04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice

A “New” Theology of Justice[1]

In many discussions of pacifism, a polarity between pacifism and justice often is assumed. “Pacifism” often gets caricatured as privileging an ideal of harmony over the “real world” concerns of justice.

Biblically, however, “peace” (as shalom in the Old Testament) and “mercy” or “loving kindness” (chesed) are part of the same cluster of concepts as “justice” (mishpat and sedeqah). If we hold pacifism and justice together, we may find that they have complementary emphases and provide a much richer and transformative way of perceiving than either does if isolated from the other.

By looking closely at one particular text that emphasizes justice—the book of Amos—we will see in this chapter how biblical justice fits within a broadly pacifist point of view. I believe that Amos is a representative text. What we find in Amos concerning justice, we will also find elsewhere in the Bible.

This essay draws inspiration from Millard Lind, one of the few pacifist theologians and biblical scholars I am aware of who has accepted the challenge to attempt to rethink justice. A pacifist theory of justice which would serve as an alternative to the problematic approaches mentioned above continues to be an urgent need.[2]

This essay is only one more fragmentary attempt to point toward a thorough-going Christian pacifist approach to justice. One of my main arguments, following Lind, is that the Old Testament is a crucial resource for such a resource. In fact, if we can get beyond what Canadian social theorist George Grant called “English-speaking justice”[3] (or, said in other words, beyond the western philosophical tradition represented in recent years by Rawls and Nozick) and look at the biblical materials concering justice (including the Old Testament) on their own terms, we will find that they are a tremendous resource for a pacifist approach to justice.

Historical setting

The oracles contained in the book of Amos, were addressed to the ruling elite of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, the so-called “northern kingdom” which had split off from Judea; especially those in Samaria, which was the capital and primary center of urban power of mid-eighth century BCE Israel.[4]

This was a time of peace and prosperity for Israel. The main superpower of the day, Assyria, was not much of a factor internationally (at least temporarily, it turned out) due to its internal problems, nor was anyone else. Given this lack of outside interference, Israel reached its largest geographical size during the reign of King Jeroboam II—786-746 BCE.

The book of Amos gives glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (6:1; 8:3) and their popular religiosity that saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.

However, all was not well—which is why Amos came from Tekoa in the south to prophesy. Israel was at the end of a social transformation. Israel had originally been a fairly egalitarian society. The concern for marginalized, vulnerable people (such as widows and orphans) and the commitment to minimizing the social stratification characteristic of much the Ancient Near East between a few wealthy and powerful elite and a mass of poor, even landless, peasants were institutionalized in the law and social practices of Israel.

A key aspect of this land reform was the inheritance system. This served to keep control of the resources away from a rich elite but instead provide for the peasantry controlling their own resources. Foundational to this system was the belief that ultimately Yahweh was the lord of the land and holder of eminent domain. The land was for the sake of the good of everyone, not for the sake of the profit of a few.

Closely connected with the inheritance system was a decentralized legal system—the court in the gates of the villages (essentially the village’s town square). This system sought to help of the weaker members of the society who otherwise were without power and influence. Without the justice of the court they would not be able to maintain themselves in the social order.

The “ideological” basis for this social ordering was the Israelites’ view of the covenant they had with God. God had established their nation in his gracious love and desired the people to live in communion with him and with one another. The covenant community was accountable to God—if it did not maintain its faithfulness, it was liable to be judged (cf. Exodus 19:5-6).

Amos came onto the scene to announce that this threat of judgment was about to be carried out. The social transformation of Israel decisively moved away from covenant faithfulness.

Poverty and distress were widespread among the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. One key aspect of that reality was the shift from the situation where control of the land was inherited to one where the control was in the hands of a few centralized owners. These owners exploited the peasants for their own gain.

This transformation dated back to Solomon’s reign. Walter Brueggemann summarizes Solomon’s main “accomplishments” thus: (1) an economics of affluence; (2) a politics of oppression; (3) the establishment of a controlled, static religion.[5] By the time of Amos, apparently these “accomplishments” were bearing their fruit.

