Garth’s talk at 25th anniversary of Amos Trust
Amos the journey – where we have come from
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years of Amos Trust and it’s good to stand still and look back to see what has shaped Amos over those years and what has driven us.
Briefly Amos was set up in the 80’s when I was predominantly doing concerts in the UK and Europe but after a trip to Haiti for Tearfund in the late 70’s I began to receive more invitations to travel to areas of the world that could be areas of poverty or conflict – it was my education. My good friend George Hoffman the then Director of Tearfund had taken me to Haiti and also South Africa, India and the Philippines.
But it was an invitation to visit Poland during the communist regime that prompted St. Saviour’s Guildford to set up the Amos Trust – we didn’t have the funds but the invitation was so worthwhile – it seemed wrong to say no for economic reasons. So Amos started with just 3 trustees and I began to accept invitations to many areas of the world and my next visit for Amos was to Kenya, the Mathari Valley – one of the largest slum communities in the world.
And at first it was a matter of going and coming back and telling the stories in songs, words and pictures, but then we decided – by we I mean the Trustees – that we had been so moved by different situations we wanted to keep links with these places so we started to support projects in Uganda, the Philippines, Palestine, Israel, Nicaragua and South Africa.
Amos had been named after the words of the prophet Amos in Amos 5:24 “Let justice roll down like a river and right living like an ever flowing stream.” And our other slogan was “For Jesus and His justice” and then it became “Justice and hope for the forgotten”. Now we sometimes use just “Justice and hope” – we haven’t forgotten the forgotten. We are having a debate about – ‘are they forgotten?’ – and who are the forgotten?
I would probably still favour the use of the word ‘forgotten’, even though some of the campaigns that we are working on, like the Palestinians, are no longer forgotten, their name is spoken about regularly, but they are still the powerless and the weak in terms of international dominance and I would use the term ‘forgotten’ in that sense: so it could be street children, it could be the Dalits, those oppressed by the caste system, it could be Palestinians, it could be poor communities of Nicaragua – and in time Amos may branch out to other areas of the world where equally there are many people who get forgotten or ignored or simply dominated and oppressed.
When our current chair of the Trustees, Beki Bateson, wrote about Amos in a recent newsletter she said this: ”I’ve been privileged to be involved with this small, maverick, musical, punch-above-its-weight charity,” and that says something about the nature of Amos. Beki went on to point out that Amos is committed, Amos is relational, Amos is creative, Amos listens and liberates.
It’s a good summary – relationships are at the heart of what we do. We have a passion for what we do – creativity is at our heart – we try to express in many ways, whether it’s in our design, in our writings, in art, film or songs or prayer. And then, Amos listens and liberates – our hope is that we listen carefully to what our partners are saying and then link arms with them in terms of sharing the message that they bring and hopefully supporting them so through them we help to be part of the journey towards liberation.
It also helps us to journey towards our own liberation as we see our world differently – it helps us to deal with our own biases and prejudices. At our heart there is a spirituality that values and treasures each person as made ‘in the image of God’ – this helps us to stand with confidence on issues of human rights and justice – we are people of hope because there is a gospel of hope. We often call it our theology.
When I was in India at the Dalit resource centre at Tamil Nadu theological seminary in Madurai I heard the term ‘folk theologian’, which I rather liked. Often when we talk about theology it’s academic theology and yet I believe there is a theology that is far more grass roots, that is the theology of ‘God with sleeves rolled up’. It’s the theology of action, praxis – this is something liberation theology has shown us, that has turned theology on its head. Instead of being something we export from universities in the West around the world we now let theology express itself in the context where people are, be they Palestinians, Dalits or street children; they are the poor and marginalized and we hear the gospel through their words, and this is something about the incarnation of Christ in their situation.
I like the term ‘folk theologian’ because it makes it accessible – it is using theology to talk about how we deal with today’s oppression, today’s struggle. Let’s not forget that theology and religion itself can oppress – it is the caste system of Hinduism that oppresses; there are four main castes in the system – in the Varna system – then there are those who are Avarna – literally outcaste – they are doomed to be oppressed. Yet the Bible too can be an instrument of oppression, as Michael Prior pointed out in his book ‘The Bible and Colonialism’ – this is certainly something the Palestinians have felt strongly: they have felt they are the ‘unchosen ones’, they must leave their land because God has favourites and they are not God’s favourites. (Michael Prior was a great inspiration who helped to shape our understanding and tragically died.)
We had Rev Dr Peniel Jesudasan Rufus, a Dalit theologian, speaking at All Hallows and he was pointing out how Dalits interpret theology, and he said, “You see, when we come to the Exodus story, we don’t identify with the children of Israel conquering, we identify with the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.” They identify with those whose land is stolen, those who are treated as the ‘unchosen’; and I was fascinated to hear this and thought of Palestinian liberation theology which identifies this way as well. This is a challenge as the concept of ‘chosenness’ is a deep problem and we have to journey to where we recognize that all are chosen or none – otherwise we make God cruel and biased.
