by Lamin Sanneh
Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 13-20, 1989, p. 811. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
For Amos the connection betwen "profits" and "prophets" was more than a matter of literary elision. His words crackle with a telling contemporary ring.
The scripture readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost contain an extraordinary consistency. Amos 8:4-7 describes God pressing a serious charge against his people for oppressing the poor and seeing religion as an annoying "new moon" inconvenience. The Epistle reading in I Timothy 2:1-8 speaks of the cessation of anger and quarreling as marks of the godly life. The Gospel reading in Luke 16:1-13 speaks of a labor dispute in which a dishonest worker faces dismissal and shrewdly maneuvers in a final gambit to win himself friends among his employer’s debtors. Some form of quarrel or controversy appears in all the readings. The resolution offered in all three passages is also remarkably similar: God recruits the prophet to plead on behalf of the poor and needy; Timothy recruits the community for a vocation of holiness; and the crafty worker fiddles with the books to recruit sympathy for himself.
Amos describes how religious people find it irksome to wait for the new moon before they resume oppressing the poor. The reference to the moon ironically may be lost on modern suburbanites. Except for Christianity, which made the momentous change, most major religious traditions have adopted the lunar calendar, even though it conflicts with the agricultural cycle and its solar system. The lunar calendar, based on a much shorter month, does not coincide with the seasons, and is thus more suited to an urban lifestyle of purchase, profit and power.
Amos stood at the critical juncture between two cultures. He saw the forces of a lunar-based culture colliding with those of the solar, agricultural culture. The commercial instincts acquired from selling and from juggling accounts and weights and measures intrude violently on "the poor of the land" who cultivate a different sort of goods. The habit of selling and juggling, evident also in the Gospel story, encourages people to develop an instrumental view of religion, a view that allows us to use people, or God, for our ends. Producers and cultivators appeal to a different set of attitudes, to cooperation, fortitude and community.
The profit motive that drives the wheels of the acquisitive society also "tramples upon the needy," and upon the prophet’s exposed nerves. And so Amos reacts by threatening natural convulsions. He calls for justice to freak in with solar power and banish the shadows of oppression. True religion for Amos is a matter of high ethical seriousness, of dealing scrupulously with oneself and others, rather than disinheriting the poor of the land.
Or, as it may happen, the poor of the city. A few years ago a classy new doll made its appearance in the elegant Copley Place Mall in Boston prior to its going on sale nationally for anywhere between $49 and $500. This pricey bit of merchandise, which its owners described as a work of art and a piece of America, was the "bag lady" doll, made by Donald Gourley of California. The doll is the alchemical apotheosis of the starving street man and woman, adorned with gilded trivia and the rag-tag litter that a consumer society throws up. When the National Coalition for the Homeless protested about businesses "paying more attention to a homeless doll than the homeless themselves," the manufacturer responded that "bag ladies are part of America," and, furthermore, said that "the doll is clean, the doll is cute." Amos would have fired back with laser-packed accuracy, "The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds."’
Amos’s protest cuts into the situation and exposes its contradictions. Similarly, when the National Coalition for the Homeless speaks to the issue of the ‘bag lady’ doll, it draws attention to the contradiction that allows institutions, whether commercial or academic, to profit in the name of the poor. It questions the widely accepted idea of enterprise as its own standard and reward, an idea that fosters a ruthless, instrumental notion of people as items in a game of purchase and profit.
I recall a conversation with a friend who had been an architect of the ill-fated Investor’s Overseas Services and Dreyfus Fund, a financial management company of Robert Vesco and Bernie Cornfeld fame. At the end of a long car journey in Europe I asked what would happen if the IOS bubble burst: would he think its principle worth defending? He replied with some satisfaction that he would defend the enterprise as having brought hope to ordinary workers. This was 1966. In 1973 I met him again in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a broken man, living, he said, on social security, and bitter about what he called the greed and duplicity of men who had brought down his life’s work and that of thousands of ordinary people. In 1983 on a visit to Lagos, Nigeria, a prominent local businessman told me that IOS agents were selling portfolios there long after the collapse had set in — a piece of callous cynicism, he thought. In the words of Amos, these agents are people who make "the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances," who buy "the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat."
I was once overheard by somebody connected with Harvard Business School describing one of my courses at Harvard Divinity School as "Prophet Movements." My friend, obviously mishearing, commented about being surprised that religious scholars had anything to say on "profits" in the marketplace. For Amos the connection between "profits" and "prophets" was more than a matter of literary elision. His words crackle with a telling contemporary ring.
In the prophet’s scheme, then, "bag ladies," and the exploited masses they represent, are not just a functional warrant for justifiable anger and protest, but occasions for stern judgment on an acquisitive society whose greed knows no season of truce. The prophet intercedes with an appeal for a "new moon" sensitivity, for a break in the unrelenting calendar of grinding oppression, to observe God’s higher law. The prophet thus evokes the poet’s exultant cry, "Gloria in profundis Deo," "Glory to God in the lowest."