Powerful voices have emerged in recent years to compel Americans to confront economic suffering and poverty in their country. Among the most influential has been Bernie Sanders, whose speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention exemplifies his conviction that politics should be about addressing the brutal injustices that have long made life in the United States so hard for so many:
Election days come and go. But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the one percent—a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice—that struggle continues…
This election is about ending the forty-year decline of our middle class. The reality that 47 million men, women and children today live in poverty. … This election is about a single mom I saw in Nevada who, with tears in her eyes, told me that she was scared to death about the future because she and her young daughter were not making it on the $10.45 an hour she was earning. This election is about that woman and the millions of other workers in this country who are struggling to survive on totally inadequate wages.
These excerpts give a sense of Sanders’s focus on those failed by a system that favors the privileged and powerful. To redress these inequities, Sanders, like many of the other progressive 2020 presidential candidates, repeatedly invokes the rhetoric of justice and rights.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the pro-life movement represents a strand of American political thought that is often viewed as diametrically opposed to Sanders’s way of thinking. Yet its leaders also contend that they are speaking for the most vulnerable elements of society. The comments of then-candidate Mike Pence at the 2016 vice-presidential debate are an illustrative example:
For me the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief [in] that ancient principle where God says, “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you.” And so from my first time in public life I sought to stand with great compassion for the sanctity of life. … For me my faith informs my life. I try and spend a little time on my knees every day. But all for me begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth the value of every human life.
Pence does not appeal to justice or rights. Rather, his ethical appeal is based in the dignity and sanctity of human existence, as well as the transcendent spiritual value of each individual life.
The issue Pence focuses on here places him at a distance from progressive politics, but there is no reason why a focus on the divine and transcendent should be alien to those whose main concern is economic and social justice. Indeed, there is a tradition—that of the Biblical prophets—for which a focus on the suffering of the poor and vulnerable is inextricably linked to an appreciation for the wonder of creation.
This tradition has been operative in America’s recent past, including during the civil rights movement, but it currently lies on the margins of our politics. If we want to reclaim this tradition, it is instructive to look back at the ancient texts that initiated it. Among them is the Book of Amos, which stands out for having grappled, almost three millennia ago, with the same questions that confront us today: What is at the root of cruelty and injustice? How can so many citizens support policies that are deeply hurtful to those in desperate need of assistance and compassion? What will it take to steer society toward compassion and justice?