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Amos, the Social Justice Conscience of Israel

But if you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream  (Amos 5:24).

A paraphrase of these words is inscribed on the Civil Rights Monument of Birmingham, Alabama.  The paraphrase is a quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The monument features a cascade of water running down an inverted cone, making it possible for the viewer to touch the water and disturb the smoothness of the waters.  The water flows over the names of the forty people who died in the cause of Civil Rights in the late 20th Century here in the United States.  Dr. King’s use of this passage reminds us that the prophet Amos was one of the great champions of social justice.  Indeed, the message of Amos is one of the foundation stones for the Church’s devotion to social justice causes.

Fighting for the cause of justice and peace, fighting for the integrity of our created universe, fighting for the care of the poor and the alien in our midst are all integral to the Church’s preaching of the Gospel.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets.  In his preaching Jesus constantly called the children of Israel back to the covenant relationship that had been established on Sinai thousands of years before.  That covenant stated that if the children of Israel chose to obey God’s commandments, then God would not be ashamed to be called their God.  The covenant stresses that the Lord of Sinai, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, was to be the only God of Israel.  Secondly, the covenant demands that the Israelites remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt, what it was like to be the oppressed, what it was like to be the disenfranchised.  If they remembered, they would insure that the poor and powerless people in their midst would be cared for and treated with human dignity.

A careful reading of the prophets reinforces this message.  Generally speaking, the classical prophets write about two sins.  First, they accuse the children of Israel of turning away from God and worshiping other gods.  Second, they accuse them of ignoring the plight of the poor.  Amos particularly uses very strong language in these accusations.  He compares the Israelites to adulterers, drawing upon the experience of his personal life, because they have turned away from God and to another just as his wife had turned away from him and to another man.  He further accuses them of hypocrisy because, while they stringently obey the celebrations of the liturgical feasts, they fail to care for the poor in their midst.

Pope Francis has consistently raised his voice in condemning the market economy for its callous regard of the plight of the poor.  Ever since his election he has been unrelenting in his pursuit of a Church that is of the poor and for the poor.  While there are those who have labeled him a socialist and a communist because of his preaching, anyone familiar with the Hebrew prophets, anyone who champions the modern prophets of our own day, knows in the depths of his or her heart that Pope Francis is simply adhering to the covenant that we have with God in Jesus Christ.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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