I wonder what it was Amos saw.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
[…] and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.
What did Amos see?
What did he see in the city?
What did he see at the temple, in the places of power, in the slums? What casual acts of brutality against the weak did he witness on the street corners? Which merchants did he see in the market, prioritizing a few coins over a hungry family’s survival?
I wonder about this because we make a big deal of prophets, like they have some sixth sense the rest of us lack. They don’t. There are only two things a prophet needs to do to pull off their job: they see what’s in front of them and they tell everyone about it. Anyone can do this. We can all do this. If you asked Amos, I think he would say we are all obligated to do this. We don’t need to sound pretty or poetic or well-read to be prophetic. We do need to run our mouths telling the truth about what’s happening around us, and measure that unflinchingly against what God wants.
In Aberdeen last week, where I work, the public works department began demolishing the city’s largest homeless encampment. While there is plenty of vitriol toward unhoused people in Aberdeen (and Seattle), an encampment sweep is the kind of brutality that city officials are good at making sound mundane. Their rhetoric is couched in terms of public health and safety, or public nuisance, or taxpayer concerns. It’s a big headache for the mayor but a real eyesore that somebody’s got to clean up for the sake of attracting tourism to the region, blah blah blah.
The boringness of their rhetoric intentionally obscures the violence.
We often think the prophets are the ones who sound far-fetched. Their words are so strong, their condemnations so scathing. We ask, “Is it really all that bad, Amos? Surely not everyone was selling the poor for a pair of new shoes. Try to find some balance. Focus on the positive.”
That’s not a prophet’s job. Prophets are here to pull our heads out of the sand and make us face the truths in our society and in our history that will be our collective undoing, unless we change. Prophets are here to remind us that being well-adjusted in a sick society is the deepest sickness of all.
What is the demolition of a homeless camp like? To the mayor, it’s a PR stunt in an election year. To the police chief, it’s a potential publicity nightmare. To the city attorney, it’s a pain in the rear. To local property and business owners, it’s a long-awaited cause for celebration.
To the poor, it is an apocalypse.
It is exile.
It is an act of war.
It is fourteen police cars pulling up to a small string of plywood shacks and tents just to serve the eviction notices. It is bulldozers trying to move in on structures while people are still sleeping inside them. It is watching the homestead you built with your own hands, out of the scraps and garbage other people threw away, be snatched up and crushed by a roaring excavator, against your will, with no other place to turn. In the richest country on earth.
Amos saw in his time that the present reality of the poor would be the future reality of his whole society. Famine, mourning, exploitation, death, endless wandering without rest or safety, all the flavors of doom that Amos says are coming upon his nation — they had already come for the poor. Amos lived in a deeply unequal society where some people were doing quite well for themselves and many others were living in misery. He saw that this economic system, which was the material manifestation of a moral system, would eventually be its own undoing. And we are seeing the same thing, in this stage of late capitalism in our own nation.
Amos saw in his time that the present reality of the poor would be the future reality of his whole society.
If we want to go where Amos is leading us, I think we have to do two things. First, we have to understand that as long as we allow poverty to exist at all, our entire society is vulnerable. Second, we have to recognize the authority of poor people. Poor people are not the problem. A society that allows poverty to exist is the problem. A society that isn’t even satisfied with poor people living in shacks, but must also relentlessly attack and displace them is the problem. In recognizing the authority of poor people, we have to listen to poor people. We have to hear homeless folks’ firsthand accounts of our cities investing in expensive militarization waged against them, instead of investing in the things that could save lives like affordable housing and healthcare. And we have to hear these accounts not only out of sympathy, but with the soul-deep awareness that we could be next.
What would Amos say if he stood at that camp on the banks of the Chehalis River last week surrounded by cop cars, construction equipment, and weeping, cussing homeless people?
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
[…] The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
I think Amos would say, “Same sin, different day.”
If Amos can teach us anything, it’s that feeling sad and sorry for the poor isn’t enough. Even feeling angry on behalf of the poor isn’t enough. Doing kind, charitable acts isn’t enough. We name Amos as our prophet, but it was the words and cries and lives and deaths of the poor that prophesied to Amos himself and showed him what would inevitably come to pass for his whole society. I believe things are going to get much, much worse in our country and around the world. But if we are to have any eventual hope of turning things around and rebuilding from the ashes, we will find it among people who are already figuring out how to survive the apocalypse every day.
Poor people are not the problem. A society that allows poverty to exist is the problem.