I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, praying, reading, and talking with others surrounding the recent events related to Ferguson. I find myself conflicted, sad, angry, and perplexed. People are all over the spectrum when it comes to their thoughts about race in America and questions of justice. How are we called to come together when there is such a divide? How do we lead well at such a time as this?
The Call to Lament
I decided to revisit the biblical passage Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) The context is interesting. Amidst the pleas for justice and for the people to seek God, there is a a call that goes out in the city for “those skilled in mourning to lament.” (Amos 5:16b, CEB).
The Message puts it this way: “Go out into the streets and lament loudly! Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom! Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’ Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces. Enlist everyone in the general lament.”
Who are those in our culture, our city, and our nation who are skilled in lament? If the idea of going out into the streets and wailing loudly seems odd or “over the top” to you, it’s because most of us born and raised in the U.S. are not taught to lament. It’s a skill that is very counter-cultural and even uncomfortable for many of us.
Denial and the Lost Art of Lament
Kathleen O’Conner says in her book Lamentations & The Tears of the World that “behind the wealth and power of the United States hide despair and a violent culture of denial that drains our humanity” [pg. 5]. We are more prone to numb the pain, exert our power, use our wealth, or stoically rely on academic research to provide answers than we are to lament.
The danger for people who do not lament is that their energy, their pain, their hurt still goes somewhere. The result is often violence, acting out, or destructive behaviors. I’m not surprised to see looting, protests, and violence with what has happened in Ferguson because those are things that happen in the absence of lament, in the absence of pain being expressed and heard. A nation not skilled at lamenting will act out the hurt somehow.
Lament is Humanizing and Healing
Lament begs for someone to pay attention, to notice, to see what is happening. Lament exposes wounds so that they may be healed.
Lament is the language of poets and artists; it is a common song of psalmists and prophets. Lament offers no theological “Good N’ Plenty’s” and no easy answers. Lament is naming the pain of a past or present experience. It is a way to express doubt and fear, anger and resentment. Lament sees what is horribly wrong in our world. It gives dignity because it gives voice.
Lament is the place we ask God the hard questions–unedited. And God listens.
Lament Leads to Compassion and Community
Kathleen O’Conner points out that “Denial of our own pain blocks our capacity to perceive and take into our being the afflictions of others.” We may even “callously disregard their suffering because it frightens us too much or because we do not perceive our connections to them” [pg. 92]. The only way we can be compassionate to the suffering of others is to learn the language of lament for ourselves and for our world.
Lament is the way of reconciliation and the way to authentic community.
Suffering knows no bounds. We cannot tell others what to feel. Giving space to lament is allowing people to express the very real suffering and pain they are experiencing without judging and without comparing. Compassion means to feel or suffer with another person — at their pace; to be with them where they are at. Lament is choosing to be present and attentive to the other.
There are a lot of things we may not understand about what is happening in our nation or about what Ferguson has stirred up in the hearts of so many. Yet it is very clear–people are hurting. People are grieving. The pain is real, and the cry for justice must be heard. It is time to lament. It is time to recover this lost art for the sake of ourselves and our world.
The Skill of Lament Takes Practice
Like any skill, the way to learn is to practice. Lamenting is how we begin to take action. May we take up this art as those called by God. May we raise a voice of resistance to whatever goes against God’s design for a loving and peaceful world.
May we consider ourselves enlisted for the work of lament. May we pay attention and see the pain of others.
And may God hear our cries and let justice roll down like waters.
Kathleen O’Conner, Lamentations & The Tears of the World. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2002.