Part 1: Lament that Leads to Partnership in God’s Transforming Work
Note: In this ongoing series we reflect on the spiritual truths and principles that undergird the fight for racial justice, the Spirit that animates the fight and the spiritual practices that will sustain us in this very human struggle. No one post will be the full word or the last word, but taken together, diverse voices will seek to illuminate a spiritual path forward.
“Lament will not allow us to revert to easy answers. There is no triumphalistic and exceptionalistic narrative of the American church that can cover up injustice. There are no easy answers to unabated suffering. Lament continues.” – Soong-Chan Rah
Three days after my sabbatical began all hell broke loose in our country in response to the murder of George Floyd by a White police officer; I wasn’t sure if I should come out of sabbatical to address what was happening or stay in the place of rest to which God had invited me. I wrestled with the fact that even having a choice not to respond was an aspect of my White privilege.
In the end I chose to stay in sabbatical mode but every day I fought with myself and God about whether I had discerned well. Already caught in the throes of a global pandemic, the brokenness and fragility of our world was relentlessly exposed as we witnessed live footage of a White police officer pressing his knee into the neck of an immobilized Black man, listened to his heart-wrenching cries for help, fumed at the delay in arresting the officers who aided and abetted this crime, and watched the pain and destruction taking place in the aftermath.
As George Floyd’s death was added to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, and Daniel Prude in what many are characterizing as modern-day lynchings, I was glued to the television in a way that is very rare for me. It became increasingly difficult to sit idly by seeking inner peace. So I wrote. I did not publish but I wrote, because that is how I wrestle and seek to make sense of the senseless.
The first words to come were the simple words “I am sorry.” Sorry beyond words. Sorry beyond my ability to think profound thoughts. Sorry beyond all knowing. I wished I could look into the eyes of my Black and Brown sisters and brothers—in our communities and beyond—and simply say those words. How I have longed to sit in our familiar circle together with questions like “What is this like for you?” “How is all this affecting you and your family?” “Where is God for you in all of this?” “Where do we go from here?”
I longed to enter into the practice of lament as we have experienced it so many times together. And not just lament as a time to weep and wail and get our feelings out—as important as that is. But lament as a powerful practice that fosters intimacy with our God and with each other, that moves us forward in faith towards a prophetic vision, and that compels us to take right action in a world where so much is wrong.
The Power of Lament
Fortunately, our Christian faith and practice offers up the prayer of lament as a way of being with God, with ourselves and with each other in times of deep and incomprehensible loss, violence, and inhumanity. There are more than fifty Psalms of Lament in our Scriptures (more than any other genre) plus an entire book of our Bible called Lamentations. When we engage the practice of lament we shout or cry or whisper our most pointed interrogations to the God we know loves us and yet whose ways we don’t always understand.
But lament is more than mere catharsis. In the midst of our grief and brokenness and questions about how God might redeem all that is wrong between us, lament is powerful because we are addressing God directly. Rather than just talking amongst ourselves or brainstorming solutions before we fully understand the problem…rather than just talking to each other or shouting at each other…we are actually talking to God in the midst of our distress as the psalmist does in Psalm 44 —“Why do you sleep, O Lord? Why do you hide your face?”
Lament is powerful because we are telling it like it is; we are willing to be precise with our complaint, describing exactly what we are lamenting along with prayers asking specifically for what we desire to see happen. Standing in the middle of our desire and praying from that place in times like this takes a particular kind of courage because it takes us right out to the edge of our faith. What if God doesn’t do anything? What if God does something different than I expect? How do I even know if God is hearing me? What might this moment require of me?
Oftentimes we don’t ask for things to be different because we’re really not sure anything can change or get better. Instead we go numb and refuse to even talk to God about it. When we practice lament, we are actually taking a step of faith towards a God we believe exists, a God who loves us, a God we cannot fully comprehend and do not have in our back pockets. Even when the horror we are experiencing leaves us with the deepest kinds of questions, we approach our God anyway, saying with the first disciples, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The Language of the Unheard
Lament, practiced rightly, creates space for the voices of those who have suffered to speak and be heard. When injustice, sin, and wrongheadedness have been identified and can no longer be ignored, oftentimes the leader-types in the non-oppressed group want to appropriate (or, more accurately, misappropriate) the moment by offering up their own take on the situation, using it as a time to pontificate, appear insightful, or position themselves as saviors (often White saviors). In a subtle way (and without even realizing it) we may use it as an opportunity to shine. to be seen as successful and on top of things. No doubt there are good intentions fueling such activity, but when we grab the limelight and the leadership in these moments we inflict another kind of hurt; now in a more subtle way we rob others of the sense of agency and personhood that comes through having a voice.
