Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Amos: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 
—Desmond Tutu

There is a common misconception that the only role of the prophets in the Bible is to predict the future.  Growing up, I viewed the Old Testament prophets’ role as mainly predicting the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  While the prophets do often predict the future, they have another, more practical, role—they are social critics, pointing out the problems and injustices of their day, and telling people to act with more justice and mercy.

"The Book of Amos" by Nahum HaLevi

This is particularly true with the book of Amos, a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who trekked north to Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. to lay a verbal smackdown on the rich and powerful, for their oppression of the poor.  Amos calls out the upper classes on their greed and hypocrisy, and promises a coming judgment by God.  Amos writes:

“Thus says the Lord:
for three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

In other words, there is serious labor exploitation going on.  Amos condemns Israel’s upper classes, saying their luxury will be short-lived:

“I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house;
and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,
says the Lord.”

The prophet compares the wealthy to fat cows, saying they shall be carried away with nose hooks, like real cows:

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria (the capitol of Isreal)…
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks.”

Fat cat (or cow).

Amos has no patience for rich people who observe religious ritual while ignoring the practical needs of the poor:

“I hate, I despise your [religious] festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt 
offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, 
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

"Poverty" by Pablo Picasso

Of what use, Amos wonders, is religious ritual when there is real unmet human need and oppression going on?  To paraphrase a famous journalist, Amos’s task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable…

“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.”

Amos’ prescription is quite simple:

“Seek good and not evil,
that you may live…
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.”

Like social critics in all ages, Amos is persecuted and criticized by the wealthy and powerful.  The high priest Amaziah conspires against Amos to the king, Jeroboam.  But Amos is undeterred in his message.  He speaks truth to power.

While the book of Amos ends on a hopeful note of future restoration after judgment, most scholars believe these hopeful passages to be later additions, sort of like tacking a Hollywood “happy ending” onto a Greek tragedy.  If you remove 9: 11-15, the supposed later additions, the book is much more powerful, I think.

I ended my last book report, on Joel, with the question: Of what relevance is this text to modern readers?  I think the book of Amos does indeed speak to us, and to every generation, prompting us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I participating in oppression?  For Americans, this question has extreme relevance and urgency.  I’m currently teaching an English class with the theme of “Globalization.”  Last week, we watched a powerful film called “The Yes Men” which points out disturbing ways in which we, as Americans, benefit from a global economy which tends to exploit developing countries for labor and resources.

Sweat shop.

Or, to bring things closer to home, in another of my classes, we are reading Gustavo Arellano’s book Orange County: a Personal History, which deals with discrimination that Mexican-Americans continue to face right here in Orange County.  A particularly vulnerable part of our population in the United States are undocumented immigrants.  People fleeing poverty and violence to take refuge in “the land of the free” often experience exploitation, discrimination, harassment, and constant fear of deportation.  It’s astonishing how many Americans, even today, demonize these fellow human beings.  For Christians, a good question to ask is: In what ways am I on the side of the oppressor, and how can I make a change, so that I am on the side of the oppressed?

Fellow human beings.

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