Amos and Justice


Next week's lectionary readings include Amos 8:1-12, which serves as a stark condemnation of economic exploitation and social injustice. The passage from Amos includes the following text:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
Amos goes on to say something crucial about the nature of our relationship with God. The prophet writes that those who exploit the poor will find themselves experiencing a metaphorical famine of the spirit:
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
Those who exploit the poor, according to Amos, will not experience God's presence or God's call.

Bruce Epperly's commentary on the lectionary readings has this to say about the Amos passage:
In a nation where the word “God” is glibly announced in political campaigns and entertainment programs, and invoked to support violence, economic exploitation, empire, sexism, and heterosexism, Amos reminds us that our familiarity with divine language may eventually threaten our experience of God, if we do not connect our words with actions that promote justice and wholeness.
But Epperly points out that this does not mean that God has stopped calling out to all people at all times. God calls out continually, even to those who oppress or carry out social injustice. However, those who do so numb themselves to the Divine call, such that their ability to listen is damaged. He writes:
Although God is present in every moment of experience as the source of guidance and inspiration, our ability to experience God and, conversely, God’s ability to become the center of our lives, is conditioned by our faithfulness and focus. God’s aim toward wholeness is never abstract, but always concretely present in the events of our lives. If we have confused the God of possibility and beauty with gods of our own making and our own prosperity, God’s whisper may be drowned out by the shouting of the false gods of our own contrivance. In the spirit of Paul Tillich, if our “ultimate concern” is finite and self-serving and used as a means of injustice toward others, then when that “idol” collapses, we may have nothing upon which to stand.
As Epperly further points out,
If we don’t experience God in the “least of these” in the human and non-human worlds, we may not be able to experience God when we truly need to encounter God in a healing and transforming way.
What all this boils down to is that you cannot separate the personal, the political, and the theological. Our relationship with God is intimately related to how we treat "the least of these", both on an individual level and at a societal level. Participation in societal exploitation damages the personal and transformational value of faith. Religion is not just about personal transformation or personal "salvation". It is also about social transformation as well. The two go hand in hand.


Isaiah 58 said...

It seems these days that we have plenty of people who believe the theological is political. But few have understood that the converse is also true, the political is theological. Reading Amos helps to remind me of it. The book has similar themes to Isaiah but without the diplomacy. And this weeks prophecy makes me shiver. What a scary thought, a famine of hearing God's word.

Thanks for the food for thought.