In his detailed study of the book of Lamentations, Soong-Chan Rah points out that in our efforts to right wrongs, “we often believe our task is to speak for the voiceless. But maybe we need to follow the book of Lamentations and move the ones who suffer to front and center. The prophet-narrator of the book of Lamentations has much to say, but the real movement and progress is that we hear the voices of those who suffer…empowering those who suffer to find their voice. The movement from an advocate speaking on behalf of others to the sufferers speaking up for themselves offers hope to all who suffer.”1
We are looking forward to making this movement in future articles in this series.
A Word about Silence
“Silence is violence” has emerged as a significant message in current protests and it is true. When the dominant group (in this case White people) refuse to speak up and stand up for the rights of their Black brothers and sisters who have endured the knee of the White community on their necks, keeping them down and bringing about slow death—it is a form of violence. This kind of silence is violent because it signifies a lack of solidarity, an unwillingness to get involved, the turning of a blind eye towards injustice. This kind of silence is a form of collusion; when we do not speak up about sin and evil within the systems we are a part of, we are actually supporting that system through our presence and participation.
But silence can have other meanings as well.
Sometimes silence is an expression of humility—as in the humble posture of someone who doesn’t know very much about a topic listening to someone who does. In such moments, silence is an admission that there are things one doesn’t know or fully understand and in order to receive the gift of learning, one must be quiet. Sometimes silence means it is simply not your turn to talk—that someone else needs to talk—and if you don’t stop the flow of your own words, others will never be heard! And sometimes silence is the deepest kind of reverence for that which is too deep for words, realizing it would be another kind of violence to rush in with trite phrases and easy answers that would violate the moment.
Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak
Sometimes silence has to do with practicing the Biblical discipline of being quick to listen and slow to speak. Job’s friends would have been much better friends if they had talked less and listened more. I am experiencing this tension right now even as I write. I am choosing to speak in this moment because I want to stand and be in complete solidarity with my brothers and sisters of color in the fight for justice. I do not want to create more violence through my silence. [Those who participate with us in Transforming Community know we are not silent on the subject of racism and racial justice; we create space in each and every two-year Transforming Community to uncover these dark and difficult issues, addressing them as significant aspects of our spiritual transformation.] At the same time what I most want to do is put my hand on my mouth and repent in sackcloth and ashes. What I most want to do is be quiet and let the Holy Spirit groan with sighs too deep for words. I want to be with my brothers and sisters but I do not want to be like Job’s friends who threw a bunch of words at what Job was going through, completely missing what the moment called for.
This tension between “silence as violence” and silence as humility and reverence, listening and letting others speak, is a dynamic we must navigate together if we are to be in real relationships with one another. Those who have suffered do not necessarily want the dominant group—the oppressing group—to speak for them about their experiences. They want to bring out the truth of their own existence in their own words. Once we know we are with each other in the fight, it becomes a moment when those who have been hurt, oppressed and discriminated against need to speak and lead while the rest of us humble ourselves. This could look like handing over the microphone to those who haven’t had it and stepping aside to let them take the platform and even have control of the lament.
Let Us Examine Our Ways
Lament is powerful because it leads to confession. In Lamentations 3:40, for instance, those who are grieving terrible loss and violence make a powerful turn toward corporate confession: Let us examine our ways and test them; let us return to the Lord. Continuing to mine the depths of Soong-Chan Rah’s work on this subject, “Spiritual renewal emerges as God’s people engage in corporate confession of sin, and sincere repentance moves the community toward a changed and renewed life…Confession acknowledges our need for God and opens the door for God’s intervention. Confession in lament relies on God’s work for redemption.”2 Here we take responsibility for confessing personal sins and omissions but also the corporate sins of our unjust systems. “If individuals have contributed to a system of injustice, confession of a sinful social system must be offered to address sin in its proper context.”3
If lament is to be true it must lead us to deeper awareness as we reflect on questions like How did we get here? And why? We must cultivate an awareness of our history as Christians and how our American version of Christianity (in particular) has been complicit with racism from the earliest days of our country. As Jemar Tisby writes, “European colonists brought with them ideas of White superiority and paternalism toward darker-skinned people…they erected a society and a version of religion that could only survive through the subjugation of people of color. By surveying the church’s racist past, American Christians may feel the weight of their collective failure to consistently confront racism in the church. This should lead to immediate, fierce action to confess this truth and work for justice.”4
Then we are ready for the all-important question: How have I been complicit in the racial injustice of our past and our present? How have I benefitted? What is my part in making things right now?
