The Prophetic Imagination of Lament: From Grief To Energy, From Resolve Toward New Possibility
Amos 7:1-9, Hosea 11
Lament has often been a topic that is rarely addressed in the church during the 21st Century. But, according to Walter Brueggemann the theology of lament can lead us from grief and loss toward energy which garners resolve and understanding that finally propels us toward a new possibility and wisdom. Our alienation from the idea and theology of lament has halted what hope we might have for a prophetic imaginative future. We have openly turned from God as healer and compassionate agent in our lives, to one of separation and isolation. We isolate God when we do not share our griefs personally and communally. It is my goal in this paper to help us understand the prophetic imagination and transformative power of lament. By, looking at Amos and Hosea we will learn of God’s ongoing redemptive power to grieve and to struggle with us toward a renewed energy, resolve and new possibility. For the prophet Isaiah once articulated through the spoken word,
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
The World Behind The Text:
Amos was active in the first half of the 8th century BCE. His prominence was most likely at the time of Jeroboam II of Israel (788-747; Am 1:1) and Uzziah of Judah (785-733). Amos was most active during the decade of 760-750 BCE. He was known for his pronouncements against the priest Amaziah and his eventual exile from Bethel. Amos was from the Southern Kingdom of Israel and often critiqued the Northern Kingdom of Israel and denounced it’s prosperity in a time of historical peace and economic substantiation.
The reign of Jeroboam II was actually great, Israel saw great times of peace and prosperity, but in that peace the prophet Amos spoke out against it’s prosperity. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was benefiting off of the hard work and labor of the poor in the Southern Kingdom. Amos, spoke as one who was in solidarity with the other poor representatives of the Southern Kingdom. He himself was a backwoods prophet, not a son of privilege and fortune but rather a, “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (7:14).
Amos self proclaimed vocation literally placed him in the seat of the oppressed, he was not speaking for the intercession of the royal priesthood and its leaders, he was interceding for the people of God that are being oppressed in the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Amos, was instrumental in the acknowledgement and vitality of his countrymen. He was more concerned with, “justice” and “righteousness” then, status and power.
Amos was a writing prophet (poet) and spoke for the liberation of the Southern Kingdom of Israel and encouraged Israel to repent and turn back to God. He called to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24), Amos was unrelenting toward Northern Israel, his entire manifesto was due in large part to the very excesses and privileges that the nation was experiencing and celebrating. For Amos the Israelites were, “trampling the head of poor into the dust of the earth” (2:7) and he found no pleasure in the festivals and ceremonies of the people. He protested their celebration with such pronouncements as, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (5:21)
I want to point out that while reading this thesis please keep in mind the correlations that the text may have with contemporary issues, such as, the United States and it’s relationship to a God of prosperity, and how that may or may not be necessarily synonymous with the God of Amos.
Hosea, was a prophet from the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the final days of the reign of Jeroboam II; prior to the conquest and eventual destruction brought on by the Assyrians in 722. Hosea was more or less a contemporary figure to the prophecies of Amos and was in line with similar pronouncements of “justice” and “righteousness”. Hosea was concerned with “political, social, and above all, religious righteousness”. Hosea was greatly concerned with the future of Israel if such perversions were to continue. Hosea knew that God was moving against Israel for their many idolatries and promiscuous nature with the dominant culture. He often would call for repentance, knowing that Israel would be destroyed by its enemies if they did not repent and focus back on the Lord. Perhaps there negligence of YHWH provided room for their destruction and later deportation out of the land of “promise”.
Hosea was known mostly for the ways in which he used his personal relationships to acquiescence the relationship dynamic that Israel had with YHWH. Hosea, married Gomer who supposedly was a prostitute (1:2) and she cheated on Hosea with many partners, which was interesting because the dominant culture considered that normal. Promiscuity to the dominant culture was totally fine and a way of worshipping and participating in the nearby culture of the Canaanites.
The children of Israel were called out from that behaviour and encouraged to live holy before God as his set apart people. Hosea, was furious about this because many of the people would boast that they have a special relationship with the God of Joseph but in reality God had forsaken them and no longer called them his people. (1:9) Hosea had three children with Gomer, Jezreel (1:4), which meant God sows, Lo-ruhammah (1:6) which meant Not pitied and Lo-ammi (1:9) which finally meant Not my people. Hosea’s prophetic career lasted three decades 750-720 BCE, which was impressive being that Amos career was only ten years.
Hosea’s legacy was powerful in the sense that he obeyed YHWH and married an “unclean” woman and fathered her children, just as YHWH had instructed. But, more impressive was Hosea’s unending intercession for his people. Hosea believed God and knew that eventually God would restore the people back to him and that Gomer would return to him, but the truth and test was in the waiting, the grief and from that waiting period came a new Israel.