So we have to be very careful with faith and religion that it does not oppress. Recently in the Morning Star, Derek Wall, a green activist, wrote an opinion piece called “A vision of faith and hope”. Though a non believer himself he thinks religion can be a source of real good and he asserted that religion is as often associated with liberation as it is with oppression. He illustrated this with the story of various Catholic, protestant, evangelical and Muslim people standing up for justice. He says, “At its best religion does two important things: it calls for justice and it asks big questions about the relationship of humanity to the rest of the universe including the non-human natural world.” He sees the danger of the way that religion has been used as a colonial tool and he concludes “We need prophetic voices more than ever in the world dominated by corporations. There is reason in faith and compassion in religion.”
To me one of the positive aspects of faith is the spirituality that can help people journey through their suffering and find hope. I remember when I had the privilege of seeing Archbishop Desmond Tutu at work near Soweto back in apartheid times. With his prophetic spirit, his call for justice – yet never loosing the joy, the hope and the infectious giggle – he would help people journey through the suffering and the pain of what they were experiencing every day, but he would leave them at the point where they had journeyed to hope and the thought the resurrection could come. I think we must say, if our theology and actions don’t liberate and bring hope and joy and justice then we are not on the right track.
I was very struck standing by the wall when we were filming ‘Bethlehem – Hidden from view’, I was with Jeff Halper and he was talking about ‘warehousing’ of the Palestinian people and he said “If this is not a theological issue, then what is?” If our theology and spirituality is only for ourselves, if it takes us away from what is happening in the world, it seems to me this is not the ‘Bethlehem theology’, which I believe we see so clearly expressed in the style of the birth of Jesus. If we see people treated – a whole people – as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not valued, and ‘warehoused’ in such an inhuman way, then it is one of the most profound theological issues of all.
The style of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem with those who get forgotten and ignored, those who are homeless or oppressed, is saying ‘you are valued’; when God becomes human God is not identifying with those of status and power but with those who get mistreated and forgotten, and this is the affirming, liberating, inclusive, joyful power of the gospel.
The first event I did this year, in the New Year, was at the headquarters of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in Delhi, India. I sang and I spoke under a portrait of Dr B R Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a most significant player in Indian politics – a Dalit who rose up to become the chair of those who put together the Indian Constitution. On Christmas Eve I had stood at a Buddhist meditative centre dedicated to Ambedkar right opposite the Taj Mahal – over the Yamuna river. On the wall outside were the words that Ambedkar wrote to explain his reasons for conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism. It is couched in the shape of twenty-two oaths that he took, and he starts off by saying:
“By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn.”
Ambedkar converted to get away from the Varna system within Hinduism that described him as ‘outcaste’.
(Those formerly called ‘outcastes’ are now called Dalits, a word they have chosen themselves which means the ‘crushed’ or ‘oppressed’ – over 250 million struggling for equality and dignity.)
It is very interesting to see why he converted.
Number 9 in his statement says “I believe all human beings are equal.”
Number 10, “I shall endeavour to establish equality”.
Number 13, “I shall be compassionate to all living beings and I shall nurture them with care.”
Number 19 “I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is detrimental to the prosperity of humankind and which discriminates between man and man and which treats me as inferior.”
My guide who translated for me was a Hindu himself and it was kind of him to keep translating.
Ambedkar converted with hundreds of thousands of other so called ‘untouchables’.
As a Christian believing in the same things, I have to ask the question, why didn’t Ambedkar convert to Christianity? And the sad response is that he said he no longer favoured this option precisely because of the persistance of caste prejudice amongst Christians. So deep is the impact of caste within Indian society that even some Christian churches reflect it. He also saw it as a religion linked with colonialism.
One of my most precious memories is preaching outdoors in Gomathimuthupuram, a Dalit village, down in Tamil Nadu, and being translated by our Amos Trust partner there – Jacob Devadason – and preaching the liberating message of the gospel of the value of every human being. It sent a shiver down my spine when people interrupted me to check the verses I was quoting from the Bible and to look it up in their own Bibles because of the affirming message of Christianity and of the Old Testament prophets. They were checking to see if this was true.
One of the problems of sharing the gospel message is the church too often takes what we can call the Constantinian compromise – it is too close to government – too friendly with power. It’s nice to be liked, it’s good to be accepted within a community, it can be attractive to be accepted by power but we must never lose our prophetic role, our call is to speak truth to power. We must never lose the double-edged sword of the gospel.
