The American Amos

As I said before, America needs an Amos. The first Hebrew prophet was an outspoken advocate for the voiceless, and his condemnation of economic inequality, hollow religion and exploitation of the poor could be read almost verbatim into our culture today.

In fact, some people have done exactly that. In M. Daniel Carroll R.’s Amos – The Prophet & His Oracles, he cites a pair of updated Amos prophecies spoken to contemporary America. I’d like to share them here. I’ve copied two, and then written one of my own

I’ve left the first one unchanged. It was written by Ruth E. Frey in 1992 and takes as its source the Oracles Against the Nations of Amos 2. Yet notice how prophetic it truly is.

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Iraq and for four,
punishment will come;
because they have destroyed the Kurdish people
by denying them land, food and dignity.
So I will send fire on the hills and valleys of Iraq
and I will turn my hand against them, says the Lord God.
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Libya and for four,
punishment will come;
because of the terrorism they have inflicted on the innocent.
So I will send a fire on the deserts of Libya
and I will turn my hand against them, says the Lord God.
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Haiti and for four,
punishment will come;
because they have not fed their children
and they have sent them into exile on the sea.
So I will send a fire on the shores of Haiti
and I will turn my hand against them, says the Lord God.
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of South Africa and for four,
punishment will come;
because they cherished those who are white
and abhorred those who are black.
So I will send a fire on the cities of South Africa
and I will turn my hand against them, says the Lord God.
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of the United States and for four,
punishment will come;
because you have been the great hypocrites of the earth:
pointing your moralistic finger and expounding your pious rhetoric
while you commit the same atrocities as the other nations.
Hear these words, you people that call yourselves “No. 1” among the nations:
Your status is due to the oppression of other nations:
You force them to grow crops they cannot eat,
You sell infant formula to them so their children will not grow,
You care only for the security of countries that benefit your own security. …
You say that South Africa determines the value of people by the color of their skin.
But [your] quality of health, safety and standard of living is determined
by an insidious, festering racism that permeates your communities.
Alas for those who hoard their wealth
and eat and sleep with no concern
for their responsibility in the community!
I am the Lord your God who made a covenant with you.
Like a patient mother, I have loved and cared for you.
Like a patient teacher, I have taught you to love one another.
I demand justice.
I demand mercy.
My anger at the destruction of the creation
is full of fury, says the Lord your God.

I like this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a hard word. It makes even those of us who might agree with it politically uncomfortable, especially in light of the Hatian earthquake and the unfortunate comments of Pat Robertson and others, who placed the blame for the disaster on the Hatians. But it envisions a God thoroughly active in the world – so active that it raises difficult questions of theodicy and agency that I asked about the original Amos text. In that sense, it’s very true to its source.

I also like it because it captures perfectly Amos’ technique of gathering support among his listeners by naming all of Israel’s enemies before honing in on the true focus of his prophecy – themselves. It’s easy to nod your head at the sins of Iraq, Libya and South Africa (substitute Zimbabwe, if you like, or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women), but harder to handle when the word comes home.

Carrol R. (I have no idea what the deal is with the concluding initial) then excerpts from Joel Drinkard’s modernization of all of Amos. Unlike the last one, I’ve made some revisions, as the original is close to 20 years old and refers to some events that have since been eclipsed by similar, more troubling news. This section comes from Amos 3:

Hear this word which the Lord has spoken against you,
O people of America, against the whole family whom I have raised up in North America:
You and you especially have I blessed
out of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you all the more for your iniquities.
Does any effect happen without a cause?
Does a gun fire unless the trigger is pulled?
Does a light come on unless the switch is thrown?
Does an animal fall into a trap where there is no trap?
Does a rabbit spring  from his box when nothing has sprung the trigger?
Does God punish without giving the opportunity for repentance?
When a lion roars, how can we not be afraid?
When lightning flashes, how can we but fear?
When God speaks, who can but prophecy?
Hear this word, you who fill your television with violence or [parodies] of violence,
yet cannot understand why your children become violent –
They become what they see, and what they see accepted by their role models.
Woe to you who fear an escalating arms race,
yet demand high-power [weapons] for your sport,
and automatic assault rifles as your constitutional right.
“Guns don’t kill,” you piously proclaim,
as you sell another Saturday night special.
Tell that to the children of [Columbine].
How long, O Lord, how long?
How long will the nation continue to offer freely
to any taker automatic assault rifles?
How long will a people let the National Rifle Association lobby determine public policy?
How many more schools in [Littleton, Colorado]?
How many more [Safeways] in [Tucson, Arizona]?
How many more [campuses like Virginia Tech]?
How long, O Lord, how long?

Finally, I decided to try my hand at one, based on Amos 4, the famed “cows of Bashan” passage.

Hear this word, you bulls and bears of New York,
who are on Wall Street,
who cheat the weak,
who crush the needy,
who say to their chauffeurs, “Which car shall we use today?”
The Lord God has solemnly promised by his holiness:
“The days are surely coming upon you,
when they will drag you away in chains,
even the last one of you in handcuffs.
You will go out through the perpetrator’s walk,
each one after another;
and you will be flung out into prison, says the Lord.
Come to New York — and commit a crime;
multiply crimes in Washington, D.C.
Bring your prayers every morning,
your worship every Sunday.
Thank God for the money you have earned off the backs of the poor,
and publicize your charity earned from taking the homes from families
who bought the crooked loans you sold them;
for so you love to do, people of America!” says the Lord God.

Well, maybe it’s not that great. Nevertheless, I think this is exactly the sort of thing more people should be doing. Just as the book of Amos itself was likely expanded and revised in future generations before assuming its current form, we are called to read in its warnings and admonitions for our own culture.

The prophets, more than any other Old Testament book,  give a glimpse into the mind of God – and though that image is not something with which our modern Western sensibilities may always be comfortable, sometimes a little discomfort can help us see the people we’ve become and contrast that with the people we ought to be.


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