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Threats from Heaven

When is injustice so unspeakable that it demands violent response?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Amos 8:1-12

For Sunday, July 18, 2010: Year C, Ordinary 16

The book of Amos contains the famous articulation of God’s call for justice, “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever—flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s been quoted by Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Wallis, and countless others. It appears on bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs. What they usually fail to point out, however, is that God’s water of justice was sent to drown God’s children.

Prosperity…on the Backs of the Poor and Powerless

The Prophet Amos is called in a time of relative prosperity for Israel, but like most times of prosperity it is brought about on the backs of the poor and powerless. In chapter 8 God tells Amos that God is so outraged by the way the poor are treated that there is no more mercy for them — only wrath. God shows him a basket of ripe summer fruit to illustrate that his wrath is fully ripened and is ready blow. Because God’s children have “trampled on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” God says, “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass their way. The songs of the temple shall become wailing in that day……The dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place.”

When is injustice so unspeakable that it demands violent response? Mao thought he knew; Che and Fidel thought they knew. The French Resistance and the Weather Underground thought they knew. I just think that God could come up with a more creative response than to fly into a rage and threaten to annihilate God’s own children. No wonder they are abusing the weakest and powerless among them, look how their Father treats them! And this isn’t the first or the last time he has threatened them. Consider the implications in God sending waters of justice to drown them? Didn’t he do the whole rainbow thing as a promise that he wouldn’t do that ever again?

The Hardest Question

How do we respond when God expresses God’s concern for the poor through violence and threats of annihilation? I can try to explain away these violent threats of an unstable father, saying, “It was a different time;” or of course, “It was written by people, it is their perception of God, not what God is really like —it’s metaphorical.” I could do that, but I don’t want to. Why don’t we just condemn that kind of violent, threatening speech, no matter who or what it is in the service of. When is injustice so unspeakable that it demands violent response?

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota and the curator of The Hardest Question. Watch his live videocast about the week’s lectionary texts every week at 11:30am Eastern Time right here at THQ.


  1. Tracy says:

    I’m wondering why we have to move so quickly to dismiss an expression of anger. In my mind, this doesn’t give us license to do violence, but should cause us to tremble, if we are living in a nation of injustice.

    Moreover, the rest of the passage actually threatens something worse than physical violence, it threatens a loss of connection with God– “the word of the Lord” will be missing.

    Maybe its significant that even though God threatens to disown Israel — God never does. The anger is real, and so is the mercy. But somehow I am comforted to know that God’s rage is awakened by the horrible way we treat one another.

  2. Brian says:

    How do we take God seriously when all we see is mercy? While Amos 8 threatens that God will give Israel the silent treatment, chapter 9 promises restoration and eternal dwelling.

    To imagine God being angry is difficult for us. After all isn’t God loving and creating? Isn’t Jesus full of love and humility? But Scripture is filled with counter examples. Until we are willing to receive God’s anger and love will we ever enter into an authentic and full relationship with God?

    “Silence is God’s last defense against our idolatry.” (Barbara Brown Taylor) It’s comforting to know that God tempers speech (the power to create and destroy) so we may learn to worship God.

  3. Selena L, Blackwell says:

    Is such rampant injustice violence in itself? During South Africa’s apartheid, when it was suggested that the US government, businesses and other institutions disinvest from South Africa, Pres. Reagan responded that the ANC first renounce violence. I believed then and now that Reagan was very wrong in his response.

    When we fail to act on behalf of the poor, we sanction one type of violence. God gives us a choice, act wisely in support of the poor or other actions.


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