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Immigrant Justice in Amos: The Evil of Forced Migrations in the Divine Economy

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He must have seemed somewhat out of place walking through Samaria. Bustling streets and busy people heading to their offices; others strolling more slowly, weighed down with their shopping bags and distracted by the advertisements of the stores. Perhaps they looked at him as they passed by with sidelong glances, their eyes moving from his face to his feet to his face again. “Where’s this guy from?” They may have asked themselves. “From the smell we’d say somewhere a little south of Jerusalem! Probably some farmer – the stench of the cows has left its mark!”

The prophet was out of place; he didn’t belong with the corporate types or the afternoon shoppers, Amos belonged in the fields south of Jerusalem. He belonged on the land. Yet he was called by God to go to the northern seat of power, to Samaria. God had called him to give voice to the oppressed and a hand to the weak; to condemn the injustice of the nations and the injustice of the nation, Israel. And in his poetic utterances so much can be understood as an indictment of our present state of affairs in relation to peoples along the margins of our society, for there’s an eternal resonance with his words in 5.27, “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (NASB).

Yet there is something particular in his prophecy to the people of Gaza that I want to focus on in this reflection. There have been economic transactions between Gaza and Edom that have dealt not in currency but in human lives. Massive deportation has caused the prophet of God to pronounce judgement upon this ancient, Philistine city, and now “fire will come down upon her walls and her citadels will be consumed.” God is angry. So then, in this brief reflection I want to look at God’s anger in relation to Gaza, thinking about the particularities of this deportation in relation to our own disposition towards deportation of immigrant peoples in our land.

“Thus says the LORD, ‘For three transgressions of Gaza and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they deported an entire population to deliver it up to Edom’” (1.6).

Gaza belonged to the nation of Philistia which was situated between the Mediterranean Sea and Judah. The city is used much the same way as Damascus is in relation to Assyria. The condemnation exacted upon Gaza is intended to be applied to the entire nation. They have acted with great cruelty towards a particular people, unidentified in the text; however, their inhumanity has driven them to deport this people-group on a massive scale to the nation of Edom. The location of Edom in the biblical world is particularly interesting for this story and indicting, not only for Gaza and Edom, but perhaps also for Judah, which is situated directly between these two kingdoms. The question could be asked of how Gaza transported this massive herd of people to Edom? Did they cross Judah? At this time it is supposed that the historic enmity between Judah and Philistia had dissipated, with Philistine attention being focused on Israel to their north. And although Edom will later be condemned by Amos for breaking covenant with its “brothers,” there have been good relations between the two nations. So then, might Judah have been an intersection for slave-trade between Gaza and Edom? It is speculation, but due to Judah’s economic prosperity at the time, there may have been just these sorts of malevolent partnerships between nations.

Shalom Paul, in his commentary on Amos, notes that the sort of deportation that is happening in Gaza is best described as “entire / complete / mass exile.”This wasn’t a small-scale operation and likely one that Gaza had been invested in for some time, as was common for nations bordering the Mediterranean. Philistia may not have necessarily been the conquerors of these people, but silence in the text keeps us from attaching to much certainty to any one assertion. Whoever they were, they were likely not native people of Philistia. Simply put, they were strangers, foreigners forced against their will by a nation stronger than they. They were doomed, likely to either work in Edom’s copper mines or worse, to be traded further south to Arabia or Africa. These forced migrants were the scum of the ancient world, “wetbacks” made to work under the harsh sun of oppression. They had no rights, they had no home.

It is this very act of inhospitality, the unrighteousness of deportation that causes the God of Israel to condemn another nation, Philistia. Thus, he will tear down their citadels, reigning a righteous fire down upon their walls. God has made it clear in Scripture that he is the God of the stranger, the outcast, and the poor. Those migrant people that wander the land are just his sort of people. The story of God himself is rooted in such a people as they.

Think of the migrants, Abraham and Sarah, wandering from place to place, living in tents, and as Hebrews states, “[as aliens] . . . in a foreign land” (11.9). Also, there were those migrant workers, the Israelites. Living for four hundred years in a strange land, they became slaves, oppressed under the harsh rule of Pharaoh. Even in their exodus, they were wanderers for years until they reached Canaan. However, God’s story doesn’t end with their arrival to the land of promise, for he once again becomes the God of the migrants as they are taken into exile under Babylon and Assyria. This brings us to the words of Isaiah as he declares the Gospel of God when he writes, “The LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to prisoners” (61.1-2). These are words that Christ will preach in the synagogue in Luke 4 as he pulls together the biblical story as one of liberation from sin, evil, and injustice. So then, it is at the heart of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Word of God, to have mercy on those forced migrants of Gaza. He was present with them in Amos’ prophecy and he is present with them in them in our day. Amos’ proclamation was that in the divine economy there is no sympathy for deportation; on the contrary, there will be judgment.

Through this reading of Amos, the question may be raised for those of us living the USA, “Are we guilty of Gaza’s sin?” This question is especially palpable for those who live near the border or in border states such as Texas. There has now been a long and tedious debate about the status of the border and state’s relation to immigrants coming over from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and nearly every other Central American country. Those who live near the border oftentimes find themselves in a militarized zone with soldiers occupying positions along the citadel walls. William Cavanaugh in his book, Migrations of the Holy, has polemically written, “Ronald Reagan’s famous admonition to the Soviets, ‘Tear down this wall!’ was evidently not transferable from Berlin to the Rio Grande.”

Cavanaugh observes that the longstanding status of the “border problem” is, perhaps, an indictment that the US isn’t as wholly concerned with solving the problem as it is with merely regulating it. For Cavanaugh this points to the nation’s underlying purpose for the border. He writes,  “The United States needs a readily exploitable source of cheap labor. The purpose of the border is not simply to exclude immigrants but to define them, to give them an identity. That identity is a liminal identity . . . and defines the person as being neither fully here nor there.”

It is here that Christians need to ask themselves the question, “Might our actions in relation to immigrant injustice be similar to that of Gaza’s?” What would the prophet Amos say to us if he were to walk the streets of East Dallas or Houston or San Antonio? Would he journey to Austin, to the seat of our state government and condemn our legislature and laws?

Gaza had given an identity to its forced migrants, to the deported masses. They were neither here nor there. One day at the ports and borders of Gaza, the next in Edom working as slaves and day-laborers in the copper mines. Perhaps the next year they were traded and deported to southern Arabia or Africa. Their status would forever be liminal; however, God would forever be with them. In the presence of Isaiah’s words and from the mouth of Christ himself, the Gospel was with them in their migrations and deportations. And this raises the question in 2012, “If God is with the migrant and the deported, might the judgment be with US?”

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2 thoughts on “Immigrant Justice in Amos: The Evil of Forced Migrations in the Divine Economy

  1. beautifully written….nothing would make me happier than the Christian community grasping the difficult lessons of Amos.

  2. jpboulter on said:

    Thank you so much for reading. And I agree with your hope for the Church. I think that reading the OT through the lens of God’s justice would prove to be a challenging, but worthwhile task for the community. Many are doing this very thing; however, it must become more commonplace, especially within in our pulpits. Justice was a part of God’s plan long before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!

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