Slowly but surely I’ll make it through this intermittent series on social justice. Today we come to Amos 5.

The fifth chapter of Amos contains some of the most striking and most famous justice language in the Bible. The Lord rebukes his people for turning “justice into wormwood” (7), for hating the one who speaks the truth (10), for trampling on the poor (11; cf. 4:1), for turning aside the needy in the gate (12). Because of their sin, the Lord despises Israel’s feasts and assemblies (21) and threatens to visit the land with darkness and not light (18-20). The only hope for God’s people is that they “seek good, and not evil,” that they establish justice in the gate (14-15). Or, to quote the concluding exhortation made famous by Martin Luther King Jr., Israel must “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Clearly, God cares about justice and the poor. Conversely, his wrath burns against those who commit injustice and trample the poor. So what are the specific sins condemned by Amos?

1. Kicking the poor when they are down instead of giving them a hand up. It seems the wealthy were selling the poor into slavery even when the poor owed as little as a pair of sandals (2:6-7). This is cruelty instead of mercy.

2. Doing “justice” for the highest bidder. In ancient Israel the leading men of the town would gather at the city gate to decide the cases that came to them. Instead of making fair judgment based on the truth, the men of Amos’ day accepted bribes and paid no attention to the righteous plea of the poor  (5:10, 12).

3. Arbitrary, excessive taxation on the poor to benefit the rich (5:11).

4. A smug assurance on the part of the rich who live in the lap of luxury on the backs of the poor. The wealthy in Amos’ day, like some in ours, were proud of their wealth. They reveled in it (4:1; 6:4-7). They felt secure in it (6:1). To make matters worse, their getting richer had been made possible by the poor getting poorer. They had cheated, perverted justice, and, according to one commentator, made their money by “outrageous seizure” and illegal “land grabbing” (cf. Isa. 5:8).

Amos 5 reaffirms what we’ve seen in the previous Old Testament passages. God hates injustice. But injustice must be defined on the Bible’s terms, not ours. Injustice implies a corrupted judicial system, an arbitrary legal code, and outright cruelty to the poor.

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Comments:


17 thoughts on “Seven Passages on Social Justice (5)”

  1. Eric says:

    “But injustice must be defined on the Bible’s terms, not ours.”

    To me, this is the money quote in this and other conversations. Too many people want to insert their own feelings and definitions in place of the Bible’s. I confess that I am guilty of the same when justifying my sin. May God have mercy and bring us all to a proper understanding of justice and salvation. A Christian (who has received mercy as opposed to justice) should be very quick to show mercy.

  2. Reg Schofield says:

    Although we do not see these extreme types of oppression and injustice in North America , they still do exist here in lesser norms. But when we look at third world countries , it is rampant. I have always argued that if it wasn’t for some form of protection from the government be it labor laws and such , we in North America would be just as oppressed by the wealthy and greedy. This has been an excellent series so far .

  3. david carlson says:

    In the US legal system, access to an attorney, as well as the ability of your attorney, has a large impact on the “justice” you receive in our legal system.

    Should the gov’t, as part of doing “justice”, provide a mechanism for attorneys for the poor?

  4. ChrisB says:

    David,

    I’d love to see someone propose a single-payer legal system in Congress — and watch the Dems go bonkers.

  5. Dave Shoobridge says:

    Injustice implies a corrupted judicial system, an arbitrary legal code, and outright cruelty to the poor.

    Doesn’t that fit our culture? For many in our society that fits it to a “T”. If you are African-American, Hispanic, a Native person or other minorities that surly is what our unjustice system is. For us whites it may seem fair not it is not.

  6. Jared says:

    Dave S.,
    I’m neither American, nor an expert in American law, so forgive me for being unaware of systemic judicial corruption or arbitrary legislation intended for the benefit of whites. Maybe this isn’t the place for this discussion, but perhaps you could provide specific examples of something that “seem[s] fair not it is not”.

