Walter Brueggemann once wrote, “Empires live by numbness.” By linking the gospel story of Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples with the prophet Amos, we are reminded that ordinary people are called to prophetic discipleship that awakens us from our numbness to injustice.
Amos, a “nobody” from the southern kingdom of Judea, was called from the margins to the center of power to confront an extractive economy that oppressed both the poor and creation. But he had particularly harsh words for the imperial religionists at Bethel, one of the royal sanctuaries, whose priestly rituals contributed to the numbness of the people, especially among the elites. Today we hear how Amaziah, one of the priests of Bethel, ridicules Amos for fancying himself a prophet, then considered a “professional” position within the royal system.
Amaziah essentially says “Who the hell do you think you are?” and Amos has the “prophetic audacity” to reply that he is no royal prophet, just an ordinary person called by God to “speak truth to power.”
Still today, many of the prophets who challenge our numbness are ordinary people dismissed by the world’s Amaziahs as “nobodies.” They are ordinary high school students speaking out against gun violence (denounced as frauds), ordinary women summoning the courage to tell their stories of sexual harassment (disbelieved by sexist culture), ordinary Black communities who insist that Black Lives Matter (condemned as terrorists), rural people in Appalachia fighting against mining and fracking and for fair wages for teachers (dismissed as uneducated).These people are not “professional” activists or community leaders, but people simply doing what they need to do to survive. As the anti-mountaintop removal activist Judy Bonds once said, “I don’t think I chose to become an activist, it was chosen for me…. I think it had to do with how much injustice I was willing to accept.”
It is precisely their ordinariness that often makes them so threatening to the system’s “professionals,” even religious ones. Indeed, there are also ordinary voices today challenging the numbness of our churches, insisting like Amos that “If we want to confound and disrupt the narratives of oppression, we need to raise our angry voices in the pews as well as the streets.”
Jesus still empowers very ordinary disciples to drive out the demons of racism, sexism, discrimination, violence, and apathy. St. Paul echoes that empowerment today, saying, “In him we were also chosen” (Eph. 1:11).
So who the hell do you think you are?
Michael Iafrate is Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and served as the lead author of CCA’s “People’s Pastoral,” The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. He is a West Virginia native, a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University (’99 and ’03), and is completing a dissertation in theology for the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches and in the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology, edited by Tom Beaudoin (Liturgical Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Music, Theology, and Justice, edited by Michael O’Connor, Christina Labriola, and Hyun-Ah Kim (Lexington Books, 2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician.