The Prophet Amos and Trade
Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals
In recent months, the media in Colombia have heralded as a great achievement the accord reached between President Santos and President Obama to work on sending the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries to the United States Congress. The FTA has not yet been ratified due to questions about human rights violations and lack of labor guarantees under recent Colombian administrations.
The political and economic sectors that have promoted this trade agreement celebrate this decision by the two leaders and are carrying out a lobbying campaign to remove any obstacles to the ratification of the FTA in the U.S. Congress. On the other side, social organizations, human rights groups, and churches have organized campaigns urging President Obama not to send the FTA to Congress for ratification.
In this debate we have read many economic, social, and political arguments against this type of trade agreement which we consider quite important, and in this reflection we wish to contribute some biblical and theological elements from our faith perspective which reaffirm the danger to human beings and God’s creation inherent in an economy that uses these trade agreements to increase the wealth of a small global class of entrepreneurs.
Trade in the time of the prophet Amos
Amos was active as a prophet in the eighth century BCE when Jeroboam II ruled in Israel. This was a period of great political and economic expansion, of greater land acquisition than in other times in ancient Israel, characterized by the exploitation of the most vulnerable groups of society while the rich and ruling classes lived in great opulence. All this was to the detriment of justice and respect for the livelihood of the people. This prosperity was possible thanks to the powerful army with which Israel had recovered certain territory, as well as the trade relationships it had established with other nations in the region. Israel made trade agreements which were possible because of its military might, advancing the merchant class that had emerged with the king’s support, specialized in domestic production and international trade (Jiménez 2010, 38).
In this way the merchant class which directed trade and held great influence over the region’s leaders had acquired prestige and great wealth. Amos is talking about this group when he says: “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts!” (6:1). This group lived in luxury gained from the labor of the poor of Israel and the products they traded amongst the nations. Amos describes this luxurious lifestyle in this way: “those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest of oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (6:4-6).
According to Amos the wealth this elite had acquired was generated by the labor carried out in the vineyards to produce wine, by the construction work of those who built palaces for the rich to dwell, by the taxes collected from the poor (5:11), and by the way the courts were run with bribery so that the poor lost their cases (5:12).
But Amos also knows that this accumulation of wealth, this system which puts the poor to work for the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, is not only present among the leaders of Israel. This is also the reality in neighboring countries which by means of trade have created an international system where rulers reach agreements about means of production, commerce, and rules of war for the accumulation of political and economic power. For this reason Amos speaks judgment in chapter 1 against the nations that participated with Israel in this system of commerce and political relations.
Amos begins with a series of eight oracles or messages of condemnation, seven directed to Israel’s neighbors (including Judah), and the final one, which is the longest and most complete, directed to Israel. Each oracle begins with the phrase “Thus says the Lord” to note that it is not simply the word of the prophet but rather a genuine message from God. Secondly, each oracle includes the phrase: “for three transgressions. . . and for four” with a description of just one transgression. In this way the prophet uses a literary device of the time to indicate that the political, social, and economic transgressions of the rulers of the nations exceed God’s patience and therefore will be punished (Schokel 2006, 1219).
Trade in our time
Bringing this analysis of commerce and political relations from Amos’ time to the present day helps us to see that, in human history, powerful economic elites tend to develop this type of relationship, which they obscure by highlighting the benefits of commercial exchange, preventing average citizens from rejecting economic models that produce poverty and death.
In our time, the economic model that has been imposed around the world promotes free trade agreements between countries to increase production, trade of raw materials, and trade of basic necessities. At first sight, this model would appear to help people live better, but when we analyze the practice of international trade we discover that in reality poverty is increased for large swaths of humanity, natural resources are depleted, and the exaggerated accumulation of wealth advances in a select group of countries and individuals who have the means (powerful armies, multinational businesses) to appropriate the raw materials of the earth, who have the technology for low-cost, large-scale production, who pay low wages to workers, who have designed laws to sell for profit and multiply the interest on their earnings.