The World Within The Text:
Amos 7:1-9 is located toward the latter half of the narrative and takes place at the time of YHWH impending judgement on the house of Israel, mostly the Northern Kingdom of Israel overseen by Jeroboam II and Amaziah the priest. Amos for the previous 7 chapters was calling for the people of the Northern Kingdom to repent and come back to YHWH. To no longer be content with the covenant of YHWH with no action and concern for righteousness, such as cheap grace nowadays. Amos was calling for Israel to come back to God in “justice” and “righteousness” because they were living the highlife, on the backs of their own people and it made YHWH sick.
Now in chapter seven we see Amos with a series of vision’s from the Lord. The first is a vision of “forming locusts” (7:1), which brings to mind the later prophet Joel who spoke of locusts as the army of the Lord sent to destroy Israel. (Joel 1:4) So in verse one Amos sees the locust perhaps a plague to come and devour the land or more politically the locust represent the political order of Northern Israel specifically the house of Jeroboam II. In verse four Amos has the vision of a shower of fire, perhaps this means God’s fury at the children of Israel for their “ignorance” described earlier by Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” (Hosea 4:6). Lastly in verse seven Amos receives a vision of a plumb line which was a structure used for open air worship that was condemned by both Amos and Hosea as, “places of illicit worship”. The plumb line marks a vision that God would not relent and that change must come through total destruction of the old so that a new possibility could be possible.
Now the question I must ask is why the vision in verses 2 and 4 God shows mercy but in verse 7 God is now seemingly immobile to the cry of Amos? The reason may have been that Israel was being shown too much mercy and the time of judgement had finally come for them.
In the book of Hosea, God’s plan was to have them be overtaken and oppressed by their freedom, so that they would eventually come back home and be with only one partner. In Hosea the people are involved and even entangled by the practices of the dominant culture and have ceased to be relevant in the transformation and spreading of YHWH to the world. They had forsaken their first love and gone to the streets to entertain their carnal, lascivious lifestyle. In a time of prosperity, rather than be humble, the people of Judah and Israel turned to materialism and ecstasy. Rather than be thankful, they incredibly alienated themselves from their “very present help in times of trouble”. It is in this context that we will now shift to contemporary society and see how this scripture can be a teaching and a didactic for the power of lament and prophetic imagination, specifically prophetic preaching in a time of prosperity gospel christians.
The World In Front Of The Text:
John Collins described the visions of Amos as, “directed against the upper classes, because of their exploitation of the poor”. Can we obey God with justice and not sacrifice? What is sacrifice and how does it pertain to addressing the powers? In the past during the Hebrew Scriptures and up to the founding of the United Monarchy there was a system of atonement made possible through the sacrifices of priest. Now we as Christians are in a different situation, we no longer need to make dove offerings and meat sacrifices, we can simply offer our hearts to God and that suffices. But, I want to call us to a higher standard and say that we are called to sacrifice but in a new way; by speaking against the powers of systemic evil and by putting our necks on the line such as Amos did and believe for the restoration and eventual fidelity of the believers to Christ alone and not Caesar. I propose that we can do this by praying for change, and living a lifestyle toward answering our own petitions.
Prayer As A Tactic For Social Change And Spiritual Reawakening:
Walter Wink pronounced intercessory prayer to be a, “spiritual defiance of what is in the name of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces. Prayer infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present” (Wink, 185) We are agents of change in the playing out of history. Wink provided the field for the power of intercessory when described humanity as in connection to the earth, the universe etc… That we are agents because we are connected, “we are not like solitary billiard balls, as materialism sees us; from the very beginning we are related to everything. Every drop of water in me has been in every spring, stream, river, lake, and ocean in the world during our earth’s billions of years of existence. We are related to every other self in the universe. In such a world, we no longer know the limits of the possible.” (Wink, 184)
With this knowledge we can not continue a life of apathetic prayers. We are apart of the liberation of Syria, we are the restoration that will come to the people of Boston in the wake of the bombing, even more we are the cure for homelessness, poverty etc…in a world that sees them as mountains that can not be moved. By faith and prayer and struggle we can believe for a better future and work to make that future real in our very lives.
Walter Brueggemann powerfully calls for us to accept the sacrifice of entertainment for the worship experience of lament. Brueggemann sees lament as an intercession for communal and personal change in the present day. We can look toward Amos and Hosea who interceded and worked to change the compulsions of Israel and Judah, but ultimately the lesson was in loss. Israel and Judah would not be spared, they would experience the domination and oppression of another imperial/colonial power over them in the Assyrians.
We too are in danger of potential collapse and the imperial control of another, due to our incredible debt to the world powers. We are so inclined and addicted to excess and things that we are in debt, losing our homes, our schools, art, libraries and in the name of what military spending. We continue to trust in “chariots” and “princes” but our end is coming and how will we, the people of God respond?
