Changing the World with Your Grief: Prophetic lament as the beginning of social activism

You will not solve the world’s ills. But does that stop you from doing anything at all?

My friend, Stephanie Long, started a blog series about using our voices to speak out against injustice and taking action to help those who are suffering. When she asked me to contribute, I dug into something I’ve wrestled with and still don’t know all the answers to, but I’m learning to be okay with the ambiguity—as long as it doesn’t give me a reason to be complacent or apathetic.

Head over to RedeemedForMore.com to see Stephanie’s writings and join the conversation.


image credit: Death to Stock

image credit: Death to Stock

Read “Changing the World with Your Grief: Prophetic lament as the beginning of social activism” on RedeemedForMore.com

A hurricane sweeps through the Caribbean and Southeastern United States, and most of us follow news sources which talk mainly about a few dozen American deaths, with a passing mention of more than 800 deaths and devastation in Haiti.

Thousands of children die every day from dirty water in underdeveloped areas around the world, and I am more distraught when my Internet service disconnects for two hours.

We drive our big trucks and SUVs around suburban shopping centers and lament the price of gas, while the widows and children making our cheap clothing in Southeast Asia are paid a fraction of a living wage and put up with 10+ hours in hazardous work environments.

Some of my friends and family don’t know about these common injustices because they’re insulated in our modern Western comforts. I can’t hold it against them, because I was, too, a few years ago. Some of my friends, who learned about the world’s ills and are concerned about them, want to make a change. They change their diet, their media consumption habits, their shopping, and they make me feel good when I join in their small revolutions against the indifference of general society. And we feel proud, knowing that we can solve the world’s ills by changing our behavior.

But we’d be wrong to think that’s all it takes.

The Prophets

The prophets still speak to us when they wrote about living among a people of closed minds and stubborn hearts. In the ancient Middle East, Ezekiel recounted his conversation with the divine: “The people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and obstinate” (Ezekiel 3:7).

Jeremiah wrote of humanity’s troubling relationship with reality: “‘Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear: Should you not fear me?’ declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” (Jeremiah 5:21-22).

Do we really have eyes to see and ears to hear if we’re so deluded by our distracting technologies or our lack of self-awareness? Have we lost sight of the unjust realities in our world because we’ve lost touch with the character and values of God?

Our world is in desperate need of good news and good action.

Didn’t Jesus himself, God incarnate, preach and embody the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Before we celebrate the time of God’s favor arriving in full, we must first recognize the ways in which his favor has been stifled by the world’s injustice: the poor are overwhelmed with bad news, prisoners and the blind remain locked up in their dark isolation, the oppressed see no hope of freedom.

Our world is in desperate need of good news and good action. But before we act, we join God in the wilderness, lamenting the brokenness.

A Call to Lament

The famine came, and the drought and the fires, and ancient Israel wasted away like a dump. For years, they’d been waiting for a change, for some sign of life amidst the turmoil and devolution, but all they got were more signs from the heavens that the land rejected them, no longer supported them. With dying grain, grapes, and olives, the agricultural economy collapsed. The animals died, too. When the land knows you’ve departed from the Creator, you can’t coax it back to life without going to the source.

“Wake up, you drunkards,” the prophet Joel instructed. Wail and weep and fall on your face, you failures of humanity. Your livelihoods have been scnatched from under you, and you can do nothing about it.

Where do you go when you can’t fix your children’s gnawing hunger, when your ancestors warned you of this, when disease and famine and armies crouch at your doorstep and leave you destitute?

You languish in grief because that is all you can do: mourn the loss of productivity, of drink, of food on the table for your emaciated family. The locusts came and ate up your life, and you can’t get it back. No human solutions exist. “Despair, you farmers,” the prophet said.

In the first chapter of the writings of Joel, there are no neat and tidy memory verses, no feel-good sentiments to put on coffee mugs in flowing script. This is not inspirational; this is undignified lament, and it is part of the whole story of humanity in its search for God in the darkness of malnourished people and societies.

No human solutions exist. “Despair, you farmers,” the prophet said.

There is no solution; there is only waiting, waiting for a day of judgment that reveals and refines, because that’s what conflict always does: it shows your true colors and you can’t hide anymore. There you are, the real you showing up for the world to see what you’ll do with yourself and your situation when the easy options are gone. You can’t solve the injustice and the desperation of your own life, or of others around you.

There you are, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. And for now, that is all you can do.

That first chapter of Joel leaves no advice or hopeful anecdotes, but instead, this: “To you, Lord, I call, for fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness” (Joel 1:19-20).

That desperate call is all you offer to the pale sky, wondering if the God you’re calling to even hears you or exists in the first place.

Not Powerless, Not Saviors

You will not solve world hunger or human trafficking. As many wells as we dig, there will still be communities with unsafe drinking water. The poor still experience the worst oppression of bureaucratic systems and refugees will still be cut off from resources and safety. You will not solve the world’s ills. But does that stop you from doing anything at all?

What is the last word in your quest for social justice, for bringing the kingdom of God to earth in powerful, transformative ways? Is it a word of your good intentions and your once-I-did-this story to feel good about yourself? Is it a word of you’ll-never-make-a-difference-so-why-even-try belittling from your coworkers or family?

We still need the voice of the prophets today, not because they promise everything will be okay in the end, but because they urge us to lean into the work despite the impossible odds.

There is a profound difference between knowing you’re not the world’s savior and making excuses to do no saving. “For I, the Lord, love justice,” and so shall we (Isaiah 61:8). The prophets of old came on the scene with a message burning in their chests, a message from God to reignite the people who grew lazy and apathetic. We still need the voice of the prophets today, not because they promise everything will be okay in the end, but because they urge us to lean into the work despite the impossible odds. We lay down our savior complexes and pick up simple kindness through humble action.

Yet before God looks for partners to go on rescue missions, he looks for someone willing to lament the pain and destruction with him, to weep with those who weep. He gently shakes us from our all-or-nothing fallacy: Do you see this unjust wasteland, do you feel the sadness I feel about this self-destructive humanity?

There is no quick, easy solution. Sometimes there is no long-term, sustainable one. Sometimes there is just you, weeping on a rock in the middle of the wilderness, and perhaps that is where you begin to see your healing and the world’s healing can happen.


Originally published on RedeemedForMore.com.

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