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The Rev. Dr. Kathlyn James The Rev. Dr. Kathlyn James

The Rev. Dr. Kathlyn James is senior pastor of Edmonds United Methodist Church, Edmonds, WA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Edmonds United Methodist Church, Edmonds, WA.


That You May Live

Amos 5:14-24

June 29, 1997

Stuffed into a file labeled "Current Reading" on my desk is an article that has been in that file almost seven years now. I've read it many times, but I haven't yet been able to bring myself to throw it away. It is a haunting article. In its own way, it gives voice to one of the most important questions in life.

The article is about a young African-American woman from Atlanta named Mozella Dansby. On Friday, April 24, 1987, Mozella Dansby, a bookkeeper at the Georgia Power Company, walked into her office, pulled out a gun, and shot and wounded two of her supervisors. And then this 31-year-old woman, wife and mother, pointed the gun to her own head and pulled the trigger. The newspapers reporting that she'd been distraught because once again she'd been passed over for a promotion on the job.

An acquaintance writes about Mozella Dansby: "Almost a week elapsed between the time Mozella found out she'd been denied the promotion and the time she fired those shots. A week is a long time to dream of killing someone. Didn't anyone sense her torment? Wasn't there some friend somewhere who suddenly felt compelled to call her in the middle of one of her restless nights; 'Girl, you've been on my mind. Something told me to call you.' Where were her support systems?"

Evil is too huge a thing to war against alone. Why couldn't Mozella find solace in the talks she'd had with her husband? According to Dwight Dansby, she had taken the day before off from work to look for a new job and had come home cheerful and optimistic. He later discovered that was the day she bought the gun. Why hadn't the sight and sounds and smell, the feel of her two small children as she prepared them for bed that Thursday night, or the touch of her husband's lips on Friday morning as she gave him (what he described as) a "strange long kiss" been enough to pull her back from the abyss?

Without a lifeline, Mozella wrapped all the hopes she'd once had for a better life around a 38-caliber revolver, and stuffed them and that gun into her purse. In that same pocketbook she left a note that read: "I think this was something that needed to be done. They didn't do me fair about the job and they had to be stopped. I know everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will. But I think this will give other supervisors and managers something to think about before someone else is done unfairly."*

I don't know how many times I read that article over before I began to hear Mozella explaining why she had slipped over the edge into despair, and I believe the key lies in this line in her note: "I know everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will." Evidently, it wasn't just the fact that she'd been passed over for a job, which was given to a white man, though her employer later admitted she was eminently qualified for it. That was crushing, but survivable.

What drove Mozella to pick up that gun was being told that there was nothing to look forward to except more crushing. She was being told, "That's just the way things are. There's no use fighting it." "I know everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will." Mozella was driven to attempt murder and take her own life by this message: "There is no justice in this world, and there never will be."

The prophets in the Bible would disagree. They stride into Hebrew history and announce, in no uncertain terms, that there is one God in this universe, and this God is not neutral on matters of good and evil. This God places moral demands on human beings, and holds us accountable for our lives.

Amos is the earliest of Israel's prophets from whom we have a book of writings. The name Amos means "burden bearer," and it fits, for Amos carries the burden of being the bearer of bad news. Nobody likes to hear about evil and injustice, especially when times are good. Being a prophet of God is always a lonely job.

Amos comes onto the scene during one of the most prosperous periods of Jewish history. Israel is free from hostile enemies; the economy is sound; society is stable. But Amos can't help but see that within this outward peace there is a creeping rottenness at the core of society that will bring destruction in the end. He sees rampant cheating going on in business; judges being bribed in the courts; gross mistreatment of the poor; religion that has grown shallow and meaningless. He sees a people that have become self-indulgent and soft, and leaders who are increasingly corrupt. (Does any of this sound familiar?)

Tormented by this, Amos cries out: "Unless we return to the foundations of our faith, unless our citizens have strong moral character and raise up children with a developed sense of right and wrong, this society is going to crumble from within. Our prosperity is not going to last." Historically speaking, Amos was right.

Like all the biblical prophets, Amos believes in a God who has built into creation a moral law as real as the law of gravity, so that if human beings violate either one, we suffer the consequences. Listen again to his words: "Thus says God; I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream."

What drove Mozella Dansby into despair was believing that there is no justice in this world, and none to be hoped for. Her well-meaning friends, saying, "Injustice goes on everywhere and always will", were saying in effect, "There is no ultimate moral foundation in this world." Across the distances of time and space, Amos' words ring out from the pages of scripture, saying to Mozella and her friends, and to all of us who hunger for justice in this world: "There is a moral foundation built into this world, whether it looks like it or not."

