Although the Book of Amos, a book of the Jewish Scriptures, was written thousands of years ago (ca. 760 B.C.E.), the words of the Jewish prophet, “the prophet of social justice,” apply to any government in which its officials or leaders live lavishly, while ignoring their own people as they struggle economically, living in poverty.
Amos is deeply concerned about a nation’s callous disregard for “the needy” (Amos 2:6, NIV), “the poor” and “the oppressed” (Amos 2:7, NIV). For example, Amos “speaks truth to power,” criticizing those who hold positions in government, the politicians or political leaders of his day, because they neglect the economically vulnerable and underprivileged, saying,
“Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come! You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:1, 4-6, NIV).
In other words, the political officials had nice homes (cf. 6:11) and placed in them the finest furniture that money could buy (cf. 6:4). They entertained guests with lavish dinners (cf. 6:4), music (cf. 6:5) and fine wines (cf. 6:6). The leaders were, in other words, “at ease in Zion” (6:1, ESV).
For Amos, religion is not to be confined to a temple (or church) but must be practiced in society. Religion, then, must be profane, which literally means “outside the temple.” That is to say, Amos teaches that religion applies to life, to personal and social ethics, to oneself and others. Far from shying away from government activity, because it pertains to the so-called “secular sphere of life,” or remaining neutral about the leaders of a government, for Amos (and Isaiah), religion focuses on human issues, on treating human beings justly and meeting the needs of the economically disadvantaged.
On 28 August 1963, in his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. calls the government’s attention to the injustices suffered by African Americans, saying,
“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
Then King goes on to quote the Hebrew prophet Amos, with the preface
“we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’” (Amos 5:24, ASV).
Dr. King, then, applies the Bible to the secular or civil issue of social justice.
Unfortunately, there are times in which the only way to wake up complacent leaders of a government, moving them out of their comfort zone, is to shock them. That is precisely what the prophet Amos does. He denounces them, because they are living in “their comfortable little worlds” and do not want to be disturbed by all the poverty and suffering surrounding them. Amos is an example for today’s “prophets” and “prophetesses,” for bold and courageous men and women to “speak truth to power” to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”