This process cut to the heart of the covenant-community concept, which paid special attention to those on the bottom of society and saw itself as based on the notion of a liberator-God. This God cared for the Israelites when they were all impoverished and enslaved in Egypt and saved them so that they might take responsibility to show the nations what a community based on God’s justice looks life.

Amos’s general message

In chapters one and two, Amos begins by prophesying against Israel’s neighboring nations. This sets his listeners up for the punch line that begins in 2:6. In speaking against the nations, Amos would gain the sympathy of his listeners—who would all agree that, of course, the nations are terrible and unjust. Then, beginning in 2:6, Amos charges Israel with decisively judged crimes. In particular in these verses, he focuses on transgressions against the harmonious ordering of Israelite communal life: (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy; (2) the oppression of the poor; (3) the abuse of poor women; and (4) the exploitation of debtors.

In 3:2, Amos turns Israel’s complacent view of election and its place as God’s covenant people on its head. He insists that privilege entails responsibility and that the unfaithful Israelites have been irresponsible. Therefore, they are even worse than the despised pagans who never knew God.

Due Israel’s injustice, salvation history will become judgment history in their near experience. Amos preaches a transcendent ethic—God is not identified with Israel per se. God is identified with justice and righteousness. When Israel itself is unjust, it also is judged.

Because of its past history as the recipient of God’s gracious acts, Israel was in a unique position to know that the cause of the needy is the cause of God. Because this is forgotten by the powers-that-be in Israel, the society will be destroyed.

The problem in Israel was not that the people did not know intellectually the precepts of the law and their concern for the needy. The problem was the unwillingness on the part of the leaders and judges to administer the law fairly. This is what led to the disregard for justice. And, what was worse, all this happened in the midst of thriving religiosity. People flocked to the shrines but disregarded God’s call for his people to justice to the needy. Amos’s message essentially asserts that religion made things worse for Israel. Their ritualistic faithfulness masked ethical unfaithfulness.

Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, Amos proclaims, judgment is coming. The context for this judgment is Israel as God’s covenant people—delivered from Egypt, given law to order their common life, given the land in which to live out God’s will. However, Israel rejected God’s ways of justice and goodness and by doing so broke its side of the covenant bargain. Destruction, i.e., self-destruction, was inevitable.

In Israel, a veneer of peace and prosperity covered a corrupt reality. Rather than being a sign of God’s favor, this reality (even with its apparent peace and prosperity) and the process that created it will be judged and destroyed by God. The reality is more than that many people are poor while a few are rich and insensitive. Even worse, the rich contribute to the problems of the poor. Even the one refuge of the poor, the court-system, has been corrupted and turned on its head to serve the rich instead of the poor.

Amos gives an example in 2:6. For rich creditors money has more value than the people. And the people who are needy are victims for insignificant reasons. In effect, Amos here says that the needy are sold because they can not pay back the small sum they owe for a pair of sandals. This covenant disloyalty will result in judgment.

In 7:8 Amos mentions an image of the plumb line—showing that the Israelites are like a wall that is out of line. This is what characterizes injustice. It is things distorted and at variance with what they are intended to be.

Amos says that Israel, despite its chosenness and special relationship with God, faces judgment due to its injustice. Israel especially practiced injustice with regard to people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, people deprived—systematically and purposefully—of their rightful status as full members of the covenant community. Amos’s condemnation is pretty complete. He, unlike previous social critics, is not saying that with some relatively minor adjustments things can go okay. He is saying that it is all over for Israel. Nevertheless, there are a few calls to turn back. This implies that it is not completely too late, at least not for a remnant.

The book closes with a somewhat incongruous vision of hope in 9:11-15, a vision of redemption for a remnant. This is a kind of new exodus, a liberation from servitude to and oppressive exploitation by the ruling elite.

These verses add a sense of God’s ultimately redemptive purpose in his judgments. The book as a whole, it seems, makes the point that God’s people need to live according to God’s justice. Those who do not will be judged (and self-destruct), those who do are given hope for the future. If there were no judgment, the poor would have no hope since their oppressors would never be called to account. Two other prophets (Isaiah and Hosea) speak of God’s chastisement for the sake of God’s people (Isaiah 19:22; Hosea 6:1—“come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us”).

