Justice

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
—Amos 5:24

The gospel according to Amos is all about justice—particularly social justice—and his concern for social justice is our primary focus in this week’s iChapel. However, before turning to assess that concern, we must, first, remind ourselves as to who Amos is and what his role as a prophet in Israel was.

Amos was a farmer from the town of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah called to be a prophet around the year 750 BCE, confronting the leadership of the northern kingdom of Israel for their abandonment of the ideals with which God’s kingdom was meant to be governed. God’s kingdom, according to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, defined itself over and against other kingdoms of the ancient near east by the degree to which it embodied the unique character of their unique God, YHWH. As a kingdom committed to just one God, Israel was already different from other kingdoms. Yet, that kingdom’s experience of the divine in YHWH was utterly divergent from how many nations experienced the divine. While most nations worshiped gods of wrath and chaos, Israel committed to a god seemingly more interested in showing mercy and creating order. In addition, that distinctly divergent character was expressed in a peculiar concern for the powerless, exploited, and marginalized. This concern for the “least of these” is exemplified in how the government and social systems of the kingdom cared for the orphaned—the powerless, the widowed—the exploited, and foreigners—the marginalized, Brueggemann maintains.

At the time of Amos, Israel had begun to prosper and in its prosperity had become greedy, requiring the farming class within the kingdom to begin farming crops more suitable for trade than food for the nation. In this evolving economic system, the benefits were tilted toward the rich at the expense of the poor—especially the foreigner, orphaned, and widowed—who were already disadvantaged because of their lack of political, social, and economic standing, respectively, e.g., Amos 5:6-16.

Like any prophet, Amos filled a vital role in the political and theological life of Israel. Prophets, we often think, were fortunetellers, predictors of the future. We have come to use the term that way. Yet, originally within the life of Israel a prophet did not tell about the future but told something to those who could change the future. The purpose of the prophet was to speak truth to power, telling the powerful that if they did not respond to the prophet’s challenges to repent and live faithfully then the consequences of their disobedience would have dire results in the future. The results were predicted to be dire not because prophets were reading the future but are announcing the logical outcomes for a people who intentionally and belligerently move against the will of God.

In chapter five, Amos is complaining about how the poor have been pushed to the side in the way that the kingdom has developed its economic policy, a development in direct contradiction to the tenor of the second table of the Decalogue—i.e., an outline for the care for our social interactions. Moreover, this justice movement by God is meant to be socially restorative and never abstract, restoring the balance and relationships within the community between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, between the government and the governed. In other words, making YHWH’s people one people as YHWH was one god.

And, here in Amos’ account, we see how the prophet envisions that that justice from God will change both the immediate and distant future. For Amos, justice shapes the community in two ways. First, YHWH’s justice washes over our social institutions like a tidal wave, radically changing everything like (mighty) waters roaring over the land. Second, YHWH’s justice is like a stream, gradually reshaping the landscape over which it flows. In either fashion, Amos promises, YHWH’s righteous justice with restore and reshape.

For us, nearly, three thousand years removed from Amos’ prophetic complaints, we might be confused to the degree to which his concerns have relevance to our lives. I mean, we are not ancient Israel. We do not have a king. We are not a kingdom. We are deliberately not a religiously governed nation. So, how do Amos’ words offer any relevant “good news” to us, in general, and the poor of our land, in particular? The answer seems to lie in the prophet’s claim that YHWH’s justice—while specifically meant to be embodied by Israel—is not exclusively meant to be limited to Israel. In other words, God’s kingdom is meant to be a place that embodies in a particular way what is intended for all nations of the earth. The only unique character assigned to Israel is their role as responsible exemplars. Every nation—once aware to the reality of YHWH’s desire to care for the powerless, exploited, and marginalized—must respond, moving with the transformative waters that both rush in and gently flow, changing everything.

Having just returned from New Orleans from a fall break mission trip, the transformative power of water and its potential impact on a community are vividly evident in the forefront of my imagination. Determining to reflect on this passage long before we went to NOLA, I seem captured in the wake of either providence or a happy serendipity.

The waters that washed over NOLA in 2005 were not the result of divine judgment but the evidence of catastrophic human failures—witnessed in levies breached, people stranded, and governmental and systemic collapse. Yet, as those waters of our failure receded, another wave washed into NOLA. This new wave carries hammers and hope, love and possibilities. Initially as a wave and now more a gentle stream, communities are changing and re-forming, systems are being reformed, and justice seems to be washing over the land, exhibited not in how people “get what they deserve” but in how neighborhoods are reminded that they are filled with neighbors and making a better life together seems to have supplanted—for the time being—the importance of making a good living. I witnessed the power of that second wave many times in four days as tears of thanks wash down cheeks and faces were awash in smiles born of gratitude. The degree to which Amos’ words serve as good news to our modern ears depends on how closely we are willing to listen and look, hearing the cries of those drowning in our floods of indifference and our seeing the systems that might lead to some future calamity we may avoid if we only recognize the prophet’s complaints whenever we create structures that fail the powerless, exploited, and marginalized all around us.

The witness of the prophet and lesson of NOLA is for us to be sure to listen and move with the flow of God, pushing back the waters of destruction with a wave of compassion and necessary reform.

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