We can follow the example that Brueggemann has so masterfully and prophetically imagined for us. We can provide room for loss and insecurity. We can use the church to push for new imaginative possibilities and provide safety to those prophets that follow their call to speak for humanity and equality in a world that proudly says, “I don’t need God”. In order to address consumption and selfishness we have to provide congregations with spaces to share their oppressive scenarios in their lives.
Brueggemann helps us understand the conflict and turmoil our congregations experience from the dominant culture, “the dominant narrative disenfranchised grief because it cannot afford to be honest. And grief disenfranchised leads, as we know, to denial and, finally, to violence. But prophetic preaching permits acknowledged, anticipated grief, and gives franchise to grief felt and embraced. When grief is owned, as we know, it turns to energy, resolve, and new possibility.” The prophetic imagination embraces grief and provides a space to mourn, struggle and question God and society on the events. But, it is the church that can provide that resolve and eventual hope and avenue for a new possibility. But, we can’t provide this great information if we are still providing people a prosperity gospel that says materials will provide salvation for your pain. The only cure for pain is love and community.
The people of Israel could not overcome their appreciation and love for dominant narrative customs, they loved their fine assemblies and festivals but they were not for God, they were for themselves to exploit others and alienate the haves from the have nots. This oppression was so great that even the earth was crying out, fish were starving because of the exploitation of the Israelites. The truth of the earths cry for liberation helps us sober up to the consequences of our prosperity. The consequences of our prosperity, is suffering. We have no tools to wait and so we anxiously sign up for new credit cards or believe the “hype” of media that says absorb your subordination with consumption, don’t worry, just buy an ipod or even better don’t stand up for justice you have too many problems with home and your wallet. Wait! How did I get that debt in the first place?
“There is no doubt that the prophetic theme is divine judgement, though, as we have seen, the pending punishment is not voiced simply as supernatural intrusion but as the inescapable outworking of the deeds and policies of Jerusalem that evoked devastating consequences.” (Brueggemann, 71) So for Brueggemann and I agree the consequences of Israel were not necessarily the punishment of God but were actually there own fault and that God may or may not have been a part of it’s consequences. See, we have free will to destroy each other and this planet or to restore and redeem. Brueggemann is simply saying that if we pollute the planet then the planet will be polluted and if we gain diseases from that pollution it was not God that did it but us. Now what is amazing is that Brueggemann simultaneously is arguing that God is in fact an agent in the world and that in that example of pollution and disease, we can still cry out to him through lament and he will act on our behalf and we may be pardoned or the earth may be restored etc… So as we look at the core of these two passages we can deduce that the Northern Kingdom of Israel provided their own destruction by worshiping God falsely and oppressing their own people who are responsible for the crops and materials needed to maintain the society. Likewise, we can look at Hosea and see that where there would be judgement and the un-forgiveness of a husband to his promiscuous and unfaithful wife who represents the promiscuous nature of the people of God. We can see that prayer, lament and grief is what changed God’s heart toward His people, it was in this crying out that resolve and new possibility could happen.
We have to be told NO and learn to wait on God. This nation is losing it’s mind. I think sometimes that “ungodly” people are actually the sane ones and churched people are the criminally insane. We excommunicate our pastors, we don’t embrace everyone, we are the poster children of US capitalism and consumerism, we are the ones supporting fast food nation and we expect the rest of the world to see us as humble servants who believe in the cross of Christ. We are seen as hypocrites and that is why no one comes in the church. We have to make room for repentance, we have to change the subject we have to be a radical narrative in the midst of the dominant one. If the dominant narrative says “just war” we say “non-violence”, if the dominant narrative says “he, she who dies with the most toys wins”, then we say “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am in… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. (Phil 4:11-13)
We can be the preachers, evangelist, teachers and prophets of a new dawn, we can follow Christ and provide a critique and an option to this dominant narrative that says you have to be the best, be like us. We can be like Amos and Hosea and be in the gap with the people but not of them, we can love the world but not embrace it’s Godless view, we can speak for truth and justice but first we must learn to mourn with each other.
In this mourning we can grow toward one body, we can learn to pray outside ourselves and begin to pray for the world. Lets start with our community, instead of praying for yourself only and seeing yourself as alien to your neighbor, see yourself as a co-creator with Christ, not to get a yacht or lexus but to create meaningful change and hope in the world. Our communities are waiting for us to welcome their pain into our lives. The neighborhood that prays together stays together. As we provide the space to be mediocre we can learn ways to be great. We don’t have to seek greatness for this world’s standards but for God. We can continue the legacy and honor that Christ laid down for us. When we can have a time in the church free of ATM’s and loud music we can embrace the unknown, we can search and be changed by the natural and that metamorphosis, the earth will help us to gain resolve, which will bring new life and that energy will spark us into a new possibility, a possibility where we all are welcome to be ourselves and allow God not man to validate our worth and potential.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Practice Of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching An Emancipating Word. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2012.
Collins, John J. Introduction To The Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2004.
Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV. New York: Oxford Press, 2010.
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.