Social Justice or The Proclamation of the Gospel?

In Amos Part One (2/18) we encountered the Northern Kingdom experiencing great prosperity during the reign of Jeroboam II. Suddenly, the prophet Amos appeared on the scene predicting Israel’s destruction and exile.

I ended the previous post with this challenging question:

“Why has God become so angry with a people that He has so richly blessed?”

The straightforward answer to this question has to do with the social injustice that was perpetrated by elite Israelites against the poor, weak, and vulnerable in their midst. But God’s displeasure with his people goes much deeper than that. According to Amos, God has had enough when...

  1. The “Haves” Take Unfair Advantage of the “Have-Nots”
  1. The “Haves” Fail to Treat the “Have-Nots” Like God Has Treated Them
  1. The “Haves” Do 1 & 2 and Pretend to Worship God
  1. The “Haves” Make God Look Bad

These four points find support throughout the book of Amos. You can locate the relevant passages yourself, so I won’t cite chapter-and-verse. There are two observations I do want to make, however, that have helped me to see how social justice fits into God’s overall program for his people and for the world.

POINT ONE: Social Justice Cannot Be Separated From Our Relationship With God.

Note that three of the four reasons Amos gives for the God’s impending judgment have to do not with social justice as such but, rather, with the Northern Kingdom’s relationship with Yahweh. Amos drills down far beyond the tragic ways that elites are treating the poor to the deeper causes of this reprehensible behavior: (a) the Israelites were lightly regarding God’s public reputation, (b) they had lost their appreciation for His saving grace toward them, and (c) they were engaging in worship pretending that everything was OK.

The most damning charge Amos brings against Israel is not, in fact, that of social injustice. It is “My holy name is profaned” (Amos 2:7).  Well-healed Israelites are oppressing the weak and vulnerable, so that God’s name is being dragged through the mud. God is not receiving the glory that is His due. For this Israel will go into exile.

POINT TWO: Social Justice Cannot Be Separated From The Proclamation Of The Gospel.

The distinction between social justice and proclamation evangelism (implied in the very sub-title of this post) is a dangerous and false dichotomy. Reread #2: The “Haves” Fail to Treat the “Have-Nots” Like God Has Treated Them. At the heart of Amos’s prophecy is this reminder (repeated elsewhere) of God’s gracious act of salvation on Israel’s behalf: 

Amos 3:1-2 — Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.”

By taking them back to the exodus, Amos reminds Israel how God treated them when they were slaves in Egypt. To embrace this message—to “own” this historical reality—renders social injustice unthinkable:

  • How can the Israelites possibly oppress the less fortunate, when God has extended to them such grace and mercy at their greatest point of poverty, weakness, and vulnerability? 
  • How can we possibly take advantage of the less fortunate, when, “while we were still weak...ungodly...sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8)? 

It is no coincidence that Amaziah, Jeroboam’s priest at the cult site at Bethel, attempts to silence Amos’s message:

“O seer, go, flee away  to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel” (Amos 7:12-13).

Reminders and restatements of Israel’s “Gospel”—the story of God’s gracious deliverance of His people from Egyptian slavery and the gift of the promised land—utterly permeate the Hebrew Scriptures. And for good reason. God’s grace—boldly proclaimed and rightly understood—makes social injustice unthinkable. Silence that message, however, and suddenly the “Haves” in Israel can be fooled into thinking that their economic prosperity is their own doing. And the door is now open to ignore the needs of—or intentionally oppress—the poor.

It is certainly the case that sometimes our actions speak much louder than our words. And in our relationships with others, there are, indeed, times when “doing the Gospel” more effectively draws attention to the greatness and goodness of God than “speaking the Gospel.” I get that.

However, to divorce (a) the proclamation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ from (b) serving the poor in Jesus’ name is to jettison the very foundation of social justice itself. Silencing the proclamation of the Word of God marked the beginning of the end for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It also marked the beginning of the end for liberal, mainline Protestantism in recent American history. And it will prove to be our demise, as well, if in our well-intended pursuit of social justice, we take the “evangel” out of evangelical.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“We love": by all means, let us love a broken world and serve the poor in Jesus’ name until it hurts. But let us never forget to boldly proclaim the good news: “he first loved us.”