An Indictment Against Economic Exploitation: An Oracle Against Gaza (Amos 1:6-8)
Yahweh says: “For three transgressions of Gaza, yes, for four, I will not turn away its punishment; because they carried away captive the whole community, to deliver them up to Edom;” – Amos 1:6 (WEB)
Our perception of slavery has been forever altered by the atrocities of American slavery just a few hundred years ago. It would be very easy to read these words from Amos (as well as the indictments against Tyre and Edom that follow) and conclude that their relevance to our modern and enlightened lives is slim, given that our nation did away with slavery a long time ago.
This would be quite wrong. Slavery in the Ancient Near East was a very different thing than that of the American South. The Old Testament acknowledges the existence of, and provides biblical regulations for, the practice. Christopher J.H. Wright writes that:
Provided that they were humanely treated (as the law required), such slavery could be said to be little different experientially than many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy.
The biblical institution of slavery had as its basic purpose the elimination of poverty. The poor were ensured a job—and thus taught a skill. They were fed and clothed. And, at the end of it all, they were given a nice bonus (Deut. 15:13-14), with which they now had the means and the opportunity to no longer be indebted. It is the polar opposite of modern slavery. Biblical “slavery” was voluntary and temporary, meant to enhance human dignity, alleviate poverty, and bring value to both slave and master. This is the exact purpose behind the modern employee/employer relationship.
But, as with all systems created by God, mankind took it, corrupted it, and made it an instrument of evil. The slave trade of the ancient Near East, the slave trade of the Gaza, functioned much like the American enslavement of Black men and women just a few generations ago. So it can be easy to look at the slave trade and proclaim that we have no problem with this one. But when we take Yahweh’s indictment out of its specific context and look at the general principle, we find a ready application in our own times.
Gaza’s sin is not merely that they sold people into slavery. Their sin is that they exploited human lives for economic gain. They used their political, economic, and military power to enslave a population in order that they might get rich off of it. And suddenly the text goes from an ancient sin or a faraway sin and focuses in sharply on modern-day workplace practices.
A Nation that Steals Wages
One of the most common ways that our businesses take advantage of its employees is through simple wage theft—not paying their employees what is duly owed. They misrepresent the hours an employee has worked by changing their timesheets. They demand employers work off the clock. They fail to pay overtime. They may even not comply with federal minimum wage standards.
This type of wage theft is especially prevalent in low-income jobs or jobs that rely on tips. For instance, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour. Workers make this from their employer and receive tip money from customers. If their total fails to add up to the minimum wage of $7.25, the employer must pay them the difference. Sometimes, the employer does not. One Department of Labor study found that 83.8% of restaurants investigated had some form of wage violation. And there’s no automatic legal recourse to be had. If an employer fails to pay, the onus is on the employee to report their bosses. And wait. And continue to be paid less. And risk being fired for complaining.
Another study in Los Angeles found that eight out of ten workers had been victims of wage theft. Minorities and immigrants are particularly susceptible to wage theft, often because their visa status is dependent on their employment.
In one case, a high-end bakery in LA was paying Filipino immigrants $2 an hour to forcing them to live in the bakery owner’s laundry room and perform maintenance work at an apartment complex the owners also ran.
A three-city study of workers in low-wage industries found that in any given week, two-thirds experienced at least one pay-related violation. The researchers estimated that the average loss per worker over the course of a year was $2,634, out of total earnings of $17,616. If those trends are nationwide, that’s $50 billion a year straight up stolen from employees by their employers.
In 2012, the cost of all the robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts in the nation was less than $14 billion. We see and clearly understand all of those things as major injustices. And yet, when it comes to the treatment of workers, we all too often overlook the welfare and justice of the individual in favor of the corporation.
The message that God has for the nation that does not take care of its workers is a message of destruction. In James 5, James writes to the rich:
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of those who reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Armies.
The nation that does not protect its citizens will be destroyed. The business that takes advantage of and defrauds its workers will be judged. There may be success in the short term, but Yahweh’s hand of judgment spans human history and ensures that there will be a day of reckoning.
America is guilty of sin. Our businesses are guilty of sin. We have used and abused human beings for our own amusement, our own convenience, and to our own benefit. We have become like the marauders of Gaza, pillaging whole communities for a profit.
Except we have become worse, because we have done so under the guise of free enterprise, capitalism, and a Christian work ethic.
A Nation Addicted to Materialism
We have become a nation obsessed with consumerism, driven to buy the next new thing or the latest piece of technology. And while that has effects here in the States, it has even greater effects around the world. We here in the west have the luxury of being insulated from much of the exploitation. We purchase the finished product, never really thinking about how it got to us in the first place.
I’ll give you an example of the iPhone. It’s nice, it’s shiny, I wouldn’t know what time it is or how to contact anyone without it. But, the truth is, it’s the product of some pretty exploitative practices. In 2010, at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that manufactured iPhone parts, seven Chinese workers jumped from the building, killing themselves rather than facing the poor working conditions. By 2011, the company had installed netting around the building to catch any jumpers but had not changed their working practices.
Move forward into modern day and Apple isn’t faring much better. Another supplier in Shanghai was found to be paying at or below minimum wage and, during peak hours, employees with 90 hours of overtime a month were still only making $633, compared to the average wage in Shanghai with zero overtime being $900.
Apple isn’t the only company doing this. Nike, Adidas, Microsoft, name any major company and workplace exploitation is rampant. Slavery isn’t as pronounced or obvious as it used to be, but it’s still there and it’s even selling people on the idea that these low wages and poor living conditions are just what life is going to be.
Many of our farm workers in the south are migrant workers being paid unfairly low wages and forced to live in squalor. Between one and three million workers serve as migratory farm hands, going where the harvests are and rarely getting paid properly.
We have the opportunity to demand better of our businesses. We can choose not to purchase products made from the exploitation of others. We can demand that the process of manufacture be transparent. We can enact laws and enforce laws that demand corporations pay fairly. We can pay more—we can profit less—so that these workers are taken care of. We choose not to.
What We Can Do
These are not easy things to fix. They are overarching national and societal sins. That’s why we like to overlook them. If a pastor preaches on sexual immorality, we can be personally convicted to change our personal behavior or be smugly superior that we don’t face problems in that area. The same for greed or apathy or whatever the sin of the day might be. We feel like we can fix our sin.
But what about when sin is greater than that? What about when we can do everything right and the sin continues? That’s the hard part, isn’t it? To do the right thing, knowing that it doesn’t make much of a practical difference. That’s why we have to go beyond a personal morality and a personal application and work together on enacting corporate, communal, societal, legislative, government change.
Gaza didn’t see what they were doing as sinful. They were just fulfilling an economic need. They were simply trying to run their businesses, cash their checks, and live a comfortable life. Capitalism, baby. And that’s what many good people in the United States are trying to do. But, knowingly or unknowingly, they are doing so through the exploitation of others. They have driven whole communities into exploitative labor for their own profit.
And they will be judged for it.
Philistia would, like Aram, eventually be overrun by Assyria. The Philistine peoples would be deported—much like they deported their slaves—and would never regather in the land. Amos’s prophecy that they would be completely destroyed has been completely fulfilled.
Amos’s words are words of warning for us, the economic powerhouse of the world. So much has been said about rising stocks and a surging economy and the advancement of jobs—but have we put economy before morality? Have we made money the almighty God? Have we devalued people so that we might be more rich? How long until the longsuffering patience of the God of Armies runs out?