(A Lection Reflection on Amos 8, Psalm 15, and Psalm 52)
Have you read this week’s lections yet? No? OK, then — here is the link to the online lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. Be sure to read Amos and the two Psalms. I’ll wait right here while you go refresh your memory of them.
OK, good, now we’re all starting from the same place. Here’s my opening questions:
As you read those passages, whom did you see? What situations came to your mind? What leaders or other people?
Next questions, a little harder:
Did you see any of your country’s leaders? How about the leaders of your state, or your city? Any leaders of business, or other institutions? College presidents, school principals? Judges? Law enforcement?
Did you visualize any of your church members? Any of your church leaders? Yourself?
If Amos were to visit your church this Sunday, who would be on his list?
The Amos passage, combined with the two Psalms, makes a pretty clear point: God really hates it when the poor and powerless are oppressed. Hates it enough to judge a nation. Hates it enough to say
I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
So, if we believe Amos was right (and I think he was dead on), we’d better be asking three important questions today:
- Are the poor and powerless oppressed today?
- By whom or what?
- What are we going to do about it?
I think the answer to #1 is pretty obvious, but if you or anyone in your congregation needs convincing, let’s turn to some headlines for evidence:
- The U.S. House is attacking the food stamp program.
- Student loan rates double, even while tuition costs have risen 1,120% in the past 30 years (compared to 600% for healthcare)
- The minimum wage is worth less now than in 1968.
- Income for the country’s top 1 percent has soared by 275 percent over the past 30 years, while growth for the rest of us has stagnated.
- And according to a study released this spring, the advantaged are becoming permanently better-off, while the disadvantaged are becoming permanently worse-off.
- In another study, 30% of Wall Street workers said their compensation structure created pressure to compromise their standards or violate the law. And included in that culture, of course, is the admonition to “rip your client’s face off,” which certain firms bragged about doing.
I could go on, and you could too — but why? We know that in big and small ways, our poor and our powerless are taken advantage of, abused, and oppressed. And let me add, as a rebuttal to the thought forming in the minds of some — I am not talking about the results of any bad decisions they may have made on their own. No, this is stealing and oppression simply because the poor and the powerless have no way to fight back.
So, let’s move on to question #2 — who or what is doing the oppressing? I want to posit three different types of oppressors:
The active, knowing oppressors. These are the people who know exactly what they are doing, and don’t care. They are the CEO of the mining company that transfers all the pension responsibility to a new company, then intentionally bankrupts that company to get out from under the pensions, thus leaving hundreds of miners with no retirement. This is the judge who routinely sentences poor people to longer sentences. This is the payday lender that charges 500% interest, knowing that the poor have no other options. These people often go to church — OUR churches — and consider themselves “good” people. I think God and Amos beg to differ. And God says that at some point, their actions will have consequences.
The systems and their creators. I started to just put “the system,” but the truth is there would be no systems without humans to think them up, design them, and build them. Business people, elected officials, educators, families — all of these are engaged in building, modifying, and running the systems of our lives. Democracy is a system. The courts are a system. Capitalism is a system. Our families are systems. Businesses, schools, non-profits — all of these are made up of interconnected systems. And all of them can be designed and executed in a just or unjust manner.
Brian McClaren’s thesis of the “three systems” — the prosperity system, the security system, and the equity system — is a good way to start thinking about these systems. Most corporations, for example, only consider the prosperity and security systems. Getting all owners and designers of systems to include equity, or justice, as a third consideration would be a big step forward. And getting our church members to include it in their 9-to-5 thinking would also begin to make change.
Which leads me to my third group of oppressors: the enablers. Us. You and me. Most of us, I hope, are not sociopaths, or criminals, or originators of oppression and exploitation. And with some exceptions, most of us do not have the power to redesign the systems of commerce, or justice, or education. (If you DO have that power, then get McLaren’s book and study long the section on systems — then act on it.)
Unfortunately, that does not let us off the hook. We cannot simply shake our head at the news, or post “isn’t this a shame” on Facebook, or tsk-tsk with others at work. Nor can we change the channel to ESPN and “how ’bout them Cards?” or see what’s up on Pinterest.
No, we are part of the systems, but also independent actors. We can write letters, and make phone calls. We can boycott. We can speak up, act out, push the envelope. We can change the systems.
And, we can build new systems. If we think the banking system punishes the poor and rewards the rich disproportionately, we can build new systems for loans and funding. If we think the agriculture system is out of control and only cares about profits and not food, we can abandon industri-food and go local. If we think clothes made by slave labor cost too much no matter what the price, we can be willing to pay more for clothes made in working conditions with justice.
Or, we can read the lections for this Sunday, wonder at the blindness of the people in Amos’s day, and continue to enable both the powerful and the systems around us today.
And hope Amos doesn’t show up for worship.