Amos in Texas

The Prophet Amos in Katy, Texas

The withered top of Carmel

survives another flood

 

the shepherds cleave to rosary skies

hurled for Goliath’s repose

 

Amos your voice on the wind

travels for generations

provoked by mourning pastures

 

the dream cut with shards

from the Calvinist glass

 

a feasting robe denuded of skin

the seekers go astray

 

ash reclaiming its nothing

layers reliving their exile

launched with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind

 

sing, covenant of remembrance

sing, covenant of brotherhood

 

as fires devour the ribs of their living

this is your connivance with capital

 

Amos your voice on the wind

travels for generations

provoked by the mourning pastures

 

I keep in mind the cenobites

who watered seeds of wilderness

 

in a land plagued by “knowing”

as carts full of word-sheaves

 

weigh heavily on the broken string of affliction

as another empire’s language

creeps under the door.

 

In the prophet Amos I count eight essential, but not exhaustive, themes: (1) warnings against merely ritual religion, (2) warnings against indifference to injustice, (3) warnings against opulence at the expense of the poor and the land, (4) the dehumanising touch of lucre in human life, (5) the role of prophets in the collective, (6) God’s implacable hostility towards capitalism (profiteering and commodification of all things), (7) the ascesis of the prophet’s oppositional vocation, (8) divine wrath against human arrogance and the architecture of arrogance.

The voice of Amos echoes the fearless freedom of the wind, striking hammer blows of the Spirit today. ‘Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek’ (Amos 2:6-7). The structural injustice of capitalism today receives a stark warning from the Judaeo-Christian God. Today’s structures still sell the righteous for silver and the poor for gain. The poetic realism of Amos is a prophetic torch on collision course with the dynamic of dominion, to use a phrase from Pope Francis, which dominates society today. ‘And he that is courageous among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, saith the Lord’ (Amos 2:16). The heads of state, military leaders, CEO’s of global corporations, the vultures of financial idolatry – all will be stripped of the vestments of vapidity they flaunt and store.

One is confronted today by the entire theological arsenal of capitalism. It amounts to the ossification of injustice, where humanity is divided by those who ‘oppress the poor, who crush the needy’ (Amos 4:1). Instead, we are called to witness a vivifying, revolutionary metanoia: ‘For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live’ (Amos 5:4). Against the seductive voice of economic doceticism (which whispers that one’s financial prosperity and its ersatz theology of lucre is entirely distinct from one’s liturgical and ethical actions) we must sanctify our lives – and the lives of our sisters and brothers – with true love of the Incarnation.

I believe it is a mistake to think of today’s society as atheist. It has its gods, before which it prostrates itself: profit, careerism, commodification, consumerism, money. It is neither atheistic in word nor in practice. The type of skilled and calculated motivation many demonstrate does not come from indifference, disbelief, or confusion. It comes from the deep seated piety of economic theology: the theology of filthy lucre. It is a system seeking to turn each individual – the more easily to coerce us – into those ‘who turn justice to wormwood, and lay righteousness to rest in the earth’ (Amos 5:7). Amos draws a stark portrait of such a coerced and captive population: ‘They hate him that rebuketh in the gate, and they abhor him that speaketh uprightly. Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right’ (Amos 5:10-12). Amos excoriates elements of systematic sin: denial of free and open speech, forcible extraction of taxes, the institute of private property, the incarceration and murder of many martyrs of justice and the Reign, and indifference to the plight of the impoverished.

The prophet asks each one of us directly: is your faith merely ritualistic or does it fully take into account the Gospel’s precious flower of justice? Does your liturgical activity truly integrate itself with the ongoing Passover it requires of your whole being? Does it transcend an exclusively ritualistic and disembodied note of piety without radical fidelity to the Beatitudes and Maledictions? ‘I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream’ (Amos 5:21-24).

The prophetic sword seeks to cleave even the shadow of hypocrisy, and the distress of dis-incarnation, in two: ‘Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria’ (Amos 6:1). Ease, indifference, self-seeking, spiritual careerism, empty moralism, faith without works, and faith without radical challenges to the class conflict created by capitalism – all are questioned by Amos.

Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it shall be cast out and drowned, as by the flood of Egypt’ (Amos 8:4-8). One is confronted by theory and practice which constitutes a rhythm antonymic to the aim of Christian life: antonymic to soteriopraxis, and inimical to the incisive action of Scripture: ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12). And to the Incarnation itself. Ours must be an incarnational antonymicide, rooted in the mercy and love shown humanity in the Incarnation. Saint Athanasius sings hymns of metaphysical realism to the tenderness of the Incarnate Word: ‘having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own’ (On the Incarnation, p57).

Capitalism has its “damned” and its “elect”. It drinks from the well of secularised (or polytheistic) Calvinism. It has its egocentric and immature puritanism (the puritanism of the market!). Many today forget the words of poet Geoffrey Hill: ‘in the half dark of commodity most offers are impositions’. Let us not be guilty of this amnesia. Our examination of conscience and practice should ask the question, are we children of the prophets or children of profiteers?

In such a climate the Christian task – the apostolic charism of all Christians – is to be neither one of capitalism’s “elect” nor one of its “damned”. Both imply captivity, and Christ came to lead captivity captive. Let ours be a soteriopraxis of subversion set ablaze by the fiery sacrament liberty (paschal torch so loved by the apostles!), renouncing and denouncing the laws of filthy lucre. Let ours be the bellipotent[1] tenderness of the Beatitudes, reciting with Amos the lyrics of mystery and vocation: ‘I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdsman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit’ (Amos 7:14).

 

[1] Recorded in Samuel Johnson’s 1735 Dictionary with the meaning of ‘mighty in war’.

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