The Fruit of Economic Injustice

Somewhere, deep in a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a mining operation is occurring as we speak. The DRC is one of the world’s predominant suppliers of tungsten and tin; minerals essential to the creation of our smart devices. Inside our phones, our computers, our iPads, like the one I’m preaching from right now, are those minerals. Without them, there are no magical devices; the ones we’ve come to rely upon daily. 

Some of those mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are controlled by warlords. The rule of law in the Congo doesn’t always extend from the capital, so in some regions, the head of a particular family, known as a warlord, controls the region. That warlord makes his money off of the mining operations, selling the minerals to suppliers and refiners, who in turn sell those minerals to other companies, which eventually make their way to East Asian, often Chinese, companies, who manufacture electronic devices. 

These warlords employ cruel business practices in harsh conditions. They sometimes fight against rival warlords, employing their workers as soldiers. Always, the miners under the thumb of these warlords are forced to work long hours with little nourishment, slaving away literally down a hot mine shaft. And sometimes, those workers and soldiers are children, forced to work by a warlord who only cares to get rich off the sale of these minerals. 

Today, these minerals are known as conflict minerals. The minerals are in everything we touch that’s electronic. Not all of our devices contain conflict minerals; some contain tungsten and tin mined from ethical sources from mining operations that utilize just employment practices. But some devices do have these conflict minerals. And it’s not always easy to know the difference. Electronic companies can’t always trace the supply chain all the way back to the mineral; a sign of how complex the global supply chain really is. 

Our scripture this morning calls us to practice economic justice. Part of economic justice is ensuring that what we purchase does not cause the suffering of others. But in a global marketplace, where supply chains are complicated and hard to trace, how do we do that? What does it mean for us today to practice economic justice? 

Let’s hear our scripture this morning. It comes from the prophet Amos, who reports what the voice of God has to say about the people’s economic practices:

Scripture 

What does it mean for us to practice economic justice?

El Salvador adopted bitcoin as legal tender on September 6, 2021. In doing so, they became the first country on earth to make bitcoin an official currency. 

Free Marketeers and other cryptocurrency enthusiasts cheered the development, even as bitcoin lost ten percent of its value on that same day. Proponents believe that bitcoin is the future of currency because of its unregulated nature. Freedom from central banks, with their rates and rules, inhibit the growth of wealth and tend to favor those who already have money, so say supporters of cryptocurrency. 

But it’s not just that: cryptocurrency holds potential for the developing world. Because it is unregulated, universal, and easily acquired, anyone with internet access can have bitcoin and use it for anything they desire. Also Bitcoin, over time has proven to have an astounding rate of return: 7,593% in the last five years, at least, that was before the crash of cryptocurrencies corresponding with the decline in world stock markets. In other words, if you bought $100 of bitcoin five years ago, on September 6, 2021, when El Salvador made bitcoin legal tender, that $100 would be worth $75,930. Because it’s unregulated, you would owe no tax on those funds unless you converted them to dollars or another taxable currency. 

For proponents, cryptocurrency is a form of economic justice. It creates opportunity for everyone, but especially the poor. Here we have opportunity for those who have few resources to be able to garner wealth through this tax-free, unregulated, high-return currency that can be used by anyone anywhere in the world. It holds promise for poverty and to provide equity across the first world and the developing world. That would seem to fit with Amos’s call to practice economic justice; to provide for the poor and make sure they are not oppressed. 

Until we count the cost. 

First, bitcoin is highly volatile. Unlike regulated currencies, it can make and lose huge fortunes in a matter of minutes because there’s no central bank controlling the flow of capital and responding to the vagaries of world markets. Since January of this year, bitcoin has lost 52% of its value. For individuals, that’s problematic enough. But El Salvador, a highly debt-laden country, could see its debt significantly grow because bitcoin took a dive. That could saddle the country with oppressive debt, which would lead to further impoverishment of its people in a country already known as one of the world’s poorest.

Second, bitcoin causes massive amounts of pollution. Analysts at Cambridge University concluded that bitcoin causes more pollution than the entire country of Argentina. That’s because new bitcoin is produced by mining blockchains. The mining of blockchains requires powerful computers running nonstop. That, in turn, uses a ton of electricity, much of which is produced by fossil fuels, creating more pollution. And pollution that causes weather anomalies and disasters affects the poorest regions of the world the most.

Bitcoin holds potential for the poor. It also holds potential to oppress the poor through volatility, debt, and climate-change.

