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The Politics of Scripture

When Anointing One’s Head with Oil Becomes the Problem

A truly progressive society is one that is able to feel the wounds and pain of the most marginalized and excluded. Such a society’s task, consequently, is to heal and anoint the wounded. Perhaps, that task is better undertaken by embracing the work of mourning.

6:1 Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
   and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first of the nations,
   to whom the house of Israel resorts!
2 Cross over to Calneh, and see;
   from there go to Hamath the great;
   then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
   Or is your territory greater than their territory,
3 O you that put far away the evil day,
   and bring near a reign of violence?

4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
   and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
   and calves from the stall;
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
   and like David improvise on instruments of music;
6 who drink wine from bowls,
   and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
   but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
   and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Amos 6:1-7

Like Amos, who appears in the lectionary reading, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14), but am similarly troubled by those “who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:6). My contention is simply that society is increasingly losing the ability to grieve and mourn over the death and wounds of the weak.

As India celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule in August 2022, a colleague texted me, asking if I celebrated. I responded, “We are not celebrating.” My reaction came in the wake of the death of Indra Meghwal, a Dalit child, who was beaten (to death) by a dominant caste teacher in his school in the same week. What does independence from colonialism mean to Dalits and other marginalized communities in India and elsewhere if caste and other forms of dominance continue to persist in so-called postcolonial democracies?

In the absence of revolutions and reformations that privilege the weak, I often wonder about the irony of celebrating progress in the form of anniversaries and commemorations. As I reflect on the irony of celebrating progress, I recall Joseph Winters’ insightful observation in his book, Hope Draped in Black: “Because progress tends to function as a harmonizing category, it makes us less attuned and responsive to events, bodies, conditions, and losses that we cannot immediately make sense of, explain away, or integrate into a unified narrative” (29).

Winters’ analysis, by showing how unified narratives problematically evade wounded bodies, allows us to interrogate and mourn how the dead are disrespected. I therefore ask, critically reflecting on the pomp and glory associated with narrating 75 years of Indian independence, how is it that a state government decides to release on the same day a gang of men serving life sentences for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano? Bilkis Bano is a name and story to remember because she was a key witness in facilitating the investigation against a group of men who raped her and murdered several other Muslims (including Bilkis Bano’s relatives) in one of the most brutal hate crimes in modern India. In the effort to ascertain Bilkis Bano’s testimony, the bones of those murdered had to be dug out to verify the truth of her claim. And, indeed, the bones demonstrated that truth.

As I encounter Amos’ indictment of those who “anoint themselves with the finest oils,” I cannot erase from my memory the image of these murderers being welcomed by their supporters with something made with finest oils—sweets! Responding to the outrage caused by this feeding of sweets, a brother of one of the accused retorted, “People are saying, ‘They fed sweets to the convicts.’ Are we not allowed to celebrate?” In that question lies the weight of the problem of anointing oneself with oil while not grieving over inflicted wounds.

Amos’ juxtaposition of “anointing oneself with oil” and not “being grieved over the ruin [or “wound”—more on that soon] of Joseph” presents intriguing and urgently necessary exegetical insights and political theological possibilities. In his translation of and commentary on Amos 6:6 in an essay titled, “An Underappreciated Medical Allusion in Amos 6:6?” (Biblica 90, no. 4 (2009): 559–63), Eugene McGarry prefers the term “wound” rather than “ruin.” “Wound” is a most appropriate word not simply because it fits this essay’s argument that we are becoming a society in which we are increasingly losing the ability to grieve and mourn over the death and wounds of the weak.

In Jeremiah 8:22, the poignant question, “Is there no balm [oil] in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” is raised in reference to the wounds of the people. In other texts such as Isaiah 1:6, “wounds” and “oil” are connected as the prophet notes how “bruises and sores and bleeding wounds” fester and “have not been drained or bound up or softened with oil.” One also cannot forget the character of the Good Samaritan who “bandaged [the wounded traveler’s] wounds, treating them with oil” (Luke 10:34). McGarry (563) refers to these texts to observe that the neglect of woundedness is accentuated when one generally considers the healing property of oils. So much potential for healing and yet, there is the open neglect of the world’s wounds.

Part of the good fight, then, to go back to Winters, involves “becoming more open and vulnerable to the agony and torment of others” that necessarily “requires us to loosen, rather than tighten, our attachment to reassuring narratives.” If celebratory narratives “shield us from the unsettling work that mourning can accomplish” (203) then it appears that re-cultivating the ability to mourn over the death and wounds of the weak is urgent as ever.

A truly progressive society is one that is able to feel the wounds and pain of the most marginalized and excluded. Such a society’s task, consequently, is to heal and anoint the wounded. Perhaps, that task is better undertaken by embracing the work of mourning.

One thought on “When Anointing One’s Head with Oil Becomes the Problem

  1. Thank you so much for this deep and urgent call to hold a space for mourning so we annoint the ‘least’ in society.

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