As painful as these days have been, we are seeing hopeful signs that current public lament and protest may be leading us to lasting change—a moment after which things can never be the same again. Police reform and other kinds of systemic change are finally being considered and acted upon; this is a necessary outcome of lament. If our lamenting does not eventually carry us into confession that leads to reparative action, we may be missing the point of this powerful practice.
Lament in its fullness is prophetic in nature because we are speaking forth the mind of God on a particular topic. We are declaring, “What is happening here is wrong! This is not how God intended it to be! God’s vision for his children and for his world is more and better than what we are experiencing now.” The prophetic aspect of lament calls us to name sin for what it is, to repent and turn in a new direction. It positions us to participate actively and humbly in the coming of God’s kingdom as we pray, “Oh God, may it be so. May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven… AND in this specific aspect of our lives… as it is in heaven. Amen.”
Prophetic lament captures the pain, the injustice, and the suffering of our situation as well as declaring a WORD that points beyond destruction to right action—action that lays down clear tracks to run on toward racial justice, racial equality and shared flourishing for all humanity.
Partners in God’s Transforming Work
No matter how jaded and cynical we’ve become, if we are Christian at all we believe in a God who is in the business of transforming people and relationships, communities and cultures; this means that such honest confessions can and should be accompanied by expressions of faith and confidence in God’s power and intention to reconcile and redeem, to disrupt and eventually heal. Even a cursory reading of Scripture shows us that this kind of redemptive work is the very business God is involved in—which means that when we join with God, this is the kind of work we are joining.
Psalm 44 concludes with this faith-filled request to God—“Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your love.” Such a faith-filled prayer comes from recalling past experiences of God’s love, faithfulness, and redemptive work even in the midst of all that seems so unfixable. A spirituality of racial justice means we turn our hearts towards hope in God rather than merely trusting in what we ourselves can come up with. We acknowledge the rich partnership that exists between God and humankind, going all the way back to God’s mandate to the first man and the first woman to do good and fruitful things with all of God’s creation.
For some reason that’s hard to fathom right now, God chooses to partner—and even at times be limited—by us, his human creation. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to this reality in a complex statement containing this soaring truth: “Neither God nor man will individually bring the world’s salvation. Rather, both man and God—made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God, and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man—can transform the old into the new and drive out the cancer of sin.”5 Read that multiple times if you have to and then hear this: “By endowing us with freedom, God relinquished a measure of his own sovereignty and imposed certain limits upon himself.”6
I have no idea why God would limit God’s self in this way—especially in light of the mess we have made of things. For whatever reason, God chooses to co-create with us and now is a moment ripe with the possibility of partnering with God and each other to drive out the cancerous sin of racism on our way to healing and full recovery. Let us be good partners with God in his transforming work in this moment of our human history!
1 Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubling Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 179. | 2 Ibid., p. 130, 131. | 3 Ibid., p. 131,132. | 4 Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), p. 24. | 5 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), P. 133. Punctuation added for clarity.| 6 Ibid.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2020. Not to be used without permission.
ONE OF OUR OWN
With each post in this series we will highlight Transforming Community Alumni and the righteous actions they are taking on the journey towards racial justice.
David Bailey (TC15) is founder and director of Arrabon, a ministry that exists to cultivate a heart and imagination for Jesus, justice, and reconciliation. Arrabon’s goal is to equip Christian leaders and their communities with the resources to effectively engage in the work of reconciliation.
Urban Doxology is a ministry of Arrabon that exists to create worship music and cultures of communal worship that push through and transcend differences. Based in the racially and economically diverse neighborhood of Church Hill, Richmond, VA, the band evolved out of the Urban Doxology Songwriting Internship. It is UD’s prayer that the songs they sing and write will empower Jesus followers to continue in the journey of becoming a faithful presence seeking God’s joy and justice for their communities.
Click below to listen to A New Song of Lament from Urban Doxology, based on Psalm 10.