The Prophet Amos and Bryan Stevenson
Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP
252nd Edition July 2020
The Prophet Amos and Bryan Stevenson
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome those who made the on-line “Parables and Poetry Retreat” sponsored by San Damiano Retreat Center, Danville, CA. It was a new and quite different experience for all of us, but we agreed on how timely, prayerful, and supportive it was especially during this season of our lives. There were requests to continue the retreat and offer other online retreats. There are plans for future online retreats that will be announced before too long.
Some of the “stories we seldom hear” are the voices of the Minor Prophets. For the next couple of months, I will focus on the stories of some of the twelve Minor Prophets. I encourage you to read their works. They are identified as Minor Prophets not because their message is less important than the Major Prophets. Rather “minor” refers to the fact that their books are very short. The Book of Amos is only nine chapters. The brevity of Amos’ and other prophets’ writings may be an added incentive for you to read the whole book.
Why read the Prophets? Don’t we hear enough misery each night on the news? The deaths from Covid 19 are increasing each day and daily revelations of unjust systems and racial injustice that permeate our nation’s systems flood the airwaves. However, we don’t read the prophets the same way we read the news or a novel. Rather when we read scripture we do so with a prayerful attitude. As we read the prophets, we allow God’s anger over injustice to touch our hearts. We pray for the wisdom and courage to understand how we participate in the injustice and suffering we see around us. We pray that God’s life-giving words will broaden our vision and enlighten our minds so we will know how to “act justly and live tenderly” today. As we listen to the scriptures, study the issues and apply the prophets’ words to our daily experiences, God’s compassionate and just heart will continue to form and reform our hearts.
Throughout history there have been thousands of prophets. Not all prophets are recorded in the Bible. Over the last couple of years, Bryan Stevenson has been recognized as one of those truth-telling prophetic people. During his many interviews, the authenticity of his character is revealed by the depth of his responses, quick sense of humor, insights into our legal system and his moral sensitivity. Stevenson’s nonfiction book Just Mercy has been on the New York Times best-sellers book list for over 210 weeks. Just Mercy was also made into a film in 2019. The film is available for free because the story needs to be heard and understood by all of us.
Stevenson is a lawyer who in the 1980s represented Walter McMillian who was on death row. McMillian’s freedom was a long process. He was exonerated in 1993. But McMillian’s story is not the only one we meet in Just Mercy. Stevenson has freed scores of people who have been wrongly convicted or excessively punished. Those stories alone would be a good reason to read Just Mercy. Stories where justice wins and hope is re-birthed encourage us and strengthen our commitment to continue to work for justice. But the book also gives us an insight into Stevenson’s soul. In a TED talk Stevenson said, “We will ultimately not be judged by our technology…we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason.” Ultimately, the character of society is judged “by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated….The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice” which is based on love.
Stevenson and the prophet Amos have a lot in common even though they live centuries apart. Both are insightful, excellent writers, courageous, and common folk who have been touched by the Spirit of God to speak the truth. Amos, like Stevenson but unlike some of the prophets who were desert dwellers and rough-hewn, seems to have had a regular profession. However, Amos was not your average citizen. God chose him because he was a man of faith, articulate and courageous enough to speak the truth in the face of conflict.
The first line of the Book of Amos captures our attention by announcing that it is two years before the earthquake. In other words, catastrophe is imminent if the people do not awaken to their sinfulness and change their lives. Amos’ voice roars like the voice of God revealing the sins of the people. First, Amos makes judgments on the nations that surround Israel. Amos’ condemnations are staggering. His sarcasm is thick with God’s anger. He calls the rich Samaritan women who oppress the poor “cows of Bashan” (4:1). He warns those who have ivory and ebony “winter houses and summer houses” of their destruction. Each section begins with: “For the three crimes, the four crimes of…I have made my decree and will not relent:” This pattern of “three crimes” and “four” should not be taken literally. We hear it in other parts of scripture. Amos, however, uses this expression to alert us to the fact that Israel’s “three-four crimes” are actually many more.
