Hear this, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, bring us a drink!
We have always needed images to spur us forward, to propel us from places of extreme self-involvement, of apathy, of injustice. When Amos, the bony-fingered shepherd-turned-prophet, characterizes the uninvolved wealthy women of his time as “cows”—arrogant, unconcerned, and overfed—it is an image that sticks with you. As the LORD declares his impending judgement throughout the rest of the book of Amos, his cause for anger is revealed time and time again: Israel has “sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” The people of God have become “those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” The supposedly righteous profit off of the labor of the poor, then exact terrible taxes in order to live ever-more extravagant lives. It all culminates in the Lord telling his people that he hates their feasts and their sacrifices of thanksgiving. They mean nothing when the labor undergirding the celebrations is a product of injustice.
As America celebrates the Thanksgiving holiday, the words of Amos have a new-found poignancy to me. This has been a year of learning for me, a time of listening to the prophets who work the land here in America. This has been a year of learning about the realities of migrant labor in America, and realizing how much my life mirrors those of the women in Bashan.
The images that changed me were from a ground-breaking 1960s CBS documentary A Harvest of Shame. I stumbled upon a reference to the now-famous film while I was reading a book on modern-day trafficking in America. Intrigued by the title, I immediately googled the documentary, and my husband and I watched it together. Besides having the strange patina of another era (Edward R. Murrow, the narrator and lead reporter of the documentary, is grim and serious standing in field with a gigantic clip-on microphone attached to his lapel; in nearly every scene there are men—including Murrow himself—with a cigarette in hand) the film was astonishing in its commitment to evoke reaction. Indeed, Murrow himself would declare the documentary—which aired the day after Thanksgiving, a profoundly counter-cultural move—as a means of shocking the national conscience in regards to migrant rights.
And shock it does. Murrow and his team make the case that the people who picked the fruits and vegetables for our special feasts are living in conditions that rob the dignity of man. Lack of adequate housing, federal resistance to regulation, slave wages (and slave conditions), little to no educational futures for the children—all of these were hallmarks of the migrant working conditions. As a traveling pastor to the migrants observes in the film: “someone is making thousands of dollars off of their sweat. Is that a slave or not?”
It is the images and interviews of the migrants themselves that will change you, however. The shots of people—the image of God undeniable—in various stages of both determination and misery, is an invitation to care. To watch as the children of migrants get their few weeks of schooling, as they eagerly declare that they want to be doctors, nurses, and teachers—but as Murrow points out, in 1960 there was not a single documented case of a migrant worker’s child ever getting a college degree. The goal of A Harvest of Shame was to introduce the general American public—the most well-fed people in the world—to the “excluded Americans” who picked their food. Because, as everyone from Amos to Edward R. Murrow will tell you, we are loathe to change our habits until it becomes increasingly personal.
This year, in 2014, the onions, potatoes, yams, green beans, and pumpkins that make up the basis of your Thanksgiving meal more than likely were picked by people that still continue to struggle for basic human rights. As the landscape of poverty has shifted in America, the vast majority of seasonal farm workers still continue to experience sweat-shop like conditions. While garment and restaurant workers have their share of forced labor, one prominent lawyer has described agriculture as being made up of nearly all trafficked people. Capitalizing on a current political climate which demonizes the undocumented (making them live and work in desperate circumstances in fear of deportation if they speak up) as well as the market obsession with cheap prices, many individuals find themselves forced to work for wages that one cannot live on.
So how do we make it personal? In A Harvest of Shame, a seasoned journalist describes his transformation: “A migrant was just a person who lived on a farm to me. But after seeing what I have, I am sure I will devote the rest of my life to doing what little I can to help solve this problem.” A teacher who works with the children declares that she feels she has a responsibility to the migrant workers since all of New Jersey profits off of their exploited labor. Justice for the poor and the oppressed in the Scriptures looks very similar. The exploited, who are always very close to God, must be made visible to the oppressors. And the unconcerned and well-fed must be made to care.
In this, a season of short-sighted benevolence, of rosy-colored family holidays, of magic and goodwill, the need for these types of images is more important than ever. As migrant chaplain Julian Grieggs says in A Harvest of Shame: “Is it possible to have love without justice? Is it possible that we think too much in terms of charity, in terms of Thanksgiving day baskets, in terms of Christmas baskets and not in terms enough of eliminating poverty?” The Bible, and the 54 years since the documentary first aired, would say no. Activists and workers and numerous journalists have described today’s farm working conditions as “virtually unchanged from Murrow’s time.” (Life Interrupted). As Gerardo Reyes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers says “The faces in the fields have changed from poor white and poor blacks to poor hispanics.” But Reyes echoes the prophetic imagination of Amos, and dreams of a future where “justice rolls down like waters, righteousness in a never-ending stream.” Reyes declares that “It doesn’t have to be a harvest of shame anymore. It could be a harvest of hope.”
I want a feast that pleases God, not one that makes his heart of justice break. I want to know migrants, personally, to be absorbed into their struggles and hopes and dreams. And more than anything, I want to be wary of how easy it is to be like the women of Bashan, the ones so concerned with their own needs and celebrations, that they ultimately miss out on true Thanksgiving feast.
For more information I recommend reading Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States by Denise Brennan. I would also recommend watching A Harvest of Shame in its entirety (available on YouTube). Or better yet, invite all of your friends and neighbors to watch it with you, and use the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s recent discussion guide to further your reflections.