David Carlson: Don’t blame me for your contradictions

Sometimes life offers a lesson in a mere few seconds of time, but a lesson that is worth pondering for months.

I received one of these lessons a few weeks ago when I was driving north on Interstate 65. A pickup truck passed me with a variety of decals in the back window. My eye focused on the largest image on the left side of the window and then shifted to the largest image on the right side.

The decal on the left contained no words, which didn’t matter, because the image was very familiar to me. Growing up the son of a minister, I have seen this image my whole life, often on the front of Sunday bulletins. The image is that of two hands clasped in prayer.

But then my eyes moved to the image dominating the right side of the window. Here were huge red lips with “Kiss my” above the lips and “Butt” below it, except it wasn’t butt but another word for the human posterior.

The two images together were jarring at first. Then I realized they offered a sad commentary on what so frequently goes wrong with religion. The two images taken together reminded me of the 8th century BCE prophet Amos, whose oracles are recorded in the Hebrew Bible or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament.

Amos is one of my favorite prophets, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t disturb me as well. I call him my “Aqua Velva” prophet, which needs a bit of explanation if you, the reader, are 60 years old or younger. Back in the days of black-and-white TV, there was a commercial for the aftershave Aqua Velva that showed a man being slapped across the face. His response was to utter the famous words, “Thanks, I needed that.”

When I read Amos, I often have that same “Thanks, I needed that” reaction. Amos tells it like it is, and one of the lessons he offers is about how easily religion can go astray.

In speaking for God, Amos paints a picture of people going faithfully to places of worship and offering generous tithes. The worshippers feel holy and believe that God is pleased with them. But then Amos slaps those worshippers across the face. God is not pleased, but sickened by their behavior. Why? Because God notices how when these pious worshippers exit the place of worship — after hearing the Scriptures read, after singing hymns, after praying — they return to their normal lives where they cheat and abuse the poorest and most vulnerable.

Amos exposes the darkest temptation of religion, that being to confine religion to a person’s relationship solely with God. Jesus and many writers of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, point out that saying one loves God while ignoring, hating, or abusing one’s neighbor is not just religion off the rails, but one of the most dangerous sins. The danger lies in how holy a worshipper can feel when he or she limits religion to the “God and me” relationship.

Moses, prophets like Amos, Jesus and various New Testament writers offer the same slap in the face. Yes, the first great commandment is to love God with one’s whole being, but the second is just as important to God. If we love God, we must show that by loving the neighbor as much as we love ourselves. One of the New Testament writers offers this probing thought: “We cannot love God, whom we haven’t seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen.”

So, back to the pickup truck’s back window. Don’t those two images of the praying hands and lips paired together expose something very wrong in our country? It’s pretty clear from Amos and other writers of scripture that a person can’t truly love God while, at the same time, telling others to kiss his posterior. Yet in our society, many who spew the most anger and hatred, especially toward those who are different, are the very people who pride themselves on worshipping weekly, holding their Bibles aloft in angry protests and saying they represent God.

If this is as uncomfortable a message to you as it is to me, don’t blame me. Take your complaint up with Amos.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]