On Lament

I heard a co-workers story the other day: about how he, as a bi-racial adolescent in Chicago, was once picked up by the police. Together with his friends they were taken to another neighborhood, a neighborhood he knew he should never enter. He wasn’t involved in gangs but he wasn’t safe in this place, due to his own neighborhood and skin color. And I don’t mean safe the way people often use it nowadays, to say they don’t feel comfortable, or they might face memories or opinions that hurt. I mean he wasn’t safe because he would get physically hurt. Safe like it’s always meant.

The police dropped him off, after picking him and his friends up for no ostensible reason, and announced to anyone walking by where these kids were from, as my co-worker and his friends began running back to safety.

In the circles I frequent, which include many Christians, I continue to hear the need to lament. This seems an overly literary or bygone word, though it has deep roots in what Christians point toward as holy writ: one of the books in Scripture is entitled Lamentations. The psalms, which I read perhaps more than anything outside the stories of Jesus, boil and bubble with lament.

Yet, the terminology of lament, as I hear it after hearing stories of abuse of power, of someone being jailed after going nine miles over the speed limit, seems to encompass two main ideas: grief and repentance. The former we know from therapists and counselors, and we know we must grieve after experiencing loss or terrible news, and this grief is a process (with five stages if you’re so inclined). The latter is another religious word, and while it means a turning, I’ve only ever heard it to mean a turning away from what is hurting you and others and toward something good. Today, the dictionary says repentance is a similar feeling, but when Jesus came walking through Galilee and told people to repent and believe the good news, the first part of that exhortation meant to change. To act differently.

But back to lament. It certainly includes the idea of grief, and it may include repentance. Yet, it points to something beyond both of these. Perhaps the most famous poem on lament is attributed, in scripture, to an ancient king of Israel and quoted by Jesus a thousand years later as he died:

My God, my god, why have you forsaken me? / Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? / O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Jesus only quotes the first line, but in a culture where memorization was still the primary way stories were passed, the first line was enough to evoke the whole poem (which goes on for some time beyond my quote).

If this is lament, it strikes to the core of our fragility and capacity to be hurt. It encompasses grief, yet extends beyond into a painful tension: suffering under the auspices of a good and powerful god. The next lines of the poem:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. / In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. / To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

This strikes to the heart of critiques on religious belief: how can a good and powerful god allow this? For those of us who were suckled on logic and empiricism, who learned in basic argument that those in power should stop any suffering they see, we are faced with two options: either God does not exist as we conceive of God and doesn’t have the strength (or the kindness) we claim, or God does not exist altogether. Wouldn’t we do better with the power, armed with our 21st century liberal view of love and care for those hurting?

To which I believe, these ancient writings known as scripture say, “Now we are getting somewhere.”

The movement, in our human-centered age, is to place ourselves at the center of events and whatever happens around us. Think of it: thousands of years ago, a sacrifice to the gods meant they were at the center, perhaps capricious and moody, but they might be appeased by a little burnt meat, at least enough to help the crops to grow. This idea is laughable now, and liable to get you in trouble with animal control for your cruelty. But the gods were at the center of the story, and we had smaller parts.

Today, we’ve kicked the multiple gods to the curb and settled on one (though various religions each claim a different one) or none at all. Yet, we experienced an interesting development about 500 years ago, on our way to this moment. Ronald Rittgers, in the book The Reformation of Suffering, explains how Christian missionaries, especially Protestants, began focusing on the sovereignty of God as they faced communities with doubts and heartlessness, though probably little outright and outspoken atheism. God’s sovereignty, these missionaries claimed, is enough to see us through crises with consolation.

In other words, suffering doesn’t sell.

(You may be wondering how this puts humanity at the center, if we’re focused on the sovereignty of God. Patience. We lovers of literature like nothing more than irony, especially when you must wait for it.)

God as sovereign means that suffering comes about when humans mess up and muck around, and this is often true enough. We inflict heavy damage on each other, and I write in the midst of a global pandemic, where the suffering of a nation is largely dependent on the ability of those in power to protect and guide them through this crisis. The United States is not faring well.

Moreover, the past month has shown us the suffering we inflict on one another, especially through the systems we have either created or continued, and we’re beginning to see how they benefit those who are white, straight, and, as always, male.

Of course we do inflict heavy damage on each other, but this is a “free will” argument, and it comes up tragically short in light of the suffering we experience and see around us. Who is responsible for earthquakes and tornadoes? For tsunamis? Hurricanes?

At the very least, we must acknowledge (and holy scripture does), that all of creation is wracked and marred by the cosmic consequences of our brokenness and messed up lives. Though, we don’t see the easy connection between stealing from someone and a tornado. We can’t forget that humans did see this connection hundreds and thousands of years ago. But we’ve moved past the cosmic effects of our guilt.

Without this cosmic effect, this idea that creation is suffering alongside us, God does not need to be over all creation — sovereign — as those in the Reformation insisted he was. He simply needs to be able to atone for our sins: the unkind words I said and the — well, most of our sins have to do with words, right? We’re not murdering and rarely stealing, and we live pretty good lives.

So, we need a God who can forgive us our unkind words and, perhaps while he’s at it, coach us up to our full potential. That’s part of our problem, too, in our therapeutic world: we’re not developed or mature enough. We need someone to make our lives better. Help us stop saying those bad words when someone cuts us off on the road, and help us become our full selves.