In the Epistle of Colossians there is a profound & beautiful challenge to holiness. (3. 2-17) What does it look like? We are called “to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to bear with one another, to forgive… and above all to clothe ourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony; and to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and with gratitude sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.”
But these words are much tougher than they might sometimes appear. I sometimes fear the weak style in which we interpret words such as these, but these are very powerful and sometimes painful words. What does it mean to be humble and meek, to have the patience that will change this world? What does it mean to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts? What does it mean to clothe ourselves with love? At the very least it means to live out the words that echo from the beginning of the Bible that every human being is made in the ‘image of God’: we are all equal – in Christ the barriers come down.
The wonderful challenge of the Sermon on the Mount is to be peacemakers, to bring wholeness into a broken and unjust community, to echo the prophets of old, to do justice and to show mercy and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) And humility itself is so important because it refuses to dominate, it refuses to colonise; it sees everyone through the eyes of God and when we fail to do that we deny the gospel – we deny the tremendous message of the incarnation which started in such a humble and vulnerable way in Bethlehem; and in the end people like Ambedkar will not walk our way unless they see the power of this humble, just faith – a faith that treats everyone equally. We are called to be a community that brings down the mountains of oppression and lifts up the valleys of justice and righteousness so the pathways are made straight – as Martin Luther King was so fond of saying (quoting from Isaiah).
Last year we took an Amos Trust group to South Africa to meet Tom and Mandi and Umthombo, working with street children in Durban, and one day we went up to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal to a centre called Ujaama. This is a very practical theological centre and I wanted to ask them the question of what liberation theology means in the new South Africa, and their answers were absolutely fascinating. It was a group of young women and men who told us about their praxis – their action – the way they behaved as a result of the gospel.
But one of the later speakers was Solomuzi Mabuza, knowing nothing about us as a group, who started off by saying, “This is a Kairos moment for Palestine and we are committed to supporting them.” Our group was stunned. We were not expecting this.
After the terrible attack on Gaza in December ’08 and through to January ’09 I kept thinking of this word, “It’s a Kairos moment.” Such was the nature of the brutal massacre that I felt we could no longer do the standing on the sidelines, trying to be even-handed. The mountains must be pulled down – the valleys must be lifted up. “Enough is enough of brutality,” I said as I opened the demonstration in Hyde Park on the 10th of January. And I kept thinking, this Kairos moment, this crossroads, this special moment in time, how can we reflect it? And I kept thinking about the Kairos document in South Africa; and Solomuzi reiterated the importance of that document 25 years ago in getting the world to wake up to the evil of apartheid, and said “Now is the Kairos moment for Palestine.”
And he was the first one to tell us that a Kairos document was being prepared in Palestine, in Bethehem, and put us in touch with Rifat Kassis, the coordinator. Since then we have put together, slowly but surely, a campaign called “A Just Peace for Palestine,” with the subheading “means peace and security for Israelis too”. You can now find this up on the Just Peace for Palestine website and it is rooted in the call of the Kairos document, the call for the worldwide church to respond to a Christian ‘cry of hope when there is no hope’ from Palestine. This is our way of trying to respond.
Solomuzi warns of the church being paralysed so the prophetic voice is not heard – ‘Too often the church makes the prophetic voice irrelevant. There should be a Kairos document for every place of exclusion – God cannot be an oppressor’. ‘What sort of God is this who would give my land to a stranger?’ ‘Kairos’ he says ‘is speaking God’s heart – not being diplomatic – it’s a risk’. ‘What are we doing to build a network of vigilant prophets?’.
And the Kairos Palestine document brings both challenge and hope. It says, “This is a moment when we must work out which side we are on, are we on the side of humanity or are we on the side of oppression?”
It’s only asking that we stop being one sided and start being even handed.
•It says ‘The aggression against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation is an evil and a sin which must be resisted and removed’.
•So they call out to the world church – and call on us to repent – to repent of our silence when we should have raised our voices to condemn the injustice.
•This is a profound theological document – They point out that God is not the ally of one against the other – nor the opponent of one in the face of the other. God is the Lord of all, demanding justice from all and issuing to all of us the same commandments.
The Kairos document is saying – ‘are we on the side of humanity or oppression?’ – compassion, clothing ourselves with love, is doing something about what dehumanizes, is doing something about when people are ‘warehoused’.
The Kairos document says ‘love is seeing the face of God in every human being. Every person is my brother or sister’. It is a call to reject racism, to bring liberation, and to use non-violent ways.
