by Alexei Laushkin
If you follow the Protestant world much, you’ll undoubtedly be aware that Mainline Protestants will use the Old Testament and the Prophets to justify all sorts of public policy positions. I can remember being at an event early in my vocation and it was an evening service, the Prophet Amos was being read. We came to some powerful lines, Amos 5:24:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The immediate solution, free third world nations from their debts and obligations. That was the application to Amos 5. Let justice roll down like waters, free a wide range of actors from debt. Hallelujah.
I was recently back into Amos and had a very different take. I am very concerned with matters of justice and I think the scripture is too, but the narrative of Amos isn’t what you might think, although it does follow that what is happening in the life of the people of God ought to match their actions, no doubt about that, and in such a realm thinking about justice seriously and even arriving at certain conclusions is within the realm of prudential judgement. I.E. you could read the text and advocate for a progressive policy solution, but if that’s all you did with the scripture you’d be missing a lot.
Let’s take a longer section. Amos 5:6-15:
Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness to the earth!
He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name;
who makes destruction flash forth against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate him who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor him who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and you exact taxes of grain from him,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time,
for it is an evil time.
Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Imagine if you will the character of the people who are oppressing the poor, neglecting them, and essentially going about their day to day life as though nothing has happened. They don’t know that they are doing this, it doesn’t occur to them that their day to day actions have any bearing on the poor. It’s doubtful that the core audience knew what the Prophet was saying.
Consider some other passages of Amos. Here’s Amos 8:11:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD
God is angry with his people, they are so out of step with his ways, that the possibility of finding those ways are being dried up before their very eyes. He is so disgusted with their slackness and inability to see how unjust their practices have become that their prayers and their worship has become unbearable to hear. It would be like listening to someone’s prayers and thinking it was just babble.
God’s people don’t know this, but God is very upset with how out of sync they are with his purposes.
When many American Christians think about God’s justice, they think of Sodom and Gomorrah, his wrath or the plagues in Egypt. Meaning they think of punishment. Someone is wrong and will be punished.
Yet the picture in Amos is very different. There is a dearth of God’s ways, compassion, kindness, self-control, humility, people seeking the God of people outside of their economic or social group, people seeking after holiness in body (sexually) and spirit, people cultivating love and deep affection. These things are absent and so God is gently feed-up with everything.
God can no longer work with his people so calamities must come in order to see if the experience of hardship might produce better fruit.
The dynamics are so strong that Amos has a word of caution to those who see these things. Amos 5:13
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
Let’s not even begin to talk about what this might mean for the present day church. After all the council of Amos is wise, it is prudent to keep quiet in such times.
Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society, and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own.