Of all of the books in the Bible, Amos is perhaps one of the best examples of a teaching that remains relevant to current Western culture, even though it was written in a completely different social, political, and intellectual context. Many times, assertions about the Bible's relevance are used to justify one's own behavior and to pronounce judgment on the behavior of other people, and those who make assertions about the Bible's timeless relevance must necessarily choose some parts to leave out of that assessment. Amos should not be one of those ignored books, even though the message of this prophet may be difficult for some people to accept.
Amos lived at a time when the Israelites existed in a divided society. There were some people who were doing very well -- financially well off, politically influential, religiously pious -- and there was the vast majority of people, who were impoverished and largely ignored. The wealthy lived under the belief that their possessions and influence were rewards for living pious lives, and they were characterized by patriotism and personal pride. They believed that they were entitled to their wealth and circumstances, and they constructed a worldview that justified ignoring, oppressing, or at least looking down upon the vast majority of people. Amos saw this system as unjust, and he saw the state religion as excusing and promoting those inherent injustices. His message to the people of his day was that religious practices mean nothing if they do not inspire people to lead lives of justice and respect toward others. To be clear, "justice" in this sense does not mean that people who have done something wrong will pay for their crimes; "justice" means that people have equal treatment under the law -- that some people in a society are not made to suffer so that others can be comfortable.
The short book of Amos can be summed up with just a few essential points. First, he chastises people not to long for the Day of the Lord, what some people today still talk about in terms of a "rapture" or a "second coming." Amos suggests that those who long for the End of Days do so out of ignorance and an inflated sense of self-importance. Instead, the prophet urges people to care for one another, to stop fearfully hoarding wealth and power at the expense of others, and to actually build a society of equity and fairness. It was perhaps easy for ancient people, as it is for some people today, to place all hope in a supernatural event -- some final accounting that would bring impartial justice and peace beyond human control. Amos says that this is foolish. For Amos, a just and equitable society established and sustained by human beings is not only possible, it is expected. Although he didn't phrase it this way, Amos envisioned a society that reflected the guiding principle that all people have innate value -- or at least that all Jews have innate value. Finally, Amos points to the hardships and challenges that the people have faced as disciplinary lessons that have gone unacknowledged. The entire society has suffered because of the system of injustice and unrighteousness, and yet those who had the power to change things kept heading in the same direction, oblivious. Eventually, Amos threatens, the society will be destroyed because of its inherent injustice and greed.
In American society today, there are some who have confused patriotic fervor with religious piety, and there are some who believe that God rewards religious displays with wealth and power. Some people think that they are entitled to the possessions and the influence they have because of their spiritual practices, and based on that claim, there are obviously others who do not deserve similar wealth or influence. Is there injustice in American society as there was in the time of Amos? Are there any who suffer so that others may succeed? Are there people who brag about their own faithfulness while ignoring or insulting people who have less? Are there people who believe that it is more important to protect what they have than it is to share with those less fortunate?
It's easy for all of us to slip into a sense of entitlement from time to time. We may even want justice, but we often don't want it to cost us anything personally. The kind of society Amos envisioned requires something more. Some of us may even hear the noble voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reciting the words of Amos 5:24, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Like Amos, Dr. King envisioned a society based on justice -- a culture that supports doing that which acknowledges the human dignity of all people, not because it is profitable or required by law, but simply because it is the right way to treat people. Like Amos, Dr. King knew that building such a society required some hard work.
As a society and as a global community, we have choices about how we view and treat one another. We have choices about the level of social stratification we will support. We have choices about what sort of a difference we will make. If we act out of a sense of entitlement and step on other people in order to reach higher for ourselves, if we look down upon those who have less and assume that those who have less obviously deserve less, we can feed an unjust system as it spirals into self-destruction. If we place a higher priority on justice, equity, and compassion, we might establish a more sustainable society built on the fact that no one truly deserves to be oppressed and no one truly deserves to be an oppressor. It may be difficult to set aside personal comfort or the belief that we have certain entitlements over and above other people. The question is: Is it worth it? Is a better society -- a better world -- worth us giving up a bit of our fear-driven delineations between who is worthy and who is unworthy?
Although Amos does tend to use shame as a tool, there is no reason to spend time feeling guilty or ashamed about our circumstances. Even though we are not entitled to live the lives we have, and even though we don't necessarily deserve any particular quality of life, there is also not a lot of be gained by being ashamed of what we have. It's more a matter of what we do with what we have. For myself, I want to strive first and foremost to see the inherent value in every person. I want to contribute to a society that thrives because people realize that we live in abundance, that personal comfort and convenience are luxuries and not entitlements, and that we all need one another. I want to contribute to a society in which people do not give credence to self-centered, reward-based, prideful religious practices, but instead use spiritual practices as tools to grow as individuals and communities who love, respect, and honor one another. As I read Amos, it seems that this is the kind of society he hoped for. Perhaps the time has come to build it in earnest.