On Friday the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, held a press conference in response to last week’s tragic shooting and killing of Curtis Cheng outside of Parramatta Police Station by 15 year-old schoolboy Farhad Jabar, who was subsequently killed by police in a shout-out. I was at that press conference at the invitation of the Mufti though I didn’t say anything to the press on that occasion.
The statement delivered by the Mufti was well received by some members of the media but not by others. The statement resisted labelling the shooting as a ‘terrorist attack’ and it cited a series of factors that might have contributed to the formation of the mindset of this young man such that, in the name of Islam, he decided to murder a random stranger associated with the Australian Police Force.
The Mufti’s statement pointed to adverse community attitudes towards Muslims and misguided Australian foreign policy along with perverted Islamic teaching as all being significant factors that contributed to the tragedy. Some may have felt that he was ‘blaming the system’ for the young man’s mindset. The greater concern expressed in the media though was that he was blaming the wrong system, and not allocating sufficient blame to militant Islamic sheikhs who exercise teaching roles in our city!
It is always difficult to know how much blame we should place on ‘the system’ as we are understandably reluctant to dilute personal responsibility for crimes such as these. At the same time though we do recognise that violence like this does not arise spontaneously out of a vacuum but is inevitably related to social factors that need to be understood and addressed if further incidents like these are to be avoided.
And it is appropriate that people of faith, like ourselves, turn to our Scriptures at times like these for guidance, which is why today I am turning to the book of Amos.
The Book of Amos is one of those books that rarely gets much coverage in our weekly readings. It wasn’t even listed as a reading today, except as an alternative reading. Even so, I’m latching on to Amos today because I think he was a prophet who understood how injustice and violence embed themselves in the social system.
For those who don’t know the book, it opens with Amos standing on a soap-box in the middle of Samaria, railing against Israel’s enemies.
Amos was an eighth century prophet, meaning that he lived during the period in which the kingdom of Israel was divided into north and south. The north was by far the larger country, with its capital in Samaria. Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom. Amos was a southerner but he did his work in the north – in Samaria – and he begins, as I say, by railing against the enemies of Israel:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem …
“For three transgressions of Damascus,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 1:2-3)
Yes, even twenty-eight hundred years ago there were tensions between Israel and Damascus and Amos begins his preaching by publicly calling down judgement upon Bashar Al-Assad’s 8th century B.C. predecessor, and it was for crimes of violence!
“Because they [the Syrians] have threshed Gilead
with threshing sledges of iron”. (Amos 1:4)
The names and the details are not familiar but the violence is all too familiar! People have been mercilessly butchered, and Amos’ God is by no means oblivious to what’s going on. The perpetrators of this violence, Amos says, will reap what they’ve sown!
After concluding his prophecies against Damascus, Amos continues with damning indictments against Israel’s other enemies. His next attack is against the people of Gaza who have also been engaged in crimes of violence, and then he goes on to indict Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab – each of whom had committed war crimes (by today’s standards).
Then Amos turns on Judah, northern Israel’s southern half-brothers and sisters – “For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 2:4) – and then he turns on his audience – “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 2:6).
The charge against Israel is once again for crimes of violence, though not against her enemies in this case but rather for violence against her own underclass!
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes—
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same maiden,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
upon garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.” (Amos 2:6-8)
The practice of ‘selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’ that Amos refers to seems to have been a business practice whereby poor people were being exploited though an unfair system of trade. People today, of course, are still being ‘sold for a pair of sandals’ (or running shoes at least) made in third world factories belonging to Nike etc. This is just the way efficient businesses work, but according to the prophet that doesn’t make these practices any less violent.
And along with these violent trade practices go high interest rates from the banks and money-lenders that make it impossible for the poor to get ahead. These money-lenders “lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.”
The Torah says that if you if a poor man gives you his coat as assurity for a loan, you have to give that garment back to him at nightfall so he has something to sleep on. What Amos saw though was that the money-lenders were charging exorbitant interest rates from their poor brothers, taking their garments, and then sitting on them in the temple while they drank! This, for the prophet, was utter hypocrisy!
Also under attack from the prophet was the abuse of women – “a man and his father go into the same maiden” (Amos 2:7). Presumably what Amos had on view was some form of cult prostitution or sex slavery rather than simple promiscuity.
The key point here, I think, is that all that Amos was referring to was legal. Women could be abused and the poor could be exploited in entirely legal ways, then just as now, providing that you were clever enough to know how to get around the laws that were designed to protect them. Amos’ issue was not simply with the nasty individuals who worked out how to milk the system. His issue was equally with the system itself that made these forms of exploitation both legal and possible!