Last year a group of us were with Ernesto Cardinal in Nicaragua. Ernesto is probably one of the best living poets in the world. He is a Catholic priest and was one of the Sandinista government back in the ’80s. I asked him whether he liked the term Liberation Theology and he said, “I prefer the term Theology of Revolution”. We chatted about that. I liked it and I thought in particular that the theology of the Sermon on the Mount is a revolutionary theology – It turns the values of the world upside down. It reflects a gospel that genuinely brings good news, that says ‘do unto others as you’d have them do to you.’ And therefore we are not passive people, we are those who act, reflecting the values of God’s community to bring change, to bring hope, to bring justice, to be an active part of God’s revolution of love, humility, compassion and the peace of Christ – and then with gratitude sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.
As Gilberto Aguirre put it to me one breakfast many years ago – “everyday we have to touch the Gospel” i.e. make it visible – show it in action. He said, “We don’t have the luxury to just theorise” – they have to do it.
Some words that are often used and attributed to St Francis of St Assisi are, “preach the gospel at all times and if necessary even use words”. It is the gospel lifestyle that speaks loudest.
All of this is our foundation.
Where next for Amos? This year we have had the Street Child World Cup which has brought success on the roundups of street children after 10 years.
We now have ‘A Just Peace for Palestine’ campaign, which has been endorsed by the Methodist Conference and with our Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment we have been able to support that success with the Methodist Conference.
Nicaragua has always been our model and our mentor – we say come with us to visit the people of Nicaragua, particularly our partners CEPAD, and together we will learn from them.
And in India we work with and listen to those who support the Dalits in their struggle for humanity.
So our witness as Amos is – don’t let religion oppress – or power, or wealth. Because we believe in the revolution that says ‘those you don’t value are valued’, ‘those who appear insignificant are significant’, and the poor and forgotten are to be shown justice and hope.
We will develop over the next few years – we will have new partners. I am surrounded by a young, creative, entrepreneurial team on the staff – I am moved by them and proud of them. We have young, talented, creative trustees, and our incredibly supportive, understanding and committed supporters will help us as we journey forward together, always learning from our partners. I will step to the side – just a little bit – so that the day to day work of Amos will increasingly be done by others. Amos is in a great state to keep going and to face new opportunities and new challenges.
I’m proud of Amos because we haven’t picked up popular causes. Supporters have been very trusting of us as we have tried to express our commitment to situations and people that might at first be hard to understand and certainly can be very unpopular, but what an influence we have had on some of those unpopular issues, particularly Palestine and what a thrill this year to see us affirming street children once more, and saying ‘you are made in the image of God’. To have brought together Deloittes and street children in one sentence let alone in the Street Child World Cup, this is a very significant moment.
I’m proud of our partners who have stood and worked in the heat of the day to make visible the gospel, to make visible humanitarian values and they’re with us over these next two days – they are our mentors.
We have Zoughbi Zoughbi from Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, Jeff Halper (and Shoshana) from ICAHD Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Tom and Mandi from Umthombo Street Children, Gilberto Aguirre and Damaris Albuquerque from CEPAD, an alliance of churches working on development in Nicaragua, Jacob and Jasmine Devadason from the Tamarind Project in Tamil Nadu, particularly supporting Dalits in Education, and Prem Mitra, activist on behalf of Dalits and ecological issues, pastor and theologian in the church of South India; and also we will be joined by Dr Swee Ang who founded Medical Aid to the Palestinians and has more recently been in Gaza doing a report.
So in these couple of days let’s remember our title ‘Let Justice Roll!’ From the work of Wi’am and ICAHD and Umthombo and CEPAD, Tamarind Tree project in Tamil Nadu and from our Amos network we are discovering – together – how to let justice roll.
As some of you know on my recent album Moonrise I quote some words of Thomas Merton, “May we not neglect the silence that is printed in the centre of our being; it will not fail us, it is more than silence,” and he adds that ‘Jesus spoke of the spring of living water’. I’ve been reading his ‘Book of Hours’ which has a little passage for you to read at different times of day each day of the week – I have been reading it for over a year and whilst I was in hospital and convalescing it was a great encouragement to me, and it has been very thrilling to discover the link with Ernesto Cardinal, that it was Thomas Merton who inspired him, who challenged him to go back to Nicaragua.
Thomas Merton also says this “the great danger is that under the pressures of anxiety and fear the people of the world will come to accept gradually the idea of war, the idea of submission to total power, and the abdication of reason, spirit and individual conscience. The great peril is the deadening of conscience.” Prophetic words.
So we need a spirituality that keeps our conscience alive but rejects war and violence as the solution. We need a spirituality that rises higher than walls and beyond check points, that reaches to ignored children and forgotten people wherever they may be, that reaches beyond fear and toward hope, that does unto others as we would want them to do to us and so in journeying this way we let justice roll.
At President Obama’s inauguration the prophet Amos was quoted by Rev Joseph Lowery in the Benediction – let me finish with this:
“And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
© Garth Hewitt
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Amos the journey – where we have come from