“…let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” – Amos 5:22
When I was younger I used to be scared out of my wits whenever I heard a ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon preached at our local church’s pulpit. God knows how much I tremble at the very graphic descriptions of the ‘end times’ and the Day of the Lord.
But nowadays, I don’t seem to feel anything.
In fact just this Sunday I heard yet again, another one of those ‘fire & brimstone’ messages that’s typical among conservative congregations in the Philippines –and again I didn’t feel anything. The reason being is that I cannot help but feel short-changed whenever I would hear such messages preached in the pulpit. As I grow older and as I was gradually exposed to progressive politics I became more and more anaesthetized with such sermons primarily because I cannot help but always find that the routinely applied preaching technique is always applied only in terms of personal piety and commitment at the expense of the call for a social and political dimension in our life, work and worship as Christians.
Personally, I do not have anything against such emphasis on piety --but with the reality of 1.3 billion people in extreme poverty around the world; 800 million people going to bed hungry every single day.1 I cannot help but feel that perhaps there is something wrong or missing in the preaching and teaching among contemporary churches. Especially in this day and age of technology and unprecedented wealth, brought about by free enterprise I cannot help but feel that whether or not we conscious of it we and most of the churches that we are part of seems to be rejecting the reality of a world where such suffering exists amid such plenty --how on earth can we act so complacent?
I mean as Christians do we not act complacent --by believing ourselves as ‘good people’ because we do the norms that endorses "spiritual" substitutes like going to church, quiet time, using religious language, arguing with evolutionists, not reading Harry Potter etc, instead of pursuing social justice and public righteousness?
In fact I cannot help but feel that our churches’ over emphasis on the spiritual and its ‘how to’ treatment of Christian morality somehow merely conceals ours and our church’s political option – support for the status quo where justice is denied and freedom as mere privilege extended only to those who can afford it.
The prophetic message of Amos
It is in this anaesthetised state that I am now confronted with the confounding message of an 8th century sheepherder from Judah named, Amos: "Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts."
At a time of breakdown in covenantal values and unequal distribution of wealth, Amos stands as among those who rose up to become a prophetic voice that articulated the moral deficiency of the Israelites which he attributed to their failure to carry out the covenant that is to exhibit justice and righteousness which is the primary stipulation of the covenant.
This prophetic critique is based on the kind of God that Amos has –this God is the God and ruler of all –He rules with justice and righteousness.
Justice and righteousness
It is really interesting to note that as far as the Old Testament is concerned the words ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ always seem to appear in the same word, or at least adjacent to each other. Amos is among those who preached on this dimension of this truth as a prophet who evoked an alternative consciousness to that of the establishment during his time in Israel’s history for he is among those who evoked of a consciousness that is rooted in the covenant.
Israel’s failure shows that societies can be religious and yet be detached from the social implications of religion. Moreover that worship should be consistent with social actions. Spirituality is equal with social justice. In fact one of Amos’s focus in his prophetic ministry was the Israelites’ social sins as exhibited Chapter 5. What infuriates Amos was their hypocrisy, as they tick all the ‘right’ religious boxes while getting rich at the expense of others.
Israel shows a religion that is devoid of life devoid of justice and righteousness, where the community of faith itself becomes an instrument of injustice.
Personally, the massage of Amos is a welcomed call to for me as an individual and as a part of a community of faith to move forward from what I consider as sentimental religiosity to a holistic spirituality that manifests in concrete undertakings that seeks to live up to God’s mandate to pursue justice and righteousness.
That is why for me the study of Amos must not merely end with an acknowledgement of our collective guilt, but with resolution to take action.
For it is part of our calling as Christians to live as a community of believers who don’t just offer God words of worship, but rather to live obedient lives, that actively seek to live more justly and more righteously, and do more justice and more righteousness.
1 Mukarji, Daleep. Justice and the Heart of God (Christian Aid 2008), p. 8