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Written by Jim Jordal   
Wednesday, 17 August 2016

AMOS CONDEMNS THOSE WHO “SWALLOW UP THE NEEDY”

By Jim Jordal

 Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat? The LORD hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein?                                                                                                     Amos 8:4-8a  KJV

If you’re one who believes that the poor are solely responsible for their poverty, you can stop reading right now because nothing else I say is going to make any difference to you. As I’ve said before, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible on poverty, its causes and its effect. There are only about 40 verses, found mostly in Proverbs, blaming poverty on sloth and poor personal decision-making. So if you want to know what God says about poverty, it might be better to get it from his word rather than from discredited dogma.

Notice in the first sentence of the Scripture quoted above that there really are people who “swallow up the needy,” and “make the poor of the land to fail.” So poverty is not merely an unfortunate accident of history---it is the direct result of policies designed by human predators to make people poor and to keep them that way. Back in Amos’ time that predation of the poor consisted largely of manipulating commerce around the prohibitions of feast days and the Sabbath so that poor quality farm produce, like the “refuse of the wheat” could be sold.

This manipulation of food production and distribution was aided by what Amos so quaintly calls “making the ephah small and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit.” It’s easy to falsify scales in the market place of weights and measures, but the real danger occurs in manipulating the value of money. This deed helps transfer wealth from poor to rich and is accomplished (both then and now) by what we call “tight money,” or fiscal austerity. Tight money occurs as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates or enacts other deflationary monetary policies. It can also occur as commercial banks limit their lending, either through fear of inflation, or due to Fed policy demands. Banks seem more terrified by fear of inflation than of recession, so if rising prices threaten the Fed and its banking members, they quickly act to raise interest rates. If money is scarce, it’s value rises, making the shekel great as Amos complained, and creating hard times and public suffering.

Today commercial banks are a major source of money creation through “fractional reserve” banking, meaning that banks are required to keep only a small fraction of deposits in reserve and can in effect create money by loaning out excess reserves. They also create money through “deposit creation,” which is just as it sounds, creating their own deposits through lending. So in essence Amos was complaining about a commercial/financial system that had the effect of swallowing up the needy and making the poor of the land to fail.

It’s instructive to note that most complaints concerning this abusive, destructive commercial/financial system came from prophets who were often outside the existing religious system (usually because they valued truth more than power). With a few exceptions, kings and their usually wealthy consorts liked and supported this domination system because they could use it to maintain their wealth and power. Actually, Isaiah 14:5 calls it the “staff of the wicked” and the “scepter of the rulers.” The organized religious structure didn’t complain about this “swallowing up of the needy” because many of its members were the very people who dominated and oppressed the poor. It was left to the prophets who operated on the margins of society and were therefore free (although in great danger of imprisonment or death) to express their understanding of the Scriptures.

Why does it so often escape organized religion that it has a God-given duty to, as Jim Wallis says, “speak truth to power”? We wouldn’t have to join the ranks of power, but we could and should speak to them of what God says about justice, truth, and mercy. As Amos says, “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”