Amos 5:18-24; Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 12 November 2017
I was thinking about sharing stories with each other this week, and there is one that comes to my mind maybe more often than it should, or I suppose it has something I need to hear often.
There is a famous person who made a name for herself in the town I grew up in. While living there and running a hotel, she became an active leader in the temperance movement and started the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement.
Her husband was a minister at the Christian church in Medicine Lodge, but had also been an attorney, journalist, unsuccessful farmer, and a saddle maker. While living there, she began her work to rid Kansas of alcohol by active protest, singing hymns in bars, and greeting bartenders with: “Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls.”
Eventually, after she claimed to have received a vision wherein God told her to act, she took rocks into a local bar and broke as much glass as she could. She then upgraded to a hatchet to do the breaking as she went into the bars throughout the local county, then into Wichita, down into Oklahoma, and even to Kansas City and beyond. She used the hatchet to destroy mirrors and other furniture, physically driving patrons and employees out of bars.
My great-grandfather opened the first bar in that county after prohibition. I would venture to guess she would not think highly of that.
Her name was Carrie Nation. She is an easy target for brutal history turned comedy. Unfortunately, her extreme acts have overshadowed a much more difficult history. She had been married once before in Missouri. Her first husband was a severe alcoholic. He was neglectful and violent. She left him 6 months before their daughter was born, and he died about a year later.
Her second husband would eventually divorce her for abandonment because of the time she spent away, and the weeks she spent in jail during her 30 arrests.
The temperance movement, and Carrie Nation specifically, were not just interested in outlawing alcohol because they thought it was inherently sinful or bad to drink, although they really didn’t like it. They were tired of the degree of domestic violence that women were facing in their families and communities. She saw alcohol as the driving force in the corruption of men, which then led to domestic abuses.
One does wonder why this was, and is, so overwhelmingly a problem for men. I think about that myself sometimes. We can look back and see that the prohibition of alcohol did not succeed in eliminating domestic violence. But to think that it didn’t help significantly is dishonest.
Prohibition reshaped the way that people consumed alcohol, and even today people drink less than they did before prohibition.
Carrie Nation was a Social Gospeler. The Social Gospel Movement was a strain within Christianity prominent in the 19th century which generally believed that Christians needed to work to make the world better. She believed fervently that Christians were in part responsible for bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.
The Social Gospel Movement is in part responsible for the eventual abolition of slavery. Most of the workplace rights we take for granted, such as the 40 hour workweek, overtime, minimum wage, workplace safety, child labor laws, were espoused by ministers working with newly organizing labor movements to improve the conditions of the people in their communities. It was, without a doubt, a positive impact.
Sometimes, however, this movement believed that they knew best how people should live, and conflated specific cultural norms and values that they held with religious practice and demanded everyone do the same thing. They would then often claim these values as universal for all people everywhere, and that everyone should follow them.
It is true that alcohol was not the reason men were abusing their spouses. It was a significant factor in the cycle, frequency, and degree of abuse. But it was not the source which once removed would relieve the issue entirely.
Fortunately Carie Nations work was not limited to stopping men from drinking. During the last few years of her life, she opened multiple shelter home for women who were fleeing alcoholic and abusive men.
Last month following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I made the connection between domestic violence, access to excessively powerful firearms, and men as the common thread in mass shootings. I remain convinced that there is a connection between these three aspects. There is a learned violence and an expectation of control that weaves through all three.
Unfortunately, this connection of control and violence that we witnessed in Texas last week is such an instance when we know the pattern so well, but seem to have no solutions to the problem, when thoughts and prayers are the best that we can do.
He was a troubled and violent individual, but even with all the warning signs, he passed through. He served in the military, although he was dishonorably discharged from that service for physically abusing his former wife and daughter.
It seems to me that the difficulty we are having is that we know somewhere in the back of our minds what is going on, but it is difficult to get it out in front of us for fear of what we might realize. I will illustrate rate this with Carrie Nation again.
I do wonder what Carrie Nation’s husband preached about while she was rampaging bars. I have wondered this before when reading about her. There are accounts that when she was in church, when he was preaching, and she thought he should be done, she would stand up and say: “That’s enough” and leave.
I would wager a guess that he preached against alcohol often. I have no doubt. There is no way he could have been married to someone like that and not preach against alcohol.
But I would also wager even more that he rarely preached directly to the men in the congregation who may have been actively abusing their wives at home … whether with the assistance of alcohol or not. I would guess he rarely if ever did that.
I don’t know with certainty whether or not he did directly speak about abuse and the general inequality that women faced, including among other things, the fact that they could not vote at the time. But it seems more likely to me that it would have been too difficult to speak out against abuses and cultural control of women, too much of a risk for him, too central to the world they all found themselves in. It would likely have been too political, or controversial, to speak openly about the abuse.
Violence and the expectation of control is learned. It is taught. It is maintained. The difficulty is unlearning it once it takes hold both individually and communally.
