It was a period of peace and prosperity. Though the Assyrians had risen to power in the Near East, they were ruled by a succession of relatively uninvolved kings that basically left the Mediterranean alone for the time being. It’s the 8th century BCE in the kingdom of Israel to the North and Judah to the South. Trade flourished, wealth grew exponentially, and so did the gap between the rich and the poor. As the rich became richer, the poor became poorer, and it seems that the term peace and prosperity only applied to the few who could afford it. While an emerging, opulent upper class relaxed in revelry, the poor toiled in turmoil — exploited by those who would yet seek more wealth to live at the systemic mercy of predatory lending practices, overtaxation, and the strong arm of the elite. Fed up with the hypocrisy and injustice, a farmer from Tekoah in the Judean hills ventures north to call out those in high places — critiquing the behavior of the bourgeoisie with poignancy and a sharp bend towards a more just society.
In Amos 6:1-7, we hear one of these critiques from the prophet Amos, who pronounces judgment on those who would seek to oppressively subjugate the very people God placed under their care and protection.
This farmer from the south has some choice words to say, and I wonder what exactly Amos is calling out and calling for in this passage.
- Amos calls out a lack of empathy, calling for care and concern.
- He laments over the “ruin of Joseph” due to the self indulgence of the wealthy, who became wealthy at the expense of the poor.
- This passage serves as a warning for those who have forgotten the ways of God with the role of prophet as social critic.
- Amos calls out indifference.
Over the course of his life, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Born into the Madiba clan in the Easter Cape in 1918, he dedicated his life to the cause of justice — fighting against the subjugation and inequality perpetrated by apartheid and its white minority rule of South Africa. As a member of a prominent family in his clan, Nelson Mandela was no stranger to politics. After his education, he established the first Black-owned law firm in South Africa and helped form the African National Congress Youth League — later serving as president of the ANC. For his ongoing and integral role in the freedom struggle of South Africa, he was imprisoned for over two decades. Despite his imprisonment, he continued his work, later initiating conversations between the oppressive apartheid government and the African National Congress regarding the end of white minority rule. After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela became a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and was eventually inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
As a lifelong activist with a prophetic vision, Nelson Mandela knew that in order for change to occur, injustice must first be courageously brought to light and honestly acknowledged — not resting from the pursuit of a just world until rest is a reality for all. In a speech he gave at the Make Poverty History rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2005, Nelson Mandela remarked, “As long as poverty, injustice, and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”
Well, in 8th century BCE Israel, poverty, injustice, and gross inequality persisted with fervor, and the wealthy upper class seemed to be at rest prematurely. In prophetic presentation, Amos speaks to the illusion of completion and the temptation of complacency for those who have the privilege of distracting themselves from the suffering of the world. “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,” Amos remarks. In other words, woe to you who have grown passive amidst your growing wealth, forgetting there is work to be done as you lavish yourselves with finery and comforts at the expense of the poor languishing for simple food and sustenance. After reading this passage, it’s important to note that Amos is not necessarily condemning leisurely pursuits and life’s pleasures, specifically. 800 years later, even Jesus lounges at tables, naps on boats, dines at feasts, provides nice wine for a wedding, and praises a woman who adorns his feet with expensive perfume.
What Amos is calling out is not enjoying the things of life themselves but, rather, the division, disparity, and hypocrisy that self indulgence and justice avoidance has led too in Israel. Amos is calling out the rich for utilizing the things of this world to isolate themselves from relationship and insulate themselves from having to confront the harsh realities of injustice by their own doing. “Woe to you” who do and have all these things “but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” At the root of it, Amos is calling out what seems to be a lack of grief over the present state of things — pointing to the necessity for emotional involvement in the work of justice.
The issue is not having nice belongings; the issue is forgetting that we belong to each other. Amos critiques a lack of empathy on the part of the comfortable and complacent that has pervaded society — calling for collective grief as the launching pad for communal action. Bringing about societal change is an emotionally involved endeavor. It requires us to acknowledge, to feel, to lament, to grieve whether over our own lives or the lives of others — for the work of justice is heart work. It’s hard work, and it is heart work — arising from the realization that we belong to each other, inextricably linked in the collective web of life.
In addition to calling out the wealthy for being at rest while injustice persists and for their lack of care and concern over the state of things, this passage also gives permission for those who are grieving to do so fully and unashamedly. Why? — because Grief is an act of political resistance. It is a refusal of complacency, a refusal of apathy, a refusal of silent passivity and of being silenced, that says I refuse to be okay with the way things are. When we give space for our grief and voice to our feelings, we’re telling ourselves and the world that we matter, that what we feel matters, that what we say matters, that our life matters because it does and you do to God. Grief is an of political resistance – a bold stance of love that interrupts the status quo and courageously declares that the work is not complete.
For those already grieving who do not need a reminder of the injustices of this world, hear the good news: your grief is divinely sanctioned and prophetic in nature. Do not think that to grieve is to give up or to be weak; it is far the opposite. To grieve is to bravely acknowledge pain, to lovingly validate experience, and to perceptively tap into the power of our intuition which tells us that something is amiss and missing.
May we be gracious and generous with our grief to fully feel what we need to feel so we might have an understanding of what needs to be done about it — heeding the call for collective grief as a catalyst for communal action. And may we find hope in the fact that the state of this world is not the final product God has in mind as we take our place of participation in a just Kin-dom Come. And then, may we rest.