What does it mean for us to practice economic justice?

The prophecy this morning forecasts the end of the people of God because they have oppressed the poor. They cannot wait for the new moon festival, in other words religious observances, to end so they can go back to selling their wares. And when they sell, they do so in ways that cheat. Scales were the primary way to trade goods and make purchases in Amos’s day. So these sellers utilize weights that are unfair, charging more for the goods and wares they sell than what they should have. They also give less than what they should, but they make it look like it’s the same amount. Like cereal boxes on store shelves today that are the same size as they were years ago, but contain less cereal than they once did; the people of God think they’re buying more than what they’re actually getting. 

All so these sellers can get rich. They oppress the poor in order to enrich themselves. 

It’s easy for us to look down on such practices. And it’s easy for us as a society to see such practices and get riled up about them. It’s easy to blame corporations or the government or individually wealthy people, seeing how they are not treating others well or employing wrong business practices or not creating a level playing field. It’s easy to look across the Atlantic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and hold in contempt the warlords who would employ children to mine minerals and utilize them as soldiers. 

And certainly God, through scripture and the prophet Amos this morning, has a word of condemnation to bring against them: the end is near. 

But, lest we fail to take Jesus’s advice, let us pull the plank out of our own eye first. Chances are some blood was spilled in the process of making some of the phones in this room today and some of the devices being used to watch this service at home right now. That means, we are potentially complicit in the enslavement of peoples who mine those minerals and complicit in the employment of child soldiers. 

The same can be said for many products we purchase. Can we say, with complete certainty, that the clothes we wear and the shoes we purchase were not made, in whole or part, in a sweatshop somewhere? Do we know that the coffee we drank this morning did not come from a plantation where the people who harvest the beans are enslaved or mistreated? Are we certain that the gas we put in our cars this week didn’t originate in oil field in a country that sponsors terrorism or looks the other way while terrorist groups organize within their borders? 

What does it mean for us to practice economic justice? 

Let’s talk about that basket of summer fruit. 

It’s a weird way to start this passage, isn’t it? God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit, or what some translations call a basket of ripe fruit. Amos sees it and reflects back to God that he sees a basket of ripe, summer, fruit. Then God says, “the end has come upon my people Israel.” Which leaves us wondering: how do those two things go together?

There’s a Hebrew wordplay embedded in the English that doesn’t translate well. It’s a divine vision, in which Amos sees a basket of ripe fruit, and then God uses that vision to say to Amos, “the time is ripe for the end of my people Israel.” This fruit, so ripe it’s probably about to spoil, is God’s way of saying that the people are about to spoil because of their sins. 

They’re about to spoil and God is going to get rid of them. This is their end. There will be, as later scripture says, wailing and gnashing of teeth. There will be famine that will cause suffering among adults in their prime, which infers that it will strike down children and the elderly. There will be great suffering because of the people’s economic injustice. And all of this will be because of God’s judgment. 

God will remove God’s word from the people. They will no longer hear from God, they would not understand the word of God even if they did hear from God. The loss of the word of God will add to their misery as they find themselves fully defeated, living in destitution, suffering mightily, because of the judgment of God. 

That basket of summer fruit is a disturbing image. It’s a beautiful basket of deliciousness that symbolizes death and destruction. The time is ripe for God’s judgment. 

So, when asking the question, “what does it mean for us to practice economic justice,” perhaps we’d better set ourselves straight, lest the time become ripe for us. 

We’d better make sure that we track down every step of the supply chain for everything we purchase. We’d better look deep into the companies from whom we purchase products to ensure that we are not complicit in economic injustice by the products we purchase. I should probably provide a list to you of approved companies who are committed to ethical business practices, lest God present to us a basket of summer fruit. 

For the time could be ripe. We look around the world and see much economic injustice. Around the world, and indeed outside our own doors, we can see evidence of the needy being trampled and ruin being brought upon the poor, as it says in verse four. We can see reason why God might bring judgment upon us, removing God’s word, causing destruction and desolation through God’s righteous judgment. 

Is the time ripe for us, too? What do we do with this word of God’s judgment? 

What does it mean for us to practice economic justice? 

Hear verses 4 and the first part of 5 again: “Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’” They go to worship, they observe the new moon festivals, they keep the sabbath which, in this context, means they also attend temple. They’re going through all the right religious motions, but they’re unchanged by their worship. 

