Cursing Injustice with the Prophet Amos
A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013. This was the morning we learned of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. While not mentioning the trial, this is a sermon that speaks to God’s definitive “no” to systems of injustice set in the greater context of God’s life bearing “yes” that is spoken for all people. Following the sermon we sang “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table” and then the Rev. Jeffrey Geary led us in something like the prayer of outrage and grief below.
Text: Amos 7:7-17
We spend today with the prophet Amos in our lectionary text. From this passage, we learn much of what know of the person Amos. Following the vision of the Lord holding a plumb line before the crooked wall, we enter into a sort of “day in the life” scene with Amos. Amos in the temple of the kingdom of King Jeroboam, who Amos has just remarked will soon suffer the judgment of the Lord, death by the sword. It’s not surprising that the temple priest, Amaziah, whose livelihood depends on the security of the kingdom, tells Amos to go back where he came from. Specifically, Amaziah tells Amos to flee home to the Southern kingdom of Judah and to earn his living there in the Company of Prophets, far away from the reign of King Jeroboam. Amos responds that he is not a part of a school of prophets, not like Elijah and Elisha in that regard. Amos is a farmer and herdsman who the Lord called from the fields to prophesy to God’s people, Israel. He is in essence the plumb line or measure described in the vision that opens up today’s passage. The Lord raises Amos from among the people to testify against a society – its governance, economy, religion, and individual practice – that is structurally unsound. Israel is a “wall” built on the backs of the poor and the Lord is set to knock it down.
Amos’ call was a difficult one to put it mildly. He was a solo prophet who prophesied in 8th century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, divided by civil war from the Southern Kingdom of Judah and now ruled by King Jeroboam. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity in Israel…at least for some. In his work, Amos Among the Prophets, Robert Coote describes Amos’ social and economic context as one marked by sharp class divisions. There was a large peasantry class that worked the land and raised livestock, the profits of which they did not reap. Under the tight control of a small ruling elite, the peasants were charged high rental fees for farming, trapped under high interest loans, and eventually robbed of land ownership. Coote explains that among the elite, who lived in isolation from the peasants, there were some who did not view the peasants as fellow human beings. They were simply a mass or herd set to produce for the benefit of the elite.[i] Amos’ singular focus as a prophet was to condemn the injustice of the socioeconomic system upheld by the ruling elite, to speak death to the religious institutions that maintained the status quo, and to uphold the righteousness of the poor. He spoke words that the ‘land could not bear’, prophesies that the Lord was about to turn the world on end, to bring down those on high and give release to the poor.
In general terms, Amos cursed a lot. Not the way we think of cursing but in a much more terrifying sense. Amos, delivering the words of the Lord, cursed cities and people and systems, anything standing in the way of God’s justice. In the church, we spend a good amount of time with God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” Blessed to be a blessing.
What then do we draw from the message of Amos? God is cursing God’s people. God calls out to Israel in the voice of Amos to say that God did not choose them to be people who sowed injustice and oppression. God chooses justice and judges injustice. God is not abandoning Israel, not breaking the covenant, but continuing the promise, this time through judgment. As one commentator writes of these challenging theological texts, “When God calls a community suffocated by its own injustice and entrapped by violence, God bids it come and die”. [ii] Amos is more than a reminder to the church to do good and love our neighbor. Amos is a challenge to us to curse that which brings death and oppression into our communities and nation.
If this sounds scary, you’re right. There is risk involved in this call. The names that often rise up in reading about the call of Amos are Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all of whom lost their lives because of the words of judgment they offered. But this call to curse systems of death, must be understood in its deepest level as an invitation into the fullness of life that God offers. In uprooting from ourselves, our communities, and nation the injustice that separates us from God and one another, we draw nearer to the God of justice.
At present in our country, the House of Representatives debates immigration reform that would affect more than 11 million people already living within the United States without legal documentation…and hundreds of thousands more who are separated from family in the U.S. with little hope for reunion. As people of faith we have a responsibility in this debate to curse what fosters oppression. We cannot remain silent and, unlike Amos, we do not have to speak alone, praise God.
