A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, October 11, 2009
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Once upon a time a tribe lived along a swift and treacherous river. They were a peaceful tribe, gentle in their ways, temperate in their manners. One day, while fishing in the river, a member of the tribe heard a heart-splitting cry. A woman, terrified and helpless, was being savagely swept along in the whitewater. Running downstream, the tribesman called for help. Villagers came running. Soon two or three unmoored a barque, fought the current, and managed to rescue the woman. They brought her to shore, treated her wounds, fed her. She did not speak their language. They had no idea what had happened that nearly caused her death in the river. Some of the tribe, used to extending hospitality to strangers, gave her lodging. After about a week, the villagers missed her. She had disappeared.
Incidents mounted. Every few days another person, usually someone vulnerable, would be pulled from the river. Occasional drowned bodies the tribe would pull from the river and give its burial rites.
The tribe was pleased that they were able to provide help and shelter for the victims. Someone suggested building a structure out over the water to make rescue efforts easier. Others got to work constructing a first-aid station of sorts, stocked with medicines and bandages for the wounded. Some men and women organized rescue teams so that round-the-clock emergency aid could be extended. Lights were set up along the riverbank to make it safer. And, as the number of victims multiplied, various alarm systems were put in place. Pious members of the tribe erected a small chapel in memory of those whose lives were lost in which their priest offered daily prayers for successful rescue efforts.
One day a girl, a member of the tribe, announced at a village meeting called to discuss an expansion of the rescue efforts that she had discovered a very important secret. She had come to know one of the victims, who, less timid than the rest and able to communicate a few words, had confided a terrible tale of what was happening upstream. Villagers sat stunned as they heard a gruesome tale of a fierce and violent group that had taken numbers of people captive, and whose custom was to throw disabled, weak, or useless captives into the river. Some villagers were shocked. A few were outraged and immediately wanted to go upstream and put a stop to it. But most simply argued that the girl’s secret-telling was totally out of order, and urged that the village get on with its work of rescue. That is what had come to define them. They had a mission and nothing was going to distract them.
A few managed to organize a small band to head upstream to investigate. Some never returned. A few came back and tried in vain to interest tribe members in organizing efforts to intervene on behalf of vulnerable tribes being decimated by the marauders. But there was no interest. Instead, the tribe became better and better at rescue efforts. Until, of course, one day, there came a band of horrifyingly fierce warriors who sacked the village, took most people captive, and threw the old, sick, infirm and even some young braves into the river.
Hearing that story, we may take the longer view and criticize the tribe for its insularity and short-sightedness. But the truth is that they are not all that different from many a constellation of human beings who become attached to doing good so much that they unwittingly participate, or even enable, injustice. The Church is no exception. In fact, we are often a model of how this tale comes to life. Rescue efforts are good, even necessary. But somebody ought to be investigating why so many people are drowning. And somebody ought to be willing to stop the tragedy at its source, or die trying.
Amos is, I suspect, the Hebrew prophet most popular with progressives. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos: “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos was, by all accounts, the first prophet whose words were written down in a book. After that, he slept for centuries before many people paid much attention to him. Both Jews and Christians paid a little homage to Amos every now and again, but nobody got terribly excited about Amos until in the last century a Progressive movement arose. Suddenly, the words of Amos came to life and inspired liberalism. They helped the cause that became known as “the Social Gospel.” But, in fairness to Amos, he was not about founding a reform movement. His message was essentially one of doom. A southerner who had gone north to preach, Amos, a Judean shepherd, a dresser of sycamore trees, appeared in the Northern Kingdom’s capital, Samaria, and began to preach a hard message against militarism, profligate immorality, economic inequity, and flimsy piety. These, he thundered, were the undoing of Israel, and the result would be the ruin of the nation. The priest, Amaziah, intervened and told King Jeroboam that the land was simply not able to bear the words of wild-tongued Amos, prophesying death to the king and exile for the people. “Go back south to Judah,” said Amaziah. “Work there, prophesy there; but don’t you come up to the royal sanctuary at Bethel ever again.” Israel had had quite enough of Amos and his prophecies of national ruin.
Amos’s book, while never a best-seller, lasted because his prophecies came true. No doubt it was preserved in Judah, where someone saw that perhaps Amos had a good idea. Maybe justice was, after all, an idea worth doing, and perhaps by doing it, Judah, the southern kingdom, could avert the fate that their northern cousins had eventually suffered at the hands of Assyria.
And that, frankly, is why Amos has something to say to us today. We do not read him because we need to hear prophecies of doom, but in order to hear and ponder what he has to say about justice and righteousness. So we need to listen closely to exactly that. Let’s talk—or let Amos talk—a little about justice. “Woe to those who turn justice (mishpat) into [the indescribably bitter plant] of wormwood,” he says. Courts are being used to exploit the weak and poor. Something is systemically toxic, infecting the entire judicial system and thus poisoning the possibility of redressing any wrong. Those who are using the poor are not only turning justice to wormwood, they are trashing righteousness, the quintessential quality of God’s life and activity. Righteousness is the source of justice. One does righteousness (rather than “is” righteousness) by living up to the demands that any given relationship makes, and thus by “doing right by” those in relationship with you. One does righteousness in two ways: by doing right by God, and by doing right by one’s fellow human beings. If the very structures that aid righteousness on the human-to-human level are themselves corrupt, the entire social order is perverted. If laws and courts and political systems serve the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak, and if no one does anything to correct them, the whole system collapses. In Amos’ terms, the Justice of God simply won’t let it go on forever. History bears him out.
With that much in mind, we can revisit the story of the tribe by the river. They were not living unjustly: far from it. They were doing acts of mercy, and so much the better. But so totally committed to their good works were they that they did not see that grave injustice was taking place, causing in fact the very harm that they were busy addressing. The world needs rescue missions, but the world also needs people who will fearlessly contend against the forces that imperil people to begin with.
Just as there is no hard line between righteousness and justice, so there is no firewall between justice and mercy. But for the purpose of understanding the need for both, think of mercy as pulling drowning people from the raging river and justice as work of intervening to stop the tragedy in the first place. We need both. We need to serve food at Loaves and Fishes, but we need to fight the causes of hunger and malnutrition. We need to offer hospitality to the homeless, but we also need, through our work with Washington Interfaith Network, for example, to identify and to address the forces that make and sometimes keep people homeless. The reason most people gravitate towards works of mercy and away from the work of justice is that mercy is easier to understand, easier to see, and easier to get your hands on. To take on systems, to ask hard questions, or—in the terms of our parable of the river tribe—to take on the evil of the marauders who keep throwing people into the river—are difficult, scary, sometimes complex, time-consuming tasks. Doing justice is rarely a simple matter of rounding up some bullies and putting them in jail, but of changing economic or educational or juridical systems that are checkered with both good and bad qualities, hard to sort out. Not infrequently, in addressing the evil that has infected systems, we find that we ourselves are complicit with the evil. We often profit from corruption. So the health care system might be unjust, but tackling it is no easy matter.
Ministry is not about doing one thing or the other so much as it is about both. Nor does everyone necessarily have the same ministry. That is why we are a community, combining many gifts and many forces so that we can both rescue the perishing and combat the forces that cause so many to perish.
In the middle of his dark prophecies Amos did say a word or two of hope, hope that still inspires those who work for justice, who seek to do right by their neighbors:
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you. 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.