Amos’s view of justice

Four texts in Amos specifically speak of “justice” (mishpat):

“Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, O you who turn justice to wormwood, and cast down righteousness to the earth” (5:6-7).

Justice and righteousness are clearly associated here with the presence of God as the life-bestowing force. By calling the evil good (i.e., the so-called “justice” at the gate that had become injustice, and the people’s wealth, that was gained at the expense of the poor and weak) and the good evil (abhorring the one who speaks the truth, 5:10), the Israelites transform what should be sweet (justice) into something bitter (wormwood).

“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:14-15).

When Amos 5:10 speaks of hating the advocate of the right and abhorring those who speak “the whole truth,” it apparently refers to personal opposition to the essence of the court-justice system. To do so, in God’s eyes, is to embrace death. True life in Israel can only flourish when God’s concern for the weak is expressed in its social life. One key way this happens is when the justice at the gate is truly justice, when it is truly corrective of wrongs done.

Concern for such justice goes back to the legal code itself:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his suit. Keep far from a false charge and do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:6-8).

The key to experiencing the presence of God, according to Amos, is inter-human justice. It is not religiosity. This is emphasized in the next passage we will note.

“I hate, I despise your feasts and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5:21-24).

Again, justice is connected with life. Water is the key to life existing in the desert. By doing justice is how the community exists. The worship of the cultic community is unacceptable because Israel does not live as the community of God. Thus it is without life.

For there to be life, justice and righteousness must roll down like floods after the winter rains and persist like those few streams who do not fail in the summer draught.

“Do horses run upon rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12).

The first part of this verse asks if the impossible could happen and the second part says that indeed in can, that it is, and (implicitly) that the leaders of Israel are doing it.

It is incredible to Amos that the rich could be content in their luxury and grieve not over the ruin of “Joseph”—that is, the destruction of the covenant community (6:6), and that a place of justice (the court at the gate) could become unjust, poison. This staggers the mind and he can only compare it with some incredible perversion of the natural order of things.

Key points regarding justice in Amos

Most foundationally, Amos understands justice to be tied up inextricably with life. Do justice and live, Amos asserts; do injustice and die. An unjust society will die, it cannot help but collapse of its own weight. The goal of justice is life.

More particularly, justice seeks life for everyone in the community. Because life is for everyone, justice pays particular attention to the people being denied life. Justice provides for access by all to the communal “good life.” None can justly prosper at the expense of others, or even in the light of the poverty and need of others.

Amos sees justice as part of the created order. It is unnatural to be unjust, like a crooked wall or an ox plowing the sea. To be unjust is thus inherently self-destructive. Injustice is the poison that poisons its practitioners.

Chapters one and two show that Amos saw God’s justice as intended for everyone, including the pagan nations. The covenant people have a special responsibility due to their special awareness of God’s justice. Their failure is very serious. They are not punished more than the other nations. Those too were destroyed and Israel is the only one with a remnant. But Israel’s failure to practice justice, in Amos’s eyes, destroys the hope of the nations. Israel’s faithfulness is for the sake of the nations, that they might thus see the light of God’s justice and love. When Israel is unfaithful, there is no light to be seen.

Amos sees justice as something to be done: relationships established, needs met, wrongs corrected. Justice, in Amos, has nothing to do with a meaningless cult. In its essence, justice in Amos is to specific acts and people.

The ultimate goal of God’s justice, we see from 9:11-15, is redemption. The judgment of Israel has the hope that Israel’s self-destructive injustice might thereby be corrected. The threats and warnings, the judgment of God, is not for the sake of punishment, of retribution, of repaying rebellious Israel an eye for an eye. The threats and warnings are given in hopes of salvation,of transformation—with the recognition that should Israel not respond God’s respect for her free-will will result God allowing the collapse of her as a nation-state. This is precisely what happened as Israel played power-politics to the end and succumbed to the much superior power of Assyria).

