Reading Amos after Ferguson

Amos 5:18-24

Psalm 50:7-15

Matt 18:12-14

I want to talk about Eric Garner.

I want to talk about Michael Brown.

I also want to talk about John Crawford —an unarmed black man shot and killed by police officers in August in a Walmart in Beaverville, OH.  The in-store security camera shows he was shot while talking to his mom on his cell phone and holding at his side a BB gun that he had taken off the shelf of the store.

I want to talk about Akai Gurley —an unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer nineteen days ago while walking down thestairwayof a Brooklyn housing project with his girlfriend.

I want to talk about Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer one week ago in Phoenix, AZ in his girlfriend’s apartment.

I want to talk about Larry Eugene Jackson Jr., an unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer last year here in Austin under the Shoal Creek Bridge at 38th street.

Sadly, my list could go on but the key terms would all be the same: Unarmed.  Black man.  Killed.  Police.

And when I say that I “want to talk”about these cases what I really mean is that I dont want to talk about any of these cases.  I don’t even want them to exist.  They horrify me.  They enrage me.  They tempt me to hopelessness.

So, allow me, if you will, to defer, just for a moment, that conversation, in order to listen to another conversation that the prophet Amos was having with his fellow Israelites in the 8th century BC—a prophet whose most famous words became a rallying cry for Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I have a Dream”speech on the Washington Mall in 1963: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The words we read from Amos this morning follow an opening rhetorical sting operation that deftly exposes Israel’s assumption that they stand above divine judgment, even as they get to pass judgment on the less righteous nations around them.  “Thus says the Lord”Amos pronounces in chapter one, “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.”  YES, thinks Israel, about time judgment falls on those unrighteous Syrians.  Amos continues,“For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.”  Yes, again, thinks Israel, these Philistines have been a thorn in our flesh since we arrived in the promised land; it’s time they feel the fire-power of God. 

And on it goes—the Edomites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, all brought under judgment, all promised fire, destruction, and death.  Amos plays beautifully to Israel’s sense of judgmental self-righteousness.  Amos has, over the course of his opening 18 verses, worked his hearers to a fever pitch of judgment upon others, that, in turn, reaffirms their own righteousness.

But suddenly, things start to get a bit confusing, “For three transgressions of Judah,and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.”  Whoa.  That’s Judah we’re talking about.  The southern kingdom of God’s people. . . . Then again, Amos is prophesying to the northern kingdom so perhaps we could imagine a response like, “Yes, God, you are right, even some of our own people have gone astray; they never should have broken off from us in the first place.  Surely, they are just getting what they deserve.”

After a moment of instability in which the fires of judgment came a little too close to home, we might imagine Amos’s hearers solemnly nodding and realizing they are the only ones left who stand beyond judgment, those whose chosen status makes it impossible for them to be brought up on charges.

Then the trap snaps, the sting operation captures the unwitting accomplice.  Amos, it turns out, is not standing alongside Israel stoking their righteous indignation about neighbors who deserve what they get; no, Amos is setting Israel up to be judged for crimes far worse than those of their neighbors.  “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel,and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” 

Having judged seven of Israel’s no-good, trouble-making neighbors in the opening 19 verses, Amos goes on in the following 41 verses to recount Israel’s crimes and to promise judgment . . . “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they . .  trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way . . . [they] oppress the poor and [they] crush the needy”(2:6-7; 4:1).

Thus we are led to the verses we read this morning: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?” 

Of course, Israel wanted the day of the Lord!  It was to be the day of their vindication, it was to be the day when their enemies were judged; it was to be light and triumph and victory!  But no, says, Amos, “It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.  Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

Israel’s festivals and offerings and songs have not placated a God who sees their injustice.  Israel’s assumption that they stand above the law, has not, in fact, placed them above the law.  And so Amos cries out, and Martin Luther King, Jr. cries out, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 

Amos reminds the people of Israel, and reminds us, that there is no status that places you above the demands of justice.  Neither divine election nor the police officer’s badge ensures that you are always in the right.  Neither divine election nor the police officer’s badgeallows one free reign to abuse others without accountability.  Yet both divine election and the police officer’s badgecan tempt an individual or a community to what Augustine identifies as the root of all sin, libido dominandi, the “lust for domination.”

We are experiencing a cultural moment in which white America is having to face what has long been obvious to African-Americans: that “driving while black”or “walking down the stairs while black”or “running in fear while black”or “being a large man while black”or “reaching for your wallet while black”can get you killed.

Following the the shooting in 1999 of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, by the New York City police, Bruce Springsteen wrote an anthem titled “American Skin (41 shots)”calling attention to the 41 shots fired at Amadou Dialloby the four police officers.  The song was written fifteen years ago, but, sadly, could have been written yesterday.

Springsteen imagines himself into the experience of people of color in these lyrics:

Lena gets her son ready for school

She says, “On these streets, Charles

You’ve got to understand the rules

If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite

And that you’ll never ever run away

Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

Is it a gun, is it a knife

Is it a wallet, this is your life

It ain’t no secret

No secret my friend

You can get killed just for living in your American skin

The reaction to Springsteen’s song was swift and vitriolic.  The President of the New York Policeman’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of Springsteen’s upcoming concerts and Bob Lucente, President of the New York State Fraternal Order of Police called Springsteen a “dirtbag” for singing the song.[1]

But as always, the facts get more complex.  Within weeks of his comment, Bob Lucente was removed from his position.  And another police group, calling themselves, “100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,”issued a statement saying “We commend Bruce Springsteen, and we believe that he is courageous in the position that he is taking”[2]

Just when we think we can find a group to accuse and judge en masse, we find ourselves standing again in the shoes of ancient Israel hearing Amos call us to account.  Amos is so hard to hear because just at the point where you are sure you are on the side of righteousness, that your judgments are unquestionable, the challenge turns back upon you – does your lovely liturgy make you above reproach? are your judgments miraculously without self-deception or self-interest? are you waiting for the day of the Lord knowing that your side will get vindicated?

And so as we pray for the souls of the departed: Garner, Brown, Crawford, Gurley, Brisbon, Jackson, we also need to pray for Darren Wilson, Darryl Pantaleo, Sean Williams, Charles Kleinert—some of the police officers who did the chasing and choking and shooting.  Their lives and their decisions are not without ambiguity and pain and perhaps even remorse.  They have been trained to do exactly what a fearful populace has asked them to do—protect “us”at all costs.  The problem is that this “us”does not include everyone. 

Yes, it is insufficient for police departments to point to “a few bad apples.”  There is systemic racism and injustice that must be addressed.  But it is also too easy for citizens to look at police departments and say “there’s the problem”—easily contained among those who are not “us.”

My brother-in-law is a police officer in Albuquerque, NM, and I have ridden along with him in the middle of the night as he seeks to bring protection and justice to places where most of us don’t go at times when most of us are asleep.  He does not lack conscience or a soul, but his work often takes him into situations that are chaotic and ambiguous and dangerous.

If justice is to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”it is a task for all of us.  Racism is a rhizomatic scourge, springing up from multiple sources, finding expression in multiple locations.  When we point the finger and call for justice—as we rightly do in cases of unjust and unwarranted police shootings—we must, as Amos reminds us, point the finger back at ourselves and our communities and ask, what are we doing to make this vision of justice true for all of God’s people?

[1] Jeffrey Symynkywicz, “The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen,”WJK Press, p. 136.