I heard an interview with a minister from a Texas town close to where the shooting happened. When he was asked to comment, he had nothing to offer but prayers for those affected. It seems inadequate for a minister in this situation to have nothing to say but a prayer. It’s as if God is silent about such things, that God doesn’t really care enough to speak any Word for us, or anything for preachers and ministers to share in such a moment of communal violence, except for “I’m sorry.” No wonder people are leaving the Church.
The two readings we read today are an interesting match. Amos is at first glance the typical Hebrew prophet. He sees what the religious leaders are doing, what the kings and political leaders are doing, what the people are doing, and he tells them a truth they do not want to hear. Of course, it feels better as the prophet if you are speaking to someone else.
However, Amos is a little different. He was an agrarian, possibly a nomadic shepherd, someone who lived outside of the city, but it seems he was acquainted with international affairs and some methods of warfare. Most prophets were instead part of the religious class within cities, primarily in Jerusalem.
And so on behalf of the Southern kingdom of Judah, or at least in their name, he goes to the Northern kingdom of Israel, a much wealthier and more powerful region, talking about how they aren’t doing their religion correctly, and how unfairly they are treating their smaller kinspeople below.
This was before the exile and destruction of Northern Israel by the Assyrian Empire. It is the same area referred to in the Good Samaritan story as where the Samaritan was from, and in that story you can see the animosity remained.
Amos’ strong words have an interesting connection to the much different reading about wisdom that we read. They seem at odds, but that reaction is too quick.
Amos is clear about what he thinks. He knows that there is a deep-seated problem that is being overlooked in the usual religious acts and festivals. What he is driving home is that the many things people are focused so intently on are not dealing with the larger issues of his day.
What Amos does so well is to paint visceral images with words. “Fled from a lion, and was met by a bear.” That’s a good one. Even his reversal of light and day, of song and animal offerings, are rich with emotive description.
But the climax of his image lets loose: “Let justice roll like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It shall not be contained by the things people do in houses of worship, or in religious festivals.
Justice and righteousness will be a constant life-giving flow. Or as with our other reading: “Wisdom is radiant and unfading…. She graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.
The prophetic tradition found in Amos, and the wisdom tradition found in the collection ascribed to Solomon, while they may appear very different, they are bound up in the same direction.
They are bound up trying to reveal something that people are not noticing, to delve deeper and ask: What are we missing? What are we not seeing? What are we maybe to afraid to look at? What stories do we not hear?
Carrie Nation thought that her crusade would literally carry our nation into the kingdom of God. She was wrong in part. prohibition did not result in drastically better conditions for women, nor the perfection of society. But It did draw attention to the often destructive reality of addiction.
What she largely got right, even if she may have underestimated it, was the power of women being freed to share their experiences openly and in public. When they could claim their own voices and speak out about their own lives and what was important, their collective voices had power. Notice we have many things that she said, but we don’t have a single word of her husband preached about in church. We may see where the Spirit was at work.
This is still something that we underestimate in conversations about the causes and effects of violence of all kinds, and in mass shootings in particular. What is it that we don’t see? What is it that we refuse to hear? Where is the greater wisdom in this moment? What does every flowing justice and righteousness even look like?
The power of the temperance movement was not in the bombastic antics of Carrie Nation smashing bars with a hatchet. The power was in women taking matters that affected them into their own hands and refusing to remain silent.
Similarly, so many years later, as many powerful men are being called out for sexual violence every week, and people are listening, more and more women and men feel empowered to come forward. In part this is because, at least for the moment, we are willing to hear them.
Priests and minister have not avoided this in recent decades either. What was once taboo to speak about, and actively silenced, now people are beginning to be held accountable. At least it has been a beginning.
When we are empowered to speak, and if there are ears to hear the wisdom that comes from paying attention to previously ignored voices, we just might be surprised at what we find.
The first step for us may be to hear, truly hear, what each other has to say, to stand witness to the ways in which violence becomes real for us.
As you may have noticed in the bulletin, there is a gathering scheduled this Tuesday during the usual meeting time of Life-Long-Learning. It is at 6:00 in the evening.
It will be a time for us to hear different ideas, different concerns, different fears that we hold, and maybe even begin to understand people who we previously didn’t give much thought to. The combination of our lived experiences, the intersecting understandings of who we are, all of these things greatly impact how we respond to situations, both as individuals, and as a church.
We will not solve any great issues in one day. Or maybe we will. But to do nothing is in part to render God as silent.
What I know is that through the practice of listening, of hearing deeply, we open up space for the Holy Spirit to speak to us, and for God to be heard even through the person sitting next to us.
I look forward to joining you on Tuesday. I always look forward to hearing what is weighing on your hearts and minds. It is the act of ministry to be a presence that represents God to another person. It is Wisdom found. It is justice and righteousness flowing. It is living as the body of Christ.
People have struggled with how to move forward in the past. But brave and faithful people kept moving. It is now our turn to keep moving. It is our turn in this moment to stand within the practices of our own faith, and search for wisdom, speaking truth when it is not easy. It is our turn to hear what the Spirit of God is speaking to us in this moment.