Well, what do you think?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, writer and teacher, tells about a class on Jewish history he was teaching to teenagers in his congregation. One day the class was studying the holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. As the class read example after example of butchery and cruelty, Kushner would see the horror rising in his students, and feel their cumulative outrage approach the boiling point. That was when he asked them, "Why was Hitler wrong?"

The students were confused by the question. "What do you mean, why was Hitler wrong?" one student asked. "Do you mean he might have been right, that the Jews were an inferior race and should be murdered?"

Another cried, "Why was he wrong? You can't just take people and kill them because you don't like them."

Kushner observed. "Remember, the Nazis were careful to pass laws sanctioning everything that they did. It was all within the law. Was it still wrong?"

"Of course it was," the first student replied. "Just because you pass laws permitting the gassing of children doesn't mean it's right."

Kushner pressed further, "But why? Are you trying to tell me that some things are wrong, even if the majority of people think they are right? Are you telling me that there is such a thing as good and evil, some standards of morality that exist no matter how we feel about them, or whether or not we agree with them? Where do you get such an idea?"

Of course, Kushner knew where his students got that idea. They got it from their Biblical heritage, and especially from the prophets, like Amos. For the prophets assert that there is one God, and that by itself is a moral statement. Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, wrote the mournful line, "If there is no God, then everything is permitted."

If there is no God, then there are no ultimate standards of good and evil apart from human opinion. In that case, you and I are free, in the same way that a sailor at sea without a compass is free ~ we can choose to travel in any direction we wish, precisely because we have no way of knowing in which direction the harbor lies. If one of us, or a group of us, or a whole society of us, come to believe that torturing political prisoners or beating our children or pursuing self- interest at all costs is a good thing to do, there is no higher authority to appeal to. That's just the way life is.

If there is no God, then human life is inane, there is no such thing as justice, and we might as well blow our heads off, because our choice is as good as another. If there is no God, then morality is simply a matter of personal taste, and like Mozella Dansby, we are lost.

If there is a God, however, then there can be such a thing as good and evil, whether human beings agree or not. If there is a righteous God, as the prophets say, then we cannot decide by majority vote that it is all right to steal or kill, any more than we can decide that winters should be hot or chocolate is more nutritious than vegetables (pity though that may be). If there is a God, then there is a moral foundation to this universe, and all our actions take on significance.

In fact, it's this moral dimension which gives human life its dignity, and which can infuse even the humblest human life with meaning.

In the same book that Harold Kushner describes his dialogue with students about the Holocaust, he describes his grandfather, a house painter eking out a modest living. "But in addition," Kushner writes, "my grandfather had a secret identity. He was one of God's agents on earth, maintaining literacy in a sea of ignorance and kindness in a world of cruelty. His days, his every act became important because he believed it mattered to God what he ate, how he earned and spent money, how he respected his wife and treated his children. The sense of having to live up to God's standards redeemed my grandfather's life from anonymity and insignificance, and it can do the same for each of us."

If there is a God, then we are not like sailors lost at sea. There is a star to steer by; and there is a harbor toward which we are headed. We even know what that harbor will look like, thanks also to the prophets. Here is where they wax most eloquently, holding up a vision of what God intends human life to become. They speak of the lion lying down with the lamb, of soldiers beating their swords into plowshares, of children growing up unafraid, of there being no sickness, or hunger, or crying anymore. Amos writes: "Seek good, and not evil, that you may live."

God is on the side of good and not evil, the prophets say ~ which not only redeems our present existence from insignificance, and infuses our daily decisions with meaning ~ it also means that although we may not see it now, we can trust that justice will be done in the end.

My thoughts keep turning back to Mozella Dansby, that woman who gave up on life because, as she wrote, "Everyone is saying this goes on everywhere and always will." And I keep wondering what a modern-day prophet like Amos would say to her ~ maybe what Mozella's grandfather might have said to her, if she had a wise grandfather, when Mozella came home from work the day her promotion was denied.

My guess is that Amos would say: "This is wrong. It shouldn't have happened to you," and anguished with Mozella. And then, he'd probably say something like, "Honey, two wrongs don't make a right." And then he would have told her to get up, wash her face, and get on with the business of living her own life with honor. "Seek good, and not evil," he would say, "that you may live."

And you know, in that simple message, Amos could have given to Mozella Dansby something that her friends could not. He could have given her hope. It is the stubborn hope of prophets, to insist that life is worth living, and that the meaning of our lives will be found in seeking and serving what is good. Even if evil is all around, even if the whole world should deny it, God is still God of this universe, and justice is still just.

Amen.


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