Their worship is empty. They are simply impatient for the services to end and the observances to cease so they can get back to selling. Their god is money, and their temple is the marketplace. 

They are unchanged by their worship. So, they put economic gain ahead of humanitarian concerns. 

And that’s the word for us today. 

What does it mean for us to practice economic justice? 

It means to be changed by our worship.

On a level, practicing economic justice means having awareness about the things we buy. We do not have control over global supply chains, so we cannot directly affect change in oil fields or coffee plantations or mines in the Congo. But we can choose awareness, researching the brands we purchase, to see what their stances are and to find out if they are doing their level best to ensure that the products they sell to us are ethically sourced. 

But that’s just good consumer behavior. That’s ethical consumer behavior, and certainly that’s what God calls us to this morning. But it’s not the full story. 

God’s judgment here means two things. First, we rejoice that God is a righteous judge because it means that the economic sins of the world will not last forever. God will not abide injustice forever. There will be action taken by God against injustice and those who perpetrate it. Warlords in the Congo will not have the final word. Terrorists will not win. The poor will not be destitute forever. The needy will not be trampled upon for all time. God will come and right wrongs. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we are praying not only for righteousness and peace but also for divine judgment against evil in the world and those who cause it. 

It’s good that God is a righteous judge. 

But God’s judgment also means God expects the people of God, us, to be changed by our worship. The people of God stand condemned in this scripture because of their unjust economic practices, but they would not be practicing injustice economically if they were changed by their worship. The greater offense, the larger sin, is their empty worship. They’re attending worship, they’re going through the motions, but they’re unchanged; their hearts are not in it. 

Empty worship is where our hearts are not changed. And God’s judgment this morning is greater for their empty worship than their economic injustice. For out of the overflow of the heart, we act. And a heart that is empty of God will act unjustly every time.

But a heart that is changed by worship, and filled up by God, will act for justice. 

So besides asking ourselves if we’re aware of how our products are made and where they come from, which is part of pursuing economic justice, we must ask ourselves a deeper and harder question: are our hearts in our worship? 

Are we coming to church on Sunday willing to be changed by what we hear? 

Are we praying daily and allowing that time of prayer to change us? 

Are we studying scripture with others in small groups or Sunday school classes and allowing that to change us? 

Are we changed by our practice of religion, by our relationship with Jesus Christ? 

Is our heart in our worship?

Worship should change us. When we come to church, we come to encounter the living God, afresh and anew. While we may leave encouraged, while we may leave with joy in our hearts, these are not the primary purposes of worship. They’re good things, and I hope you do leave encouraged and with joy in your heart. But they’re not the chief outcome of worship. The chief outcome, the primary purpose of worship, is a changed life because of our encounter with our living God. 

Worship is about that encounter. While we can encounter God anywhere, and while we do encounter God through our personal prayer times, our devotional life, our fellowship times, and our small groups and Sunday school classes, worship has a peculiar power to get into the depths of our souls in a way that nothing else can. We encounter God in ways that we simply do not encounter God elsewhere. And if we come with open minds and open hearts, if we come with a willingness to cede our will to God’s, we will be changed. 

That’s what it means to have our heart in worship: to come with a willingness to cede our will to God, with an open mind and open heart to hear a word from God. And thereby to be filled up with God in our hearts.

If the people of God in Amos, during their worship, had put their hearts into worship, allowing themselves to be changed by their encounter with the living God, they would not have pursued unjust economic practices. They would not have brought condemnation upon themselves. 

We, because of Jesus, do not stand condemned in the same way before God. But we are held accountable for our actions. It’s not always easy to know how we should act or what we should do to pursue economic justice. But I do know this: we will know, and we will hear from God, about how we are to handle our finances and how we are to act justly as consumers if we allow ourselves to be changed by worship.  

We are the people of God, and we should not pursue unjust economic practices. We should put the humanity of others ahead of our own economic gain. We must practice awareness of our consumer behavior. But even more importantly, we must come to worship, on a regular basis, with an open heart, ready to be changed by encountering our living, judgmental, righteous, God.

So how do we practice economic justice? 

Through bringing an open heart to worship. 

Is your heart in worship? Do you come Sundays ready to be changed? Do you come regularly to church? These are the questions before us. And when we allow ourselves to be changed, our hearts fall in line with God’s heart and then we will practice economic justice. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

2 thoughts on “The Fruit of Economic Injustice

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