Amos and The Big Short
Last night, Andrea and I watched the 2015 Adam McKay film, The Big Short. This film chronicles the time leading up to America's housing and financial collapse in 2008 through the perspectives of several investors who had the foresight and ability to understand the fraudulent activity of big banks in the United States in regards to subprime housing loans.
There are many poignant moments in the film in which the investors that were betting against the bedrock of the U.S. economy were laughed out of boardrooms, threatened by the banks, and forced to question their own sanity. Yet, when one of the investment groups realized that eventual collapse was certain, Brad Pitt's character, Ben Rickert, rebuked his partners, "If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?"
In The Big Short, the investors' recognition of the fraudulent big banks was not driven by some a Nostramuas-like ability. Wall Street was immensely benefitting from a damaged system. The amount of money being circulated through JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, and many others was unfathomable. All the while, unsuspecting Americans were on the verge of losing their jobs, homes, and retirements because of the illegal activities of the financial elite.
That brings us to Amos 8:1-12.
Amos was a prophet. And, like the investors in The Big Short, not a psychic-with-a-crystal-ball prophet. Being a prophet in ancient Israel meant that you shed light on injustice within society. At this point in the story, Amos has been reported by a priest to the king and banned from the religious center in Northern Israel. Still, Amos gives his final word from God by critiquing the current system. He says, "Listen to this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor to ruin. Who ask, 'When will the Sabbath end so we can sell our wheat? Then we can tamper with our scales and make the bushel measure smaller and the counterweight heavier to cheat our customers. We can buy the needy for silver and the poor and their property for the price of a pair of sandals.'"
Only one banker went to jail after the 2008 housing collapse. Since the fallout, the wealthiest Americans, those who comprise the top 1% of society, have nearly recovered. Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, calculated that the top 1% earned on average $1.26m in 2014 and $1.36m in 2015. The 1% have seen income growth by 37% between 2009 to 2015, $990,000 to $1.36m, while the incomes 99% of Americans, have grown by 7.6%, $45,300 to $48,800. Globally, the top 1% now has more wealth than the bottom 99%, and 62 people have more wealth than half the global population of 3.6 billion.
Amos compares this type of system to ripe summer fruit. Yet, this vision of lovely summer fruit is actually an indictment of an unjust system of inequality in which the values of society oppose God's hope for the world. Summer fruit, qayis, may appear like a blessing at first glance, but the Hebrew word qets, meaning end, implies wordplay, which signals that the kind of economy that unfairly benefits a wealthy few will ultimately come to an end. In Amos' day, people participated in religious ritual while also committing fraud and were acquiescent to financial, cultural, political, and religious systems that suppressed the most vulnerable in society.
As the church, may we not become complicit to injustice. May we hear God's words through Amos today, and work toward a healthy economy that operates equitably for all people.