This comes most clearly, I think, in Amos’ spit against the upper-class women of Samaria in chapter four:
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are in the mountain of Samaria
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink!’ (Amos 4:1)
Amos’ targeting of the cultured women of Samaria is very telling, I think, as it’s highly unlikely that these women were directly involved in oppressing anybody. Indeed, I imagine most of them as very decent people who ran occasional charity drives and organised food hampers for the poor every Christmas! Their sin, according to Amos, was that were benefiting from a system that fed on the misery of the impoverished!
They say to their husbands “bring that we may drink”, probably only half-aware of the fact that their pampered lifestyles were only possible because they were profiting from a system that crushed poor people. Even so, Amos says that these women who profit from the system of oppression bear responsibility for the suffering of the people crushed by it, and he depicts a violent day of judgement for them!
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks. (Amos 4:2)
This is painful because this is us! We chase the dollar and we build up security for ourselves and most of us probably feel pretty confident about our futures because for most of us here the system is working! And yet we know full well that there are a lot of people out there for whom the system is not working. I know, even if only by the ever-increasing number of people who gather each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to pick up the left-over food I distribute at the Salvation Army hall, that the number of food-insecure people in our community here is rising!
I am deeply concerned about our system which, I think, is increasingly following the plot-line of one of the Terminator movies! Our world seems to be being conquered by soulless machines in the form of multinational corporations and, quite frankly, I fear that with the imminent passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which, as I understand it, allows multinational corporations to sue sovereign countries for loss of income if their governments inhibit trade, things are about to get a whole lot worse!
I despair at the way our system works (or doesn’t work, depending on your interpretation) and indeed, whether you see our system as working or not working does depend entirely on where you stand.
Some people say our prison system doesn’t work, and indeed it doesn’t work very well at all if the goal of the system is to turn prisoners into law-abiding citizens. If though the goal of the system is to transfer public money over to private corporations then it’s working brilliantly, at least in the case of the growing number of privately-owned prisons. I can think of any number of young men I’ve known who were worth nothing to the community before they went to jail! Now they’re worth more than $100,000 per year to the companies that run their jails!
I appreciate that some people may think that this is hardly the sort of thing we should be discussing in church, and yet the prophet Amos won’t allow us to divide religious from economic and political life so easily!
“I hate, I despise your [religious] feasts”, says the prophet, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21)
“Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)
Let me cite a further passage from Amos where he attacks the courts, which were always held at the gate of city:
“They hate him who reproves in the gate” [an honest judge] “and they abhor him who speaks the truth” [an honest witness].
“Therefore because you trample upon the poor
and take from him exactions of wheat,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins –
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.”
Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.
That final verse always reminds me of the statement of the Martin Luther King Jr. –that “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Keeping quite is the ‘prudent’ thing to do, says Amos, and indeed doing nothing is always going to be the more sensible thing to do than doing something, except that we can’t do nothing and we have to say something!
I get increasingly concerned as I look at where our society is going. I am concerned about the cost of housing and the rise in homelessness. I am concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor, and I am concerned about the rise of militant fundamentalism within our community.
I appreciate that we can’t simply blame the system every time some sick lad commits a terrible act of violence. We must expect our young people to take responsibility. Even so, what Amos reminds us is that we are all responsible for the greater forces at work in our society. We are all in this together, and even if we are doing pretty well in the system with things the way they are, we still need to work for change for the sake of the disenfranchised for, as the prophet would warn us, a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many will ultimately reap the judgement of God, as the society that Amos delivered his warning to eventually did!
Now, if you’ve ever delivered a sermon at Holy Trinity and if you’ve ever asked me for advice on the process of preparing sermons, you’ll know that one of my rules of thumb is that if you’re going to preach the good news you need to make sure it’s good news and I’m conscious that I’m not really following my own rule today. There’s not a lot of sunshine and light in today’s sermon. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you’re preaching on Amos, I suppose Amos was not a very fun guy to be around. Perhaps that’s why the lectionary keeps Amos out of sight for most of the year.
Having said that, I think there is good news in Amos, and the good news is that God cares. God cares about the poor. God cares about injustice. God cares enough to send His prophets to warn us that we tolerate injustice within our community at our own peril.
The judgement of God is, as Emil Brunner said, the ‘hot instrument of His love’. God gets angry because God cares, and we need to get angry enough to care too.
“Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
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.”
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 11th of October, 2015.