  7. Chris Nielson says:

    I’ve been reading your series about social justice passages and deeply appreciate what you have had to say. It has definitely sharpened my thinking and caused me to flesh out what I believe. However, one of the things that I don’t believe has been addressed is the issue of systemic injustice, i.e. how we should respond when a system perpetuates injustice instead of an individual oppressing another person. I think that one of the things that we as Christians need to wrestle with is how systems benefit or disadvantage certain groups. Let me give you three examples of systemic issues from the United States.
    First, there are sentencing disparities within our justice system. One example of this comes from the War on Drugs. In order to be charged with a felony for possession of powder cocaine you need to be caught with 100 grams. However, until this year possessing a single gram of crack would result in a felony (it’s now 18 grams because of a recent act of congress.) 85% of all convicts for possession of crack are Black or Hispanic, meaning that the law disproportionately impacts minorities.
    Second, according to the Pew Foundation minorities were four times more likely than whites to be offered subprime mortgages, even when controlling for income and credit score. AS a result minority communities have had a greater percentage of their wealth wiped out by the subprime crisis. This poses a threat to the African American and Hispanic middle class while at the same time driving down the value of homes in those neighborhoods.
    Finally, urban schools, on average, receive half the funding of suburban peers. One example of that comes from where I live, in Philadelphia. According to Temple University, the surrounding suburban communities spend, on average, 40% more per pupil than the city itself, which is then reflected in the quality of the school district itself. The school district of Philadelphia is 64% African American and 15% Hispanic, while nearby Lower Merion (one of the richest school districts in the country) is 90% white.
    All of these systems (housing, crime, and education) play an integral role in how our society functions. The way to move up in society is through an education, the way to generate wealth over the long term is through property ownership, and a felony conviction results in the removal of basic rights. All three of these systems all intentionally or unintentionally benefit one group over another. This is not to say that minorities or the poor are solely victims and have no power over the systems – to do so would be to remove their humanity and agency in their own lives. The point is, however, to recognize that certain groups in America are given advantages that are denied to others, and as a result historical injustices are perpetuated. Additionally, it is a complex system of laws and customs, not specific individuals, that cause these injustices to repeat themselves.
    The point I’m hopefully making is that injustice is not simply “person a oppresses person b” but rather that it is a more complex structure of personal sin and societal issues. A lot of what I have read so far has focused primarily on the former and has had little to say about the latter, an issue that I would like to see addressed either in the comments or in a future post.

  8. david carlson says:

    If do not know what a DWB stop is, you do not have any understanding of the injustice in our system

  9. Terry says:

    David,
    Is “a DWB stop” being pulled over by a police officer because you are black?

  10. J says:

    david carlson,
    DWB is not an issue of the injustice in our system, it is an issue of the injustice of the individual making the stop for that reason.
    I am so tired of people making accusations that laws and systems of government are the problem…it’s the individuals. Why don’t we hold individuals responsible like they did in the Bible? One of the most asinine things is that a person can face multiple charges when a white person murders a black person…somehow it can be a hate crime? Does a person deserve lesser punishment when they murder someone of the same race? How about we just stick with the charge of murder, because that is an example of a “systemic” issue.

    The major issue we face in our legal system is that it is an attempt to regulate how people live and not to protect the people from injustice. Law should be for protection not regulation. If you look at the Old Testament, God provided the 10 Commandments for the people of Israel so that they would live righteous lives, submitting to HIM. Just like good parents will make “rules” for their home to protect their children, so should we have a system of justice that is to protect individuals.

  11. taco says:

    I wonder how many people would consider #3 if revised: “Arbitrary excessive taxation of producers with the pretext of helping the poor.” as justice or injustice, or put it in the wrong category of “charity.”

  12. david carlson says:

    @J
    So the fact that blacks get the death penalty more often than whites, when convicted for crimes which are identical, that’s an individuals fault? No, thats the systems fault, of which individuals play a part.

    All of which avoids my main point, completely unaddressed.

    To be fairly accorded justice in our system, you must have access to a competent attorney. Do you, or don’t you support justice?

  13. Chris Christian says:

    Social justice on the part of Christians was a main tenet of Jesus’ teachings. He never expected the government to provide social justice. Social justice is a personal act, one which permeates society when everyone practices it. If the church had been taking care of the poor, widows and orphan, then there would have been no need for the welfare system which destroyed the Black family. If the church had been taking care of the sick, then there would be no need for the current healthcare reforms that were recently passed. We, the church, must practice social justice.

  14. norris says:

    Justice = Fair, Fair to all. We have a society that do not want to fair. Just like “taco” referenced above with taxes, are we fair in all our dealing. God calls for a tithe (10%) from everyone of their gain. Not allowing for some people to get away with getting money back from the gov’t or others to deduct away items to get out of paying. This passes the burden onto others.

    If the crime is the same then the punishment should match, unless there is a history of previous crimes.

    As for school funding, it is all based on what the local administrators are willing to fund for education. But look at the studies. More money does not always get better results in education. If the parents are involved in a child’s education, the better educated the child.

  15. Walt says:

    Justice is very inconvenient, especially in a society of people who
    are always working for everything to be convenient. In a Society of
    Convenience, falsely admitting to guilt of a legal transgression and simply paying the fine is made easier than justice. Our legal system makes lying about our guilt, paying the fine and being done with the situation, easier than doing justice. A society with no justice can not expect peace. Where there is no justice, there is no peace. We can pray, dance, worship, and sing till the cows come home, but a society with no justice will have no peace.
    How do we “establish justice in the gate” of our society if, like Amos 5:10, “They hate the one who rebukes in the gate, And they abhor the one who speaks uprightly” ??

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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