Thoughts on biblical justice in general

The first general conclusion we might draw from Amos’s teaching—and that we find elsewhere in the Bible—is that justice is for the sake of life. God’s justice in the Old Testament is not primarily retribution but salvation, not primarily punitive but corrective. The justice of God is saving power, God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships and continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to effect those relationships.

That justice is for the sake of life is reinforced by the fact that in the Old Testament it is not primarily a legal concept, but it rather tends to merge with concepts like “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation.” Justice has ultimately to do with how a loving creator has made the world. To be just is to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until this is the case for everyone else too.

A second general point about the biblical perspective is that justice is part of the created order. The Old Testament connection between justice and life follows from some of its ideas regarding creation. A foundational concept in the biblical teaching is that “creation” is confessed to be an act of the covenant-making God of Israel. Therefore, the basic character of creation is in harmony with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—all the things that sustain and nourish life. The Bible makes no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God. In fact creation was God’s first covenant-making act. Thus covenant values ultimately are part of the very fabric of creation.

Hence, human life has meaning, purpose, and destiny. Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love. So all human action that is in harmony with that love has meaning and is part of the basic meaning of creation—and is thereby “just”. The creation of humankind in the image of this God means that all people need relationships, with each other and with God. The purpose of human activity is to facilitate these relationships. Since all people, simply by virtue of being people, are in the “image of God” and thus have dignity and value, there is no justification for discrimination and disregard of any human life. Injustice is the severing of relationships, justice is their establishment and/or restoration.

The cosmos are created good. Evil is an aberration. It can and must be resisted. No evil is such an intrinsic part of the structure of reality that it cannot be conquered by the creator’s power. To conquer the power of evil, a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships, is to do justice.

God’s will has to do with all parts of creation. Nothing exists that is autonomous from that will or that is ethically neutral. The challenge of the Old Testament for people of faith was that the creator’s will be carried out in all spheres of human existence.

Ultimately, the Old Testament makes no distinction between the order of creation and the order of redemption. The creator-God and the redeemer-God are one and the same. They would never have recognized the former without their historical experience of the latter.

The central theological reality in creation is seen to be love. Therefore, faithfulness to the “creation mandate” equals living lives of love. It is thus seen to be incumbent upon people of faith to shape their lives and their social order according to the values of love. Love is seen to be the motivation and determining factor for doing justice.

The heart of God’s character is steadfast love, which for God means desiring the good of all people. This includes God’s enemies and especially social outcasts. God’s love provides the model for God’s followers.

A third general point is that justice is not soft on evil but rather seeks to destroy evil. God’s love for enemies means that God hates what evil does to humankind and works to heal its effects. Evil is only ended when the cycle of evil fighting evil is broken. The Old Testament model for this is the suffering servant in Isaiah, for Christians the precursor to Jesus, who did not retaliate but accepted all that the powers of evil could do and conquered them. This is the ultimate model for biblical justice.

Love applies to all areas of life according to the biblical teaching. It is the element that is to shape decisively the means and ends of all activity of the people of faith. Love gives those who shape their lives by it a hopefulness that provides the energy which moves people to believe that God’s justice and God’s love can be a reality in the world—and thus to act to make it so.

Biblical justice equals conformity with the will of the loving, covenant-making creator God. Thus it is part of love, not in tension with love. God’s justice is seen in that God’s intervention has always been intended for the salvation of God’s people and thus for the restoration of covenant relationships.

God’s love works to set right that which has been corrupted. This is justice. One way of characterizing justice, therefore, is to say that justice is how love is expressed in the face of evil. Love expressed in the face of evil acts to stop the evil and to heal its effects; that is, to be redemptive, salvific.

God’s justice is seen in the creation of life and in every act that God has done to sustain and restore life. Human justice, in the Old Testament sense, would seem only truly to be justice when it also acts to sustain and restore life.

A fourth general point is that part of the reason Israel existed as a people was to be a light to the nations, to show them the loving and just ways of their God. The goal of this witness is the transformation of the nations.

Old Testament people believed that God’s justice was normative for the nations as well as for Israel. When Amos condemns the nations for their injustices, no one would have questioned whether it was legitimate for him to do so. God’s will was for all people, and all people were to be held accountable to how they responded to that will. This is true because God is seen to be the creator of all that is. Justice is imbedded into creation (hence injustice is as unnatural as an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked).

