Amos and Social Justice

I think social justice is a good idea.

I’d better explain that.

I think acting as if people matter is a good idea: all people, not just the ‘right’ ones.

I’ll be talking about “the poor of the land,” private property, the universal destination of goods, and a job that’s not even close to being done.

There’s nothing wrong with prosperity, by itself. As 1 Timothy 6:10 and Hebrews 13:5 say, it’s love of money that gets us in trouble.

Some Saints, like Francis1 and Claire, both of Assisi, were poor. Others, like Elizabeth of Hungary and Sir Thomas More, were anything but.

What makes them Saints is that they “practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828)

They had their priorities straight — God first, everything else second. (Luke 10:27; Catechism, 2083)


Personal wealth or poverty don’t matter, apart from providing different opportunities and obstacles. What matters is how we decide to use what we’ve got.

We’re all different: rich, poor, strong, weak, smart, not-so-smart. That’s a good thing, or should be.

Our “talents” are different, so we can share with others who need our wealth, skill, openness, or other qualities. (Catechism, 19361937)

Amos 6:1A, 47 and Amos 8:47 led off readings at Mass last week and today. Today’s ends with Luke 16:1931, our Lord’s story about Lazarus and the rich man.

Destroying the Poor, the Rat Race, and Me

Adad-nirari III’s death was bad news or good news: depending on whether you’re looking at the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s ambitions, or prosperity in places like Urartu, Judah, and Israel.

Like I said earlier, prosperity isn’t bad. What matters is how we deal with good times, which brings me to last week’s rant from Amos.

“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!

1 ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!

“We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’

2 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!”
(Amos 8:47)

Quite a bit’s changed in the 27-plus centuries since Amos lived: but some folks still put gaining and keeping wealth at the top of their priorities list.

It was a bad idea then, and still is.

Many Americans enjoyed the seemingly-secure middle class lives of the Cleavers and Andersons while I was growing up.

My parents remembered that there’s more to life than wealth: so I never considered running away to a commune.

On the other hand — I didn’t, and don’t, have the horror that some older folks had for places like Drop City.

I think I understand why some kids from affluent families decided that buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like — made no sense at all.

I came to the same conclusion, and opted out of the rat race.

‘Those crazy kids,’ with their ‘un-American’ talk about peace, love, and brotherhood, seemed to take at least some of our Lord’s values seriously — a sharp contrast with venom-spitting radio preachers of the day.

Their tirades against commies, Catholicism, and rock music, helped me learn to love rock ‘n roll, eventually helped me become a Catholic, and that’s another topic.

The Universal Destination of Goods

Communal living isn’t a new idea:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common;

“they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.”
(Acts 2:4445)

Forsaking worldly goods and living apart is an option, not a requirement. But there’s a long tradition of monks and hermits who took that path. The vowed, folks in religious orders, chose one of the three kinds of vocation. (Catechism, 871873)

Most of us are part of the lay faithful: folks who “…participate in their own way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ….” (Catechism, Glossary)

Ownership of private property should be part of our life. (Catechism, 2211)

Private property is a good idea: it helps maintain our freedom and dignity, and gives a measure of security. But the right to private ownership isn’t absolute.

That’s because this world is God’s gift to humanity: all of us, not just whoever has the biggest club, or owns the most corporate stock. (Genesis 1:2731; Catechism, 24022404)

“The universal destination of goods” is what we call the idea that God gave humanity stewardship of this world’s resources: for our reasoned use. (Catechism, 24012406)

Divvying up those resources gives each of us a particular job: managing what we have, for ourselves and others; including future generations. (Catechism, 24022406, 2415)

That’s where justice and charity come in — or should. Differences in abilities and wealth aren’t the problem: misusing these differences is. (Catechism, 19371938)

Social Justice

In a perfect world, social justice wouldn’t be an issue. Everyone would help maintain “the fair and just relation between the individual and society.” (Wikipedia)

This isn’t a perfect world; so achieving that balance, let alone maintaining some approximation of balance, has been a challenge: and still is.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle generally get credit for first discussing justice, rights, and society, about two dozen centuries back.

But leaders like Hammurabi started writing law codes more than a thousand years before Plato and Aristotle.

Babylonian law defined justice as balancing an offense with an equally-severe punishment: by Babylonian standards. Law #22 in the Code of Hammurabi balanced robbery with the death penalty.

That may seem harsh — partly, I think, because we’ve made some progress in the last 3,700 years toward building truly just societies.

And we have a great deal more work to do in that direction.

The phrase “social justice” apparently comes from Catholics like Luigi Taparelli — in the 1840s.

Taparelli’s “Civiltà Cattolica” says that capitalist and socialist theories don’t pay enough attention to ethics. I’m inclined to agree with him.

One of my happy surprises after becoming a Catholic was discovering that social justice, Catholic style, makes sense.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 19281942, is a pretty good place to start learning about the Church’s social teachings. I put links to more resources at the end of this post.2

I keep saying this — I should love God, love my neighbors, see everybody as my neighbor, and treat others as I want to be treated. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937)

I’ve mentioned why I take our Lord seriously before, too. (September 11, 2016; August 14, 2016)

If I thought a perfect society existed in 1950s or 1860s America, or 11th century Europe, I’d demand the suppression of comics, a return to bustles, or the re-union of England, Daneland, Norge, and part of today’s Sweden.

We’ve had ups and downs in the 52 centuries since folks started keeping records in Sumer, but even the best eras weren’t a “golden age.”

Besides, we can’t turn back the clock. The only direction we can go is forward.

And that’s okay.

Real Progress and Taking the Long View

(“Coppernia city,” Jaime Jasso, used w/o permission.)

Like I keep saying; the Catholic Church is catholic, καθολικός, universal, not tied to one era or one culture.

For two millennia, we’ve been passing along the same message: God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (Ephesians 1:35; John 3:17; Catechism, 52, 1825)

Part of our job is building a better world, one with a greater degree of justice and charity: and respect for “the transcendent dignity of man.” (Catechism, 19281942, 24192442)

That includes freedom to worship: freedom for everyone. I can hardly expect others to respect my right to worship, if I try forcing them to agree with me: or heap abuse on those who are not just like me. (Catechism, 1738, 21042109, 23572359)

If we help others keep what is good and just in our society, change what is not, and act as if we really believe that loving our neighbors makes sense: we can make a difference.

It will be a long, hard job. Folks can’t be forced to embrace truth: particularly when it means giving up some cherished injustice, or long-established privileges. We must be patient.

But truth wins — eventually. Slavery, for example, had been a way of life for millennia. Laws regarding slaves show up in the law codes of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi, and Roman law.

Treating a neighbor as property is wrong. So is genocide and torture. Using God as an excuse makes the offense worse. Lots worse. (Catechism, 2148, 22972298, 2313, 2414)

After two millennia of passing along principles like “love God, love your neighbor, everybody’s our neighbor,” slavery became illegal in several countries. More remarkably, I think, it became unpopular — or at least unfashionable.

A few generations later, the United Nations made genocide illegal. It’s a step in the right direction.

Some Christians behaved abhorrently, and some folks who aren’t Christians are helping end slavery and genocide.

The point is that after two millennia, we’re making real progress toward ending two ancient social evils.

Maybe, if we keep working with all people of good will, somewhere around the 42nd century we’ll have an “international authority with the necessary competence and power” to resolve conflicts without war. (Catechism, 23072317; “Gaudium et Spes,” 79 § 4)

And we’ll still have work to do. Humanity has a huge backlog of unresolved issues.

Some of my take on why love should matter:

1 St. Francis of Assisi was poor, but he didn’t write about it much:

2 More about social justice:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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