Justice Silenced—Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

In evil days, justice can be stifled and the voice of the prudent can be silenced.

6 Seek the Lord and live,
   or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
   and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. 
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
   and bring righteousness to the ground!

***

10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
   and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
   and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
   but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
   but you shall not drink their wine. 
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
   and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
   and push aside the needy in the gate. 
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
   for it is an evil time. 


14 Seek good and not evil,
   that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
   just as you have said. 
15 Hate evil and love good,
   and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
   will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

For biblical political theology there is nothing more appealing than a prophetic utterance that speaks directly to today’s issues. Does this one from Amos? That would depend on where you are and the issues of injustice—or the obstruction of justice—one is facing.

The kerfuffle over SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh was perceived by both sides of the debate as the perversion of justice. How could he possibly be nominated? Why should his nomination be stalled? Such is the subjective and divided nature of political life and the divided nature of justice in today’s world.

Amos lived in a time much like ours; for some it was the best of times (especially for the 1% super-rich living in luxury), for others (living in poverty in an unjust society) it was the worst of times. In discussing or preaching this passage condemning this inequality, I wish to take this reading as given, even if this approach will not satisfy biblical scholars for whom we might take verses 1-17 as a whole package, or question the originality or provenance of verse 13.

Taking the text as it is, one can view it as politics enveloped in holiness. The envelope is formed by verses 6-7 as the opening verses, and verses 14-15 as the closing. Both these sections speak of the holiness of seeking God and the good. Additionally, we are to hate evil, the opposite of the good. This moral way of life is not only good in itself, but also to avoid the judgmental fire of God (verse 7), and simply to live, which implies that death is a consequence of flirting with evil (verse 14). Faithful humans are to do justice and establish righteousness (verse 15).

Others will turn justice into bitterness and in turn will be destroyed (verse 7). God will be good to those whose build up justice and will condemn those who pervert justice. This is the beginning and end of this text: a prompt to seek God, do good, and build up God’s justice in this world.

The middle verses are the case study here; they form the stuffing of the envelope—they form the basis for Amos saying these things, they form the context and realities on the ground that he is railing against. Amos condemns the unjust who are in power. They hate the prophets who wish to tell the truth about their reign (verse 10).

Today such unjust rulers might accuse honest professional journalists of creating fake news and discredit their political opponents and those who speak out for the common good. Furthermore, the unjust rulers are taxing the poor heavily and trampling on them (verse 11), this being a perennial form of social injustice.

The statements about houses and vineyards are a little confusing insofar as it is unclear who is building what and who is not using them, but they are very clear in the injustice they speak of, irrespective of how they are read. The rich have built extensive stone houses, probably with the labour of the poor. Who lives in them? Not the poor.

And the rich may not live in them either, with the exception of an occasional visit on vacation in summer or winter (Amos 3:15). Vineyards, built and maintained (as golf courses are today) by the working poor, are not places for the poor to enjoy, they are generally the luxuries of the upper class. Again, the resources of the rich lay idle in a time of want. The poor build them both, but are excluded from their use.

We see this very thing today, when the working poor toil to make the luxuries and necessities of modern life, but are excluded from their use and cannot earn enough to obtain them. This capitalist injustice cannot last forever; such an internal contradiction of capitalism is inherently self-destructive. Yet the corrupt human desire to live on the sweat of others lies at the heart of the modern economy and vision of the “good” life of material indulgence.

The rulers and judges in Amos’s time are prepared to take bribes to distort public policy and pervert justice. They brush past the needy seeking justice, pushing them further down. As in Amos’s time, advanced corrupt states build their corruption into the political system, normalising the corruption of politics by money and raw power. Too often participation in political system is only available to those with money, while justice is increasingly accessible only to those with money to pay exorbitant lawyers’ fees.

Justice is a fragile thing. It can turn to wormwood and be perverted. Powerful rulers are able to define justice to suit themselves. The powerful declare what justice is and who it is that defines justice in the courts (the gates of Amos’s time). But this is not God’s way of justice, which remains a solid and unchanging higher law. God’s justice judges all human attempts at justice and many are found wanting. It is this divine justice that Amos announces.

The final verse before the envelope is closed is:

13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
    for it is an evil time.

It is surprising to see this advice in Amos. Keeping silent in the face of injustice and evil seems to contradict the usual Christian advice to speak “truth to power” and speak up prophetically, even at great individual cost. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were two theologians who spoke up in the face of evil and paid for their prophetic witness with their lives. So was Amos. Would they have been better off keeping quiet?

This apparent contradiction has encouraged scholars to question whether verse 13 was in the original text, or perhaps means something other than “wise”. But from the Bible’s own wisdom literature there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). There have been times in history where those who speak out have been killed or silenced. The ongoing murders of environmental defenders in Latin America are one example. Amnesty International’s files are full of political prisoners and journalists who have questioned political authorities and paid dearly for it.

Perhaps this verse simply means not speaking up in a particular context. What would be the point of speaking up in the courts of justice, where things are weighted against you and you are sure to lose and the rich are sure to win. The scales of justice are weighted against the poor and vulnerable, there being no higher law which can check the power of the mighty. They decide both the rules and the exceptions.

Even the courts, which are supposed to protect the rights of the minorities, are houses of the rich and powerful and serve a distorted version of justice. Why speak up for justice to those who have no ears to hear?

In Amos’s time, and from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable, things won’t get better if you don’t speak up, and they won’t get better if you do; things might even get worse. With no way to advance to the cause of justice they exist in an “evil time”, where freedom to speak the truth is circumscribed. Such corruption of justice, which is the responsibility of the rulers and judges, creates not only a corrupt society, but also a corrupting society, in which moral character is silently eroded day by day.

Another interpretation of verse 13 could be that that the wise quietly wait for the coming of God’s judgment. Even at its best human justice is compromised and partial. God’s judgment of the wicked does not depend on any prophetic utterance or action of rulers or judges. It depends solely on God’s seeing the perversion of God’s justice and bringing judgment on the unjust. Should the just quietly wait for the justice of God, the only true justice, to be worked out? Does this require quiet patience?

Patiently keeping silent does not mean passive quietism; it may mean active resistance to evil, or non-cooperation with evil. The following verse (14) suggests that in such times our voice will be actions instead of words. We must seek the good and live it out, establishing justice.

This seems to suggest that justice is not created by the mighty and powerful, but can be enacted by people in their day-to-day lives. Justice, too often associated with the state and the court system, is under threat, but justice is a virtue which can be lived and practiced by faithful godly people in their day to day relationships.

There remains hope in the just God who will bring true justice into our evil times. We must judge whether now is a time to speak or a time be silent and pray that God’s spirit will give us the words and action to witness to the true justice that is initiated by God for the poor and vulnerable against those who trample on the poor.

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