Today through Sunday (in many Protestant churches), Christians have the opportunity to celebrate Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day and Día de los Muertos. While these days are an opportunity to remember and honor those who have died, they also, if we are willing, provide an opportunity for the more public work of grief – lament.
Lament is grief given voice. It is, writes Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, “dangerous, restless speech.” It is restless because it calls domination systems into question. It is dangerous because it refuses to settle for the way things are and demands change.
“‘Violence is the ethos of our times,’ wrote theologian Walter Wink.”
The Bible is full of lament. It was integral to Israel’s relationship with God. Israel lamented communal as well as personal disasters. God’s people complained, mourned, wept and cursed. Forty percent of the Psalms are cries of lament. The book of Lamentations is, as its name suggests, almost entirely lament. Job is full of grief given voice.
The Old Testament prophets use lament to convey their messages. Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, grieves: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? Oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (8:18-9:1).
Jeremiah demands that the people of Judah stop pretending that nothing is wrong, stop turning away from the blood and the stench, stop ignoring the voices of the wounded and oppressed, stop silencing those who testify to the wrongs that have been done them. Scholars suggest that the book of Jeremiah, while addressing the people before Babylonian exile, was compiled during exile. Jeremiah weeps for destruction, for dismemberment, for injustice. He cries that it is time for public lament; time to call the wailing-women, the public mourners:
“Consider, and call for the wailing-women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. . . . ‘Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares’” (9:17-21).
Today in the United States of America, death constantly stares at us through our windows. It has entered our palaces. It has cut off the children. It is time for public lament; it is past time for people of faith to raise our voices, weep at injustice and demand change. We are approaching another anniversary of the slaughter of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We’ve just marked one year since the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in this country. In the month of August alone, 53 people died in mass shootings.
“Violence is the ethos of our times,” wrote theologian Walter Wink. “It is the spirituality of the modern world. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace” (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination).
“Lament is grief given voice.”
Hate speech fills the air. Hate in response to violence will only bring more violence, and violence in response to hate will only bring more hate. We need lament. Lament is a revolutionary act. It is vital if we want to change what is wrong. We must face the pain of the needless loss of human life, of the daily threats especially to black, brown and transgender bodies. Lament lingers with the realities of shattered lives. It refuses to let the next news cycle erase the pain or the need for change.
Lament is a powerful means of dealing with grief and injustice. We need to cry; we need tears to flow, bodies to rock. We need to express our anger. The nature of lament is profoundly spiritual and profoundly political. Lament ensures that questions of justice are asked. Lament makes clear that things are not OK. But it doesn’t stop there; lament suggests that what is wrong can be changed. Lament insists that we get involved in the changing.
When oppressive systems and ideals – systemic racism, generational oppression, institutionalized poverty and the seductive promises of violence (that might makes right, that war brings peace and that the ends justify the means) – become the essence of daily life, we must raise our lament. We must call for change.
When bombs are being sent in the mail, when hate-filled humans have unfathomably easy access to weapons of slaughter, when lies and vitriolic speech spew from the mouths of our elected leaders with the unquestioned support or silent consent of an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals, when migrants seeking safety and freedom from oppression are treated worse than dogs, when religion is used to justify evil, when another black mother weeps at the loss of a son, when hate in America murders a Holocaust survivor – my God!
My God, we must not be silent. We must weep, we must join our voices with the wailing women until we are heard – and until change happens. Lament, as a public act of grieving and truth-telling, is also a public act of hope because lament demands change.
Jesus stands in a rich tradition of lament. We read in the Gospels: “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’” (Luke 19:42).
Jesus laments for a city ruled by oppression and abusive power. He uses lament to confront the domination systems of his time. He shows with word and action that things must change.
“Lament is a revolutionary act.”
Lament is central to the Bible, and it has shown itself to be essential for change throughout Christian history. While most of us can readily name leaders of lament – like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk and many more – we must not underestimate the power of those whose names we will never know: those walking to the sea for salt, those gathered in Tiananmen Square, those crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, those gathered in solidarity in march after march after march, all those weeping with voice and body that that the system is broken and will no longer go unchallenged.
Now, we must take up their mantle. Lament occurs when injustice is intolerable and change is worth the cost. While leaders are important, a gathered crowd sharing a voice of pain has moved people – indeed, countries – from numbness to action again and again.
Very soon our ritualized days of mourning will have ended, but our need for lament has only begun. We cannot let violence and hate win. Within each of us is tremendous capacity. We have the capacity for great cruelty and violence; and we have the capacity for compassion and peace. We must sound our lament loud enough and long enough that we are able to call ourselves and each other out of fear and violence into our capacity to love, to work for justice and to create peace.