Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
I first met the prophet Amos during my junior year in college. I was already acquainted with Jesus’ call to love the outcast and the poor, but it was through Amos that I was confronted with the stark reality that God wanted more than individual acts of compassion – he demanded justice.
Israel at the time of Amos was living in a time of prosperity, with no real threats from the nations surrounding it. But that prosperity had a dark side – it was built on the backs of the poor. Archeological evidence shows that in the 10th century, homes in Israel were of a similar size. But that by the time of the prophet Amos, there were a few very large homes in Israel, and many many more extremely small homes. Income inequality had taken root, and the prophet Amos named its cause: oppression.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”
Amos’ message is frightening for those of us who live in the developed world at the beginning of the 21st century. A website, the Global Rich List, shows where we stand. $50,000 a year, which is just above the median household income in the United States, is in the top 1 percent of income worldwide. Over 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day, and almost 3 billion live on less than $2 per day. There are more than 27 million slaves worldwide, vulnerable because of their abject poverty.
While most of us do not directly oppress the poor, each of us in the developed world benefits from their oppression. Our computers are cheaper because laborers in the developing world are not paid a living wage and are not given basic labor protections common in the developed world. Many of the products that we buy, from our sneakers to agricultural products, come to us because of the work of modern day slaves. And our addiction to greenhouse gas producing energy promises to displace millions of the world’s poorest in this century, through flooding, famine, and lack of access to drinking water.
The heart of God demands that we take steps to lift up the poor. But how can we do it, when the numbers are so large? The scale of the problem can lead to paralysis.
Rather than give in to paralysis, Jesus calls us to action. We may not be able to save all of the children dying from preventable diseases in Africa, but we can probably contribute money to help buy mosquito netting and vaccines to save a few hundred of them. We may not be able to stop global warming in its entirety, but we can reduce our energy utilization by replacing our lights with compact fluorescent bulbs, adjusting our thermostat, buying a more fuel-efficient car, and purchasing carbon offsets to create more renewable energy. We may not be able to directly create jobs in the developing world, but we can certainly give to micro-loan programs which help the world’s poorest start businesses which can move them above the $2 per day threshold of extreme poverty.
But if we do not act at all, we need to heed the words that the Lord spoke through the prophet Amos almost 3000 years ago:
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.