I want to tell you about two young prophets. Viri and Marco, along with hundreds of youth from the National Youth Immigrant Alliance, have dedicated their lives and risked their safety to knock down the foundations of an oppressive immigrant detention system, just one of the systems being debated in current immigration reform. In 2012 approximately 400,000 immigrants were detained in the 250 immigrant detention centers throughout the U.S., several of them within an hour or less of our church. About 67% of all detention centers are privately owned or county jails who rent bed space to the Department of Homeland Security and receive economic profit from every immigrant held in one of their cells. Those held in detention “include families, both undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the US for years and are now facing exile, survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including pregnant women, and individuals who are seriously ill without proper medication or care.”[iii] This is in spite of the fact that even Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines call for the release of all non-criminal detainees.
Photo: Marco Saavedra
In 2012 Viri and Marco, two undocumented youth who grew up in the U.S., willingly sought detention in the Broward Detention Center in Florida. They were arrested and detained and immediately began gathering stories. In phone calls to supporters outside the detention center, Viri and Marco gave the names of over 150 detainees who met the Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines for release. They ultimately succeeded in releasing about 40 individuals. Marco and Viri themselves were released when the detention center caught on to what they were up to. This summer a larger number of undocumented youth will follow in Marco and Viri’s path to infiltrate 7 detention centers for the release of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Marco and Viri cursing the injustice of the detention system from within the walls of detention. As the immigration reform debate continues in the House of Representatives and as lives hang in the balance, we are called to stand against injustice, to stand with Marco and Viri and call for the death of a system of oppression.
Photo: Viridiana Martinez
Are we a community willing to risk together to curse injustice? Do we understand our actions in these terms? Isn’t wearing orange on the 25th of each month proclaiming death to forces that keep domestic violence hidden in the shadows? Isn’t praying for a penny more per pound for the workers who pick the tomatoes we eat, proclaiming death to food systems that operate at the expense of human lives? Isn’t advocating for transparency in the Trans Pacific trade agreements with Peru (among other nations) cursing the secrecy that keeps La Oroya under the haze of toxic lead? And isn’t it true that in cursing these injustices, we have encountered new life together as people who know the fullness of God. God of blessing and curse. God of grace and justice.
Pastoral Prayer, by Rev. Jeffrey Geary
Dear God, I could not sing that song, though I believe it with my whole heart.
I could not sing it today, though I desperately wanted to, and needed to,
as a prayer for the kingdom and commonwealth to which you call us.
And I will try again,
But the vision of a place at a table for everyone born
To live without fear and simply to be
To work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
It seemed a plumb-line laid down in our midst by which we are being judged.
I could not sing for the weeping in my heart.
God, If you rejoice when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace,
What must you feel when we make mockery of these things?
When a black man is killed by police or armed vigilantes every 28 hours;
And a young black kid armed with concrete, which is every young black kid, is seen as a threat;
And the law provides protection for those with real weapons who are prepared to use them;
And our (in)justice system reflects the oppressive racism of our society;
And peace, real peace, is nowhere to be found because fear walks freely everywhere,
What must you feel?
I feel outrage, and disgust, and shame.
I feel anger at the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida
for the murder of a kid on his way home from the convenience store,
And I feel heartrending pain for the family and friends of Trayvon Martin.
God, I want to shout out to the court YOUR words in Psalm 84, “How long will you judge unjustly and show such favor to the wicked? ‘You were to judge the weak and the orphan; defend the right of the humble and needy; ‘Rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
I want to pray with the Psalmist, “Arise O God, and judge the earth.”
Yet you not only judge us, but in judgment call us – to repentance, reconciliation and change.
And we hear this
not as a wistful call to simply love one another,
to deny our racism, or privilege, our anger and shame,
But as divinely issued challenge and difficult task to love one another.
And we hear this, O God,
Because of who you are in Christ –
One who knows in your flesh the stony road we trod,
who knows what it is like to take your place in the world and to find yourself unwelcome here,
to be followed and questioned by those who find you suspicious
And to be killed unjustly by those who have already condemned you.
Yet not even death could stop your love, and that love is your gift.
Yes, you delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace.
And you know it is hard.
Yes, you create your church to be a provisional demonstration of your kingdom on earth.
And it takes tremendous work.
Yes, you have promised to be in our midst when we live this way.
And you strengthen us every day.
And yes, you can handle our grief and anger because you are God.
As your people, we shall not rest until there is
a place at a table for everyone born
To live without fear and simply to be
To work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
until you can rejoice and your joy may be ours.
Now we pray… (our bidding prayer and community intercessions followed)
[i] Robert Coote, Amos Among the Prophets (Phildelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 25.
[ii] William Jenkins paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Feast on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 224.