By Mark W. Hamilton
What does a just community look like? Is the American church such a community?
Do we live out the call of the prophet Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?”*
These questions confront anyone who studies the history of American Christianity. From that history we learn that Christians used the Bible to defend slavery and oppose it, to silence women and empower them, to cheer on Bull Connor’s corrupt police in Birmingham, Alabama, and to walk through hostile crowds in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Selma, Alabama, during the civil rights movement.
Today, similarly, Christians both defend the imprisonment of 2 million of their fellow citizens and work for the reform of that unjust system. Christians denigrate immigrants and join in their defense. Some even believe that the richest nation in earth’s history should defend itself with a wall paid for by the savings of its poorest residents—immigrants who work dirty jobs and send their money home to support their families. No action has come to seem too shameful in our fear-driven society.
Truly, the American church is in many ways a people divided. Truly, many of us are unclear on the biblical call to live lives of justice.
How, then, do we find clarity amid the confusion? If one wishes to make such strong assertions from a Christian perspective, as I have done, it is crucial to rest the case on Scripture itself. Specifically, we must consider texts that describe with crystalline clarity the nature of justice and injustice and how disciples of Jesus Christ live into that nature.
A Just Community
So, a case in point: one of the most thorough discussions of a just community in the Old Testament comes from the book of Amos. Perhaps we should introduce it with a reader’s advisory, however, something like “the Bible may be dangerous to your presuppositions.”
Consider just a few lines from the book.
I hate, I reject your festivals and take no pleasure in your assemblies, whenever you offer me whole burnt offerings. I do not enjoy your gifts nor pay attention to your well-marbled sacrifices. Take away from me your noisy songs. I don’t want to hear your clamorous hymns. Instead, let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a stream in flood! (Amos 5:21-24).
Too bad for those at ease in Zion or those trusting in Samaria, the special ones of the first of the nations, to whom Israel’s house comes. . . . Those lying on ivory inlaid beds and sprawling on their couches, eating lambs from the flock and stall-fed calves, playing on a harp like David and improvising on instruments, drinking wine by the bowl-full and slathering themselves with the best oils, but having no regard for Joseph’s decay (Amos 6:1, 4-6).
Hear this, you who step on the lowly and eliminate the land’s needy ones. You say, “When will the new moon be over so we can sell stuff? When can we get through the Sabbath so we can open up the grain sales?” You shrink the grain measure and increase the money measure so as to cheat with deceptive scales. You sell the poor for silver and the lowly for a pair of shoes, marketing even the waste of the wheat. The Lord, Jacob’s pride, has sworn by himself never to forget your deeds (Amos 8:4-7).
In these and many other texts, Amos does not spare his hearers’ sensitive feelings as he stirs them from their self-righteousness and unrealistic belief that God’s love excuses any abuse they permit themselves.
With bracing honesty, the prophet seeks to rescue them, as well as their victims and long-neglected comrades, from the narcotic of complacent religion. “Let justice flow like waters,” indeed. Their pursuit of comfort has blinded them to the suffering of others.
But why does Amos say all this? In fact, the book does not merely collect catchy sound bites. It follows a clear structure that moves from a broad view of the world’s problem with crimes against humanity (Amos 1:1–2:16), to a sharp focus on Israel’s deep-rooted mistreatment of the poor by the rich (3:1–6:14), to a prudential questioning of God’s judgment (7:1-9), to an acceptance of the rightness of that judgment (7:10–9:10), and at long last to a promise of a future restoration after crushing trials (9:11-15).
The book carefully paints a picture of a community out of touch with its core values and therefore trapped in the wider human tendency to oppress the vulnerable (repeatedly named in the Bible as the widows, orphans, and migrants), leading to that community’s chastening and near destruction.
What Must We Do?
Does this vision of God’s indignation at people who worship with pleasure while continuing to crush others apply to the contemporary American church? Even asking the question points to the answer.
If the church is to avoid Israel’s period of exile and suffering, what must we do to be saved?
