this more kindly and it ended up sounding vaguely passive aggressive, so I’ll just say it directly. If you believe that you are a Christian, and
You currently are living a comfortable lifestyle
None of your time or money goes to care/justice for the poor or marginalized in your community or abroad,
then Jesus does not consider you to currently be a Christian, and you shouldn’t assume that you’re saved. Full stop. This isn’t to make you feel guilty — this is to beg and plead with you that if you really love God, you really really really need to change this.
I think sometimes people see that the people who talk the most about loving the poor and the marginalized are (understandably) those who’ve chosen a career path in it, and we can start to worry that God won’t love us if we don’t go work in malaria clinics overseas or spend every free moment at climate justice protests. And we don’t want to commit to that, so we do nothing at all.
But God gives us different gifts and passions and most people aren’t called to do justice work full-time. (After all, if everybody worked for a charity, after all, none of the charities would have enough money to function.) God demands that you love your neighbor and do something about it, not necessarily that you do the most extreme thing you can think of. You can figure out what God’s asking of you the same way you do in every other area of your life — by a combination of prayer, wise counsel, reading, trial-and-error, and figuring stuff out as you go along.
Start with doable steps. Get to know people outside your social bubble and learn from them how best to love them. Read what the bible has to say about what we owe the poor and immigrants and try to take it seriously. If you have some spare time, find a place in your community to volunteer.
If you have some spare money, donate it — GiveWell’s Maximum Impact Fund is one of the best-vetted places in the world to start! Every $5 saves the equivalent of about one month of somebody’s life, so even a small recurring donation can do big big things.
But either do something, or stop calling yourself a Christian. There is no third option for the financially comfortable.
Isn’t this just Legalism?
Occasionally people tell me it’s wrong to complain so much about people like Mitch McConnell (see above), Matt Walsh, or Tucker Carlson, because “they’re my brothers in Christ”, or because I’m being “judgmental”.
I think there’s a bit of truth to this, in that it’s really easy for this solidly biblical position (“you have to care about marginalized people or you aren’t a Christian”) to turn into something closer to a checklist of having the “right” opinions (“you have to believe in Medicare for All or you aren’t a Christian”)
But this is also making things too simple, because the opinions that often make it onto this checklist really do matter. The American healthcare system is a mess and the people who refuse to fix it are doing real evil that hurts people, and too often people who dismiss the checklist also end up dismissing real concerns that affect real people’s lives.
Trying to untangle this all is complex: it isn’t a sin to sincerely believe a free market healthcare system will have better outcomes than a socialized one. It’s also possible that (as I believe) this position is incorrect and deeply harmful. It is a sin to oppose a socialized healthcare system because you don’t think poor people deserve healthcare (at least not healthcare that you have to help pay for.) It’s not true that this one sin makes you not a Christian. But it is possible that this sin is part of a pattern of not caring about the poor that does make you not a Christian, regardless of how much you believe in Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
I think the takeaway is twofold, and it comes down to the way we draw boundaries.
First, we need to be careful about the distinction between “Christian” in the human sense and “Christian” as in a genuine member of Christ’s family.
Both of these senses are important. When we say that Mitch McConnell’s public statements on the marginalized make us pretty sure that he isn’t a part of the genuine body of Christ, we are making a strong claim about who we are and who we believe Jesus to be. The church should define boundaries like this not merely to be exclusive, but to clarify its witness about what it actually means to be the people of God.
But sometimes we can use this as an “escape hatch” to avoid accountability— if, for example, we say that the Americans who were involved in the slave trade weren’t real Christians, we can end up avoiding questions like “how did they gain so much power in our churches?” and “do we need to reconsider any of the theology we inherited from them?” or even “what would it look like for the American church to genuinely repent of its racist history?” So even once we’ve realized certain people are acting outside of God’s kingdom, we still have to do the hard work of separating them from the Christian power structures we’ve built up on earth.
Second, there is no way any of us can look into another person’s heart and say for sure what is happening — I am pretty confident that Tucker Carlson isn’t a Christian in the “Jesus considers him saved” sense, but I suspect many people who have been misled by his TV show are. The church needs wisdom to navigate the tension between being willing to place those who teach people to hate their marginalized neighbors “outside the fold”, while still dealing with the fact that life is messy and even the “best” Christians will commit real sins. Not everybody will get every question right, and in fact almost everybody will get at least one thing horrendously, dangerously wrong.
“Not loving your marginalized neighbors” is a sure path out of heaven. But “not loving your marginalized neighbors perfectly” or even “well” is part of the brokenness of the world we all have a share in. The church needs ways for people who are doing their best to grow, repent, feel supported, and receive forgiveness. And it also needs ways to clearly state what is and isn’t optional to claim an identity as a follower of Jesus.
It’s hard to do both.
Thank God for grace.