It has become a familiar mantra among us: “We will get through this together.”
It is on the lips of many public officials including the president. It intends to reassure, to assuage our anxiety, and bring calm. There is, moreover, a self-serving element in the mantra with an implied addition, “Trust me.” Trust me to get us through this together.
While such an assurance is welcome, it also makes one wonder: who is the “we” in this mantra?
...The “we” might include all those who have gotten the vaccine, including those who have jumped the line ahead of others. But it does not, surely, include the more than 550,000 dead. And for now it does not include their grieving families.
...The “we” might include all those who have received government assistance, including those who have gamed the system for a disproportionate share. But it does not, surely, include all those who have lost their jobs or their businesses due to a necessary shut-down.
...The “we” might include the advantaged children of the well-connected who have prospered with on-line schooling, who have benefitted from vigorous parental support, state of the art technology, and, consequently, high motivation. But it does not, surely, include the many children who lack such privilege, such support, such technology, and such motivation.
It turns out, in my judgment, that the mantra is in part a denial; it disregards the victims of the virus, the victims of the economic slow-down, and the victims of online schooling. It is in part denial, but it is also in part an illusion because it is unmistakably clear that “we” will not all get through this together. Many of us surely will, but many of us just as surely will not.
When I consider how many of us are well and how many of us will get through this in good shape, my mind drifts to an odd verse in the prophet Amos:
Thus says the Lord: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed (3:12).
This verse is odd because it is prose in the midst of poetry, suggesting it is an intrusion. Nonetheless this verse, like much of Amos, concerns Samaria, the capitol city of Northern Israel. We are familiar with the confrontation the prophet had with the priest at the royal shrine of Bethel (7:10-17). Amos was accused by the priest there of conspiracy; the charge against the prophet distorted his message in order to make the accusation of conspiracy stick (7:11). The priest seeks to silence the prophet and his unwelcome message of coming disaster. He avers that such negative talk is not permitted in the sphere of the king, certainly not in the sanctuary of the king:
O seer, go flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom (vv. 12-13).
Amos, however, persists in his anticipation and in his utterance that big trouble is coming to Israel and to Samaria, whether or not the king wants to hear of it:
Therefore, thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line,
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land
The prophet anticipates death in war, confiscation of the land, and exile away from the land. He anticipated the undoing of all that royal Samaria believed to be an assured given.
It turned out, in fact, that the anticipation of the prophet was vindicated. In 722 BCE the army of Sargon, the Assyrian, came and routed the city, and deported leading citizens:
Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes (II Kings 17:5-6).
The vigorous royal-priestly stonewalling in Samaria and Bethel did not alter and could now slow historical reality that the prophet took as evidence of God’s governance of history.
What interests me in this odd verse, 3:12, is that Amos responds to the official line that “We will get through this together.”
We will get through the threat to Samaria together; Amos answers the illusionary assurance of the priest via the image of a shepherd and a sheep. Let Assyria be the lion; let Samaria be the vulnerable sheep. The shepherd seeks to rescue the sheep by pulling it out of the mouth of the lion. But all that he can pull out and rescue is “two legs” of the sheep and “a piece of an ear” of the sheep. That is all that is rescued! So says the prophet, it will be like that: Samaria will be saved from the Assyrians.
But all that will be rescued will be “the corner of a couch” or “the part of a bed;” otherwise all will be lost in the same way that the rest of the sheep will be lost to the lion. (Indeed archaeologists claim to have found a piece of an ivory bed in the ruins of the city, a sign of extreme luxury; see Amos 6:4.) But that is all. The notion that Samaria will be rescued from Assyria is an illusion. Or it is a denial that the capitol city will be destroyed by a force dispatched by YHWH. In prophetic horizon, the “we” that will get through this is a wee remnant, only two legs and the piece of an ear, the corner of a couch or part of a bed, nothing more.
The prophet speaks in imagery. The point is not a literal one. The point, rather, is to recognize that the cost of a disordered public life is inescapably very great. The cost cannot be denied or understated. Most of the sheep is lost; most of the house (palace) is done in. The priest in Bethel is lying when he says, “We will get through this together.” Because many sheep, many houses, many cities, many people will not “get through.”
Good liberal that I am, I am eager that President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act should succeed. But we should not be under any illusion. We should not engage in any denial. The truth is that the “we” that we will get through this together consists in those of us who are privileged and connected and, well, lucky. The “we” that survives in wellbeing is limited and not comprehensive.
It is important that this truth be told, acknowledged, and performed, even if the official mantra says otherwise.
It is surely the work of the faith community to be truth-tellers about those who have dropped out of the successful, rescued “we.” It is important that this other “we” of loss be remembered and taken with great seriousness. That of course is what Amos did. He engaged in lament for the loss that the priest wanted to deny:
Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:Fallen no more to rise,
is maiden Israel;
Forsaken her land,
with no one to raise her up
The prophet engaged in petition for his community in its helpless vulnerability:
O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!How can Jacob stand?
He is so small
O Lord God, cease, I beg you!How can Jacob stand?
He is so small (7:5)!
Eventually the prophet would engage in recovery and restoration; but not too soon.
So imagine the church as a venue of grieving and petition:
...Naming the lost, one by one, as long as is required;
...Advocating for those who have lost jobs and businesses;
...Lobbying for the “left behind” children who have not had the benefit of privilege, advantage, and technology in their families.
Unless we do that with some sustained intentionality — naming, advocating, and lobbying — we who “get through this together” will not long grieve or remember. We will not reallocate funds. We will, as soon as we can, return to the old “normal” that disregards the dead, forgets the lost, and neglects the left behind.
The church in its remembering must, I suggest, contradict the ubiquitous mantra, “We will get through this together.” Because many of us will not. While we get through this together, Amos holds up for us two legs and the piece of an ear. While we watch Amos’s poignant reminder to us, we might remember as well that later trope on a shepherd:
“Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it (Luke 15:4)?”
Eventually Amos will end in hope:
On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old
But not too soon. Before he does that, Amos will be in anticipation of the later imagery of Ezekiel:
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
Not too much credence should be given to “the fat and the strong” who will want to move on quickly to the old normalcy. The church lingers; it does not flinch at loss. It engages in no cover up or false assurances. It grieves. It prays. Belatedly it remembers promises and sets about to keep them.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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