Amos provides some important clues. In its opening salvo against Israel itself (Amos 2:6-16), the book describes powerful people who crush the poor and even spend the night at God’s altars while sleeping on the garments of others, held as collateral for small loans (as though God were too stupid to notice). They hide their oppressive behavior behind religion. Amos thinks of this behavior as springing from a culpable amnesia:
I brought you up from Egypt’s land
Helped you walk through the wilderness for forty years,
To take over the Amorites’ land.
I raised up prophets from your children
And Nazirites from your offspring.
Isn’t this so, Israel’s children? (Amos 2:10, 11).
In their profound ingratitude, Israel rejected the gifts of divine presence when their haves began to see the have-nots as less than themselves, not as heirs to the same promises but as tools for enhancing their power. The prophetic voice of warning went unheeded as ungrateful, self-indulgent people mistook loving criticism for its opposite and listened only to voices that confirmed their biases.
Of course, Amos’s audience in the eighth century BC was not the last to use religion to justify their deafness to the cries of other people, nor were they the last to forget that the story of God’s grace should not excuse their fears, lusts, and willingness to scapegoat the weakest among them for all their ills.
No, they were not the last. We hear it every day from American Christians.
The self-pity of the prosperous, the one-sided emphasis on law and order (for you, not us), the willingness to fault the migrant employee but not the employer, the fear of the outsider even from citizens of the most heavily armed nation in human history, the use of the alleged (not real) ban on school prayer as a cover for sending our children to lily-white private schools—all these are signs of the same spiritual amnesia and lack of trust in God that Amos took to task.
Today’s American church runs the risk that instead of being the community working and praying alongside the vulnerable, we may become the community against which those very people pray. If such becomes the case, then our time will be short.
Is there hope for us, then? Here again, Amos helps us, for the book offers a vision of God’s call for human beings. We can see this vision simply by flipping Amos’s criticism over. If the problem is religion disconnected from ethics, then what is the solution? Surely religion and ethics joined hand in hand. If the problem is forgetfulness of our common humanity, then the solution must be attention to that. What precisely is God’s vision for us, and how do we live it out?
Like all 12 of the Minor Prophets, the book of Amos ends with an oracle of hope:
In that day, I will raise up David’s toppled hut,
Repair holes in its walls, and restore its ruins.
Then I will rebuild it as in olden days (Amos 9:11).
The prophet imagines a day when Israel, purged of its injustices, will return to its land and live in harmony with one another. He recognizes that the mere existence of a religious community does not ensure its health. The success of its programs or the satisfaction of its leaders does not equal spiritual well-being.
Luxury is the enemy of the spirit, for it travels in the company of arrogance, complacency, self-justification, and other tormentors of the soul. Amos invites his hearers to consider an alternative way of life based in gratitude for God’s work among all people and committed to imitation of that primordial generosity. Amos reminds his hearers that no one earns privilege, and no one is entitled to indifference toward others. No one may rightly claim God’s protection or mercy while denying the same to others.
Can the American church in its moment of soul-searching find clarity? To do so, we must rely less on the weapons of strident political speech and maneuverings for judgeships to get our way. Forty years of such tactics have made our society much less willing to listen to the church’s gospel message, not more so.
Instead, we must learn again that when Jesus called us to love our neighbors as ourselves, or Amos invited us to let justice flow like a river, they were not speaking pious platitudes. They were calling us to take the long, hard, but ultimately glorious road of sacrifice on behalf of just those whom some would invite us to belittle or hate.
So, let us banish nostalgia for a nonexistent past. Let us ignore the voices that would scapegoat and belittle others as the source of all our problems. And let us hear the Bible’s clarion call to be a people who care for the suffering of the world. Then we can truly be the peaceable kingdom to which all the prophets point, and Jesus most of all.
*Scripture verses are Mark Hamilton’s own translation.
Mark Hamilton is the Robert and Kay Onstead Professor of Old Testament at Abilene Christian University and an elder at University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.