God as counselor.

As we removed the cosmic consequences of our brokenness, we lessen and reduce the weight of our sins, and our great and sovereign God becomes a divine counselor. He can show us how to make amends and live a better life. This is not to say counselors are not helpful, and not to say that God cannot guide us toward healthier ways of living.

Rather, it’s to claim our un-articulated belief: God exists to make our lives better.

When suffering does come our way, which for me as a white and middle-class American, is rare, this is at odds with our divine buddy-counselor (and at odds with the God who is powerful and loving, which we probably still partially believe). This cognitive dissonance either points us back toward the Reformation injunction of “grin and bear it,” because suffering doesn’t sell, or we find ourselves saying at best something ludicrous and mindless, or at worst cruel and patently moronic sayings.

We tell people God only gives them what they can handle, so this person must be able to handle a lot (I’ve never heard someone grateful of how much they can handle in the midst of suffering, because God gave them so much, but apparently it’s a nice sentiment to tell others). We tell people God is using the suffering to develop their lives and, one would suppose, give someone a debilitating illness or the death of a child so they can lead developed and full lives. This is God as buddy-counselor, who simply wants us to reach our full potential, and it’s devastating in action.

Over the past 500 years, we’ve reduced our need for God, which always means we reduce God. If we become like what we worship, and we worship a reduction of God, we can act no better than that when trouble comes.

But I was writing about lament. You see, lament keeps God in the driver’s seat, frustratingly so. Lament, as we see it practiced in ancient kings, poets, prophets, and a messiah, is about a divine give-and-take with God. It does not rush to answers or even reduce answers about suffering and evil. Lament carries a protest sign to the royal court, and keens and cries, and trusts it’s heard.

Lament carries a protest sign to God.

For on some level, while we may be complicit in the pain we feel, and we won’t carry a protest sign without, in some way, causing the problem in the first place: the pain and suffering in this world seem to go well beyond whatever divine redistribution needs to happen after what I said when I couldn’t get the boards to line up on my latest home project. Lament is sorrow, but it is also protest. This world is not right, and shouldn’t a good and loving God make it more so?

The Bible does a very poor job of theodicy, or the vindication of God by explaining the problem of evil. At least, it does a poor job from a modern lens of philosophical, ontological, and rational thought. Instead, we see that the problem of evil happens in relationship between God and humanity. We know we don’t experience evil as punishment or redress from what we said or did, and suffering does not fall on us based on the evils we (or our parents) committed. This is clear in the psalms, and it’s clear in perhaps the oldest book in the Bible — Job, and clear in more recent writers of the New Testament.

Instead, these holy writs move us to a place where the problem of evil is one to which we respond ethically and spiritually, both working to overcome evil and crying out for evil to be made right. We see that the protest and relationship between frustrated humanity and their Creator, while not the point of evil, is part of the remedy. Protesting evil through lament is part of what we are called to do.

We have forgotten this. Instead, we either grin and bear it or offer empty platitudes.

The effect of this, as Rittgers points out, is that, “in the the (very) long run the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.” That is, when we don’t allow protest to the divine, our faith becomes sallow and thin, untethered from our experience. Our spiritual response to evil should have shades (or mimic) of what Jesus quotes while hanging on the cross. Otherwise, we find ourselves either minimizing the brokenness around us until we finally experience the true weight of it, at which point the whole construct of faith topples like a house of cards in a breeze.

For in the end, the closest the Bible comes to explaining evil ontologically doesn’t come very close at all. We have, I suppose, the snake in the garden. This seems to be the working-out of personal guilt and brokenness, but it hardly answers how the snake got there in the first place. And we have Job, who suffers greatly and his friends try to convince him of what he’s done wrong to deserve this. In his end, we get no answer about why evil happens but we see who is at the center of the story. God tells Job that humans are not at the center: God is at the center of the story, and it’s about God, and we get to play a part. Of course, the apostle Paul touches on this when he writes that the struggle for those of this faith is not against flesh and blood, but against “rulers of the darkness” and “spiritual wickedness.” As if a cosmic war were raging and we had part in one of the battles, and our supply lines were cut and we couldn’t quite understand why.

And so, we lament. The supply lines are cut and we see only a sliver of what happens, without any clear explanation of why. Only, we must stay in contact with the story. So we lament, experiencing the sadness and brokenness of the world around us, crying and grieving it. Yet, lament also means we get to writing our protest signs, and we carry it to God’s royal court to ask why things aren’t right. Or, to continue the war metaphor: we should into the microphone that we need air cover, and we don’t know why it isn’t here yet, and we don’t know who’s in charge over there. Does he want to get us killed?

This is not simply the best we can do, as if we’re shrugging our shoulders and don’t know what more to do. This is part of what we’re called to do, to shout and stomp and call for the air cover, because we’re dying here, and to keep standing on our small piece of ground and demanding justice (fighting for it, after all). I think of the story, likely apocryphal, of the rabbis who gathered together after the Holocaust and first concluded God could not exist, and then went to worship. This is lament, and it is the only way to bring our full selves to the pain and suffering around us: demanding and cry and yet remaining in relationship. My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?

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