This economic model increases poverty, produces the destruction of God’s creation, and generates hopelessness in a large section of humankind. According to the Accra Confession (2004) of the Reformed Churches, the following principles drive this economy:
- unrestrained competition, consumerism and the unlimited economic growth and accumulation of wealth are the best for the whole world;
- the ownership of private property has no social obligation;
- capital speculation, liberalization and deregulation of the market, privatization of public utilities and national resources, unrestricted access for foreign investments and imports, lower taxes and the unrestricted movement of capital will achieve wealth for all;
- social obligations, protection of the poor and the weak, trade unions, and relationships between people are subordinate to the processes of economic growth and capital accumulation.
This is an ideology that claims to be without alternative, demanding an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and creation. It makes the false promise that it can save the world through the creation of wealth and prosperity, claiming sovereignty over life and demanding total allegiance which amounts to idolatry. (3)
This type of economy is known today as neoliberalism and is dedicated to dismantling state mechanisms that guarantee the wellbeing of their citizens. The goal of this economic structure is “to increase profits and return for the owners of production and financial capital, while excluding the majority of the people and treating nature as a commodity. . . . The government of the United States of America and its allies, together with international finance and trade institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization) use political, economic or military alliances to protect and advance the interest of capital owners” (Accra, 3).
Called to be prophets and collaborate with God’s plan
Amos announced that God would punish those who maintained and trusted in the economic and political system that was imposed in his time. The prophet affirmed the punishment with these words: “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth. . . says the Lord” (9:8). Today analysts show that if we do not control the current global economic system, millions of human beings will continue to die from hunger, preventable and treatable illness, and wars waged by the most powerful countries for the control of natural resources such as water and energy. Such analyses lead to prophecies that, if we do not impose controls on this economic system, humanity runs the risk of being wiped from the face of the earth, given that food and energy sources will be depleted, environmental contamination will increase, and nature will lose its ability to self-regulate.
Faced with this reality, Christians and churches must ask ourselves how we are following the example of the prophet Amos, who announced the punishment of God for those who maintained the economic system of his time. We must ask ourselves what we are doing to heed prophecies which tell us that if we do not halt this economic system that kills millions of human beings and is destroying nature, we run the risk of suffering the collective punishment of the human race.
One way to attempt to put the brakes on this economic system is by opposing and impeding ratification by the U.S. Congress of the FTA with Colombia. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the larger problem lies with an economic system so perverse that it recognizes that these trade agreements produce millions of victims. In Colombia as well as the United States, FTA advocates are discussing plans to help those who will be made victims in the event the agreement is implemented in both countries.
Faced with this economic system, we must strengthen our Christian commitment in solidarity with social organizations and keep up the small struggles such as the effort to impede the implementation of free trade agreements such as this one, but we must understand that the objective continues to be making the hope which Amos proclaimed a reality today. In this hope, every human being will have work, and all will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor in community and in harmony with nature. Let us look at the beautiful way the prophet expresses God’s plan:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord,?
when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps,?
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;?
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,?
and all the hills shall flow with it. ?
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,?
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;?
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,?
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. (9:13-14)
Brothers and sisters, we invite you to continue with our work to impede the ratification of the FTA between the United States and Colombia, without losing sight of the hope which challenges us to contribute to the construction of new models of political and economic relationship in the world in which we live.
Jiménez, Adelaida (2010). “Justicia y Misericordia una perspectiva bíblico-teológica desde los profetas del siglo octavo para la construcción de una diaconía para la vida abundante” in Diaconía, derechos humanos y desarrollo integral. CUR. Barranquilla.
Schokel, Luis Alonso (2006). La Biblia de Nuestro pueblo. II Edición. Ediciones mensajero. Bilbao.
“The Accra Confession” pamphlet (2007). North American Covenanting for Justice Working Group, RCA Communication and Production Services.