Israel’s “crimes are many and your sins are enormous: persecution of the virtuous, blackmail, turning away the needy at the city gate. No wonder the prudent man keeps silent, the times are so evil” (5:12-13). Amos hammers at Israel’s ingratitude. God has done so much for them. Chief among their sins are the multiple ways they rob the poor of their dignity and the necessities of life. Couched into the laments Amos warns Israel of the suffering that awaits them if they do not change. He uses common images that are drawn from the people’s experiences. “It will mean darkness, not light, as when a man escapes a lion’s mouth, only to meet a bear; he enters a house [a symbol of safety] and puts his hand on the wall, only for a snake to bite him” (5:19-20). Amos also exposes the shallowness of their religious practices. Their liturgies might be filled with chanting and the strumming of harps, but Yahweh desires justice to “flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream” (5:23). Yet, throughout the laments, God tries to convince the people to change. “Seek good and not evil so that you will live, so that God will really be with you as you claim God is” (5:14). This sentiment is expressed many times throughout the book.
Amos has five visions. Each announces a disaster. Swarms of locust will destroy crops. A drought-like fire will parch the earth. A plumb line will separate God from the erring nations. After the third prophecy, however, Amos gets thrown out of Bethel. But that doesn’t stop him from announcing a famine and the destruction of the sanctuary. All those who do not heed Amos’ words will suffer the consequences. But those who hear God’s words and repent will be saved. “Yet, I will not destroy the House of Jacob completely –it is Yahweh who speaks. For now, I will issue orders and shake the House of Israel among all the other nations, as you shake a sieve so that not one pebble can fall on the ground” (9:9).
As you can tell from this brief reflection, Amos is a skillful writer. But even more importantly it is easy to imagine Amos speaking these same words to us today. Hopefully, Amos’ words will wake us up and ignite a flame of hope in us who are sick over the injustices in our nation and our world. His voice is like “a trumpet sound in the city” that alarms us. Perhaps his words will renew our commitment to do “some one thing” to relieve the suffering of others. His words might inspire us to be more forthright as we consider the political issues in our neighborhoods, states, and nation. Maybe his words will encourage us to create more relevant liturgies, public prayers, rituals and preaching that address current issues of racism, poverty, and structural injustice. Amos calls individuals, religious leaders and the faith community to repentance. Not surprisingly, Amos was run out of town for telling the truth of what God told him to proclaim.
Amos’ prophesy is not only for religiously affiliated people. It is a human message addressed to all people. We are all connected and have a responsibility for each other’s’ welfare. Amos ends his prophecy with a vision of hope. The people will be restored, their cities will be rebuilt. “They shall plant vineyards and drink from them. They shall make gardens and eat their fruit” (9:14). The prophets never leave us in the dungeon of despair. As they did for the Israelites centuries ago, they do for us now. They challenge us. They show us the way to restoration: stop, look, listen, and act.
We have stopped. It’s called shelter-in-place. Look. We cannot avoid the pain and those suffering from the Covid 19 virus. We see the heroic actions of those who are giving their lives to save people who are sick and dying. Every day we see and meet the essential workers who serve us by providing our daily needs. Daily we see the results of the racial inequality that has permeated every aspect of our society.
Listen. As we prayerfully listen to the news, the multiple Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as well as the violent results of the Covid 19 Virus in minority communities, we grieve. As we listen to the plea of Amos, we pray for courage to face the truth that underlies these situations.
Metanoia is Amos’ plea: a word that means a complete change of mind and heart. The Black Lives Matter Movement is not revealing a totally new story. At different times in the past we, as a nation, for a time, had begun the conversation concerning racism, but it has never been completed. Even though, over the years, we hope we have grown in our understanding of how deeply racism has permeated our economic, social, political, educational, and cultural structures.
We also hope we have begun to realize how racism has affected our own personal attitudes and actions often without our even noticing it.
Act. The lion roars, the trumpet sounds, God’s words alert us to our need to change. Study, prayer, thoughtful and educated discussions can lead us to the next step that each of us is called to take. For some of us, the next step might mean to ask a black friend or colleague to talk with you about racism. You may want to read White Fragility or listen to the weekly discussion on racism from Loyola University in Maryland. All of us have homework to do, if God’s promise to restore, rebuild, and plant firmly God’s vision in our hearts and nation. This will only come about for those whose security is in God not in material goods, but in right worship and service to others.