Creation theology came not from reason but from their historical experience of God as their redeemer. But the implications of their creation theology would have led them to see all people as part of God’s creation, all people created in God’s image, and all people accountable to God. These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (like Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations. The accountability generally was used to support the fact that the nations too will be judged by God for being unjust. But there are scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the harlot; the repentant people of Nineveh in Jonah; even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader). These perhaps indicate that God’s justice was seen to be knowable and do-able by anyone.

In Amos one and two, the prophet speaks in general terms of blatant injustices. From 2:6 on he speaks more specifically to Israel. This is not primarily because the nations were in principle incapable of perceiving the need to be just in the ways Israelites were. Rather it reflects the idea that Israel’s calling entailed a closer relationship with God at this time. More was expected of Israel—for the sake of the nations. They would perceive true justice when they indeed saw it in Israel (without the aid of “special revelation”) and, according to Isaiah’s vision, flock to Mt. Zion to share in it (Isaiah 2:1-4). But the point of Amos, and the rest of the Old Testament, is to facilitate Israel manifesting this justice. God’s justice is part of God’s covenant love. Where there is justice there is life, there is a relationship with the Giver of life.

Justice is thus more a relational concept than an abstract principle. The goal of justice is human beings in relationships with each other and God—not “fairness”, “equality”, “liberty”, “holiness,” etc. Israelite law was for the service of this communal goal—given not as something eternal and immutable, but as law which comes from a God who is merciful and forgiving.

A fifth general point is that the biblical teaching ends up emphasizing the poor and needy so much because they, in their oppression, were being excluded from community life and from the shalom God wills for everyone. This destroys community and ends up lessening the well-being of each person in the community.

This communal justice was not to be for the Israelites’ own sake alone. The ultimate purpose for justice in Israel was for it to be a lead to world-wide justice. Even in the story of Israel’s initial election in Genesis 18, a major reason given for it is to bring about “justice and right” for all humankind.

Biblical justice is primarily “corrective justice”. Thus, justice’s goal is reconciliation. Injustice must be opposed and resisted—but only in ways that hold open the possibility of reconciliation. What happens to the oppressors matters, too, if justice is the goal. Also, corrective justice rules out death-dealing acts such as war and capital punishment as tools of justice.

End Notes:

1. An earlier version of this essay was published in Ted Grimsrud and Loren L. Johns, eds., Peace and Justice Shall Embrace: Power and Theopolitics in the Bible (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000), 64-85. Used with permission. That volume was a festschrift for Millard C. Lind, my Old Testament professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Millard made many original contributions to the study of the Bible, not least his path-breaking studies on biblical justice. See especially Millard C. Lind, Monothesism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990.

2. Along with Lind, Monothesism, Power, and Justice, these are some of the other beginning attempts to address this need: C. Norman Kraus, “Toward a Biblical Perspective on Justice” (unpublished paper presented to Mennonite Central Committee Peace Theology Colloquium, Elkhart, IN, November 1978); Ted Grimsrud, “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays in Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-153; Harry Huebner, “Justice and the Biblical Imagination,” in Harry Huebner and David Schroder, Church as Parable: Whatever Happened to Ethics? (Winnipeg, Man.: CMBC Publications, 1993), 120-146; Glen H. Stassen, “Narrative Justice as Reiteration,” in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theology Without Foundations: Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 201-225; Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), especially chapter five: “Oppression and Justice”; Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001); and Millard C. Lind, The Sheer Sound of Silence: The Death Penalty and the Killing State (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2004). An insightful study by a non-theologian was written by Howard Zehr, one of the grandfathers of the restorative justice movement in the criminal justice field: Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990).

3. George P. Grant, English-Speaking Justice (Sackville, NB: Mount Allison University Press, 1974).

4. Useful resources on Amos include: Robert C. Coote, Amos Among the Prophets: Composition and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) and Shalom Paul, Amos: A Commentary on the Book of Amos. Hermenaia Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

5. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 31.

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