On Sunday evening someone asked me if I got my “shout on” in church that day and I had to quickly tell them that 1) I am not the shouting type but, more importantly, 2) In the wake of the Mike Brown murder, Sunday was supposed to be day of lament, and we missed our cue. I attended two church services and neither lamented nor brought up Mike Brown. Instead they conducted business as usual, singing the same hymns that people like and preaching the homilies and sermons, preferring shouts of praise and personal affirmation to communal lament which is what, increasingly, our community needs.
On Sunday morning “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” was a hard song to sing particularly when we arrived at the refrain, “He has done great things.” It’s not that I don’t believe God has done great things but it was hard for me to belt those words out when 565 miles away from Atlanta the people of Ferguson were openly mourning and protesting the senseless death of Mike Brown. When the preacher at the second church I attended focused on Romans 8:31, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” I shuddered to think how such a text would sound to the people of Ferguson, Missouri who may be hard pressed to say or believe that given their current circumstance. Communally such a message doesn’t make sense in light of Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and the scores of other young black men who were senselessly and mercilessly killed. For this we must lament.
Lament has been conspicuously missing from our churches—and not just black churches. In a Sojourners article entitled, The American Church’s Absence of Lament,” writer Soong-Chan Rah cites Glenn Pemberton’s “Hurting with God” which states that “lament constitutes 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, lament makes up 13%, the Presbyterian hymnal 19%, and the Baptist hymnal 13%.” And it’s not just what we sing in church but what we hear outside of church, a glance at both the Billboard Hot Gospel and Gospel Airplay charts reveal that praise songs dominate the charts. “Every Praise,” “Amazing,” “Say Yes,” all do well to attune us to praise in our daily lives but they fail to engage us in worship on a holistic level. This continuous cycle of praise creates a vacuum in the life of the believer which is capable of hollowing out the true self and ignoring lived experiences that are anything but catalysts for praise. To be clear, praise is a good and Godly thing, but it is a part of a cycle in worship where lament should precede it.
Lament Binds the Community and the Individual
In “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explores two negative implications of the loss of lament, loss of genuine covenant interaction and stifling of the question theodicy. When we privilege praise and doxology we break down genuine covenant interaction with one another because we only give voice to celebrations of joy and well-being which doesn’t represent reality. When praise is what we do and only what we do, we implicitly silence those who may live in a continuous cycle of lament and shut them out of the space. Creating space for lament opens us up to truer dimensions of community that represent, more fully, our lived experience individually. But when we fail to detach ourselves from our habitual praise for long enough to engage in communal lament we end up in a space as problematic as the systemic oppression for which we must lament at this time. Shouting Sunday after Sunday can stifle the cries of those who are hurting and know nothing of a shout or praise and this can sever us from community. Now, more than ever, we must not mask ourselves from the harsh reality of the world but mold ourselves to it and press into the lament so that we can truly live in community and heal our land. Furthermore, our lament doesn’t just help us to connect better in covenant community but also in our covenant relationship with God. Of this Brueggemann says,
“Where there is lament, the believer is able to take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith. But where the capacity to initiate lament is absent one is left only with praise and doxology.”
Responsible faith is key. This is the faith that trusts God with not only our praise but our lament. It is the faith that forces us to be critically engaged with God and not fear repercussion because God wants us to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind. That should indicate that sometimes our communication and engagement with God will be risky, but that is what happens when you bring your whole self to the altar. Second to this commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, is the commandment that you, “shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Part of that loving is lamenting with our neighbors. Many of us are at a distance from the community of Ferguson but we are no less responsible for sharing their pain and standing in solidarity with them. From where we are we must lament and keep our eye on the tragic vision(s) that are visiting us day after day through Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner and the scores of other young black men who are being mercilessly killed on an almost weekly basis. At the rate that our community is suffering violence we can’t do drive-by prayers or quickly remove ourselves from lament but we must sit in it as long as our brothers and sisters may be in it.
Lament Challenges the Status Quo and Promotes Justice
Brueggemann’s second negative implication of the loss of lament is the stifling of the question of theodicy. Why does God allow suffering and evil in the world? This is the question of theodicy. Sometimes we choose not to ask those questions, settling for “But God is in control” and squelching any desire we may have to shake our fists and cry out. But shaking our fists and asking God “Why?” and “How long?” is a legitimate response and well within our rights as believers. To do so is to follow the example of many throughout the Psalms—lament is the largest category of the Psalms. Brueggemann points out that the lament Psalms are a complaint that point out four things:
Things are not right in the present arrangement
They need not stay this way but can be changed
The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable
It is God’s obligation to change things
When we look at it is this way we should find ourselves in the footsteps of our brothers and sister in Ferguson who are actively lamenting the death of Mike Brown and the pervasive destruction of black bodies. Their protests against the foreboding law enforcement that are treating them like sheep being lead to the slaughter is an active lament. The community of faith of all stripes can and must lament tragedies such as Mike Brown especially when we are at a distance and out of reach of lending tangible assistance. We must acknowledge when things aren’t right in the present arrangement of the world, know that they need not stay this way, not accept them in this way and believe in God’s obligation to change things—which also rests in our responsibility to change things as well. Justice is what many of us are seeking in the case of Mike Brown and lament is justice-making work because it makes us active voices and critics of injustice in ways that praise alone cannot do. Questions of justice are questions for the throne of God if you believe God is concerned about justice. And, lest I be remiss, questions of justice–such as those surrounding the Mike Brown case and similar cases–are not just to be asked by the black church. Non-black churches have a responsibility to lament for the lives of young black men too just as they lament for small children in Palestine, little white missing children and so on, so forth; particularly if they are reaching toward the kingdom of God.
Lament As Sustained Practice in Worship
Our lament is not a drive-by prayer as part of an order of worship but a sustained time of passionate complaint that can either be addressed to God against our neighbor or addressed to God against God. In doing this we are using responsible faith to engage with the God in whom we have put our trust. This doesn’t imply that the individual waging the complaint has lost faith and confidence in God or doesn’t trust God—although in some situations that may be the case—it actually undergirds faith, confidence, and trust in God. The composition of lament in the Psalms show us that the petitioners trust in God, have confidence in God’s ability to help, and give reasons as to why God should help.
It’s easy for us to crowd the church house Sunday after Sunday, ready to jump, stomp, and shout until we go hoarse in praise of all God has done for us but we must get into the hard work of lament for our community. With the amount of tragedy in the world every Sunday can’t be about shouting lest we lose sight of what’s really going on. As Brueggemann concludes “The Costly Loss of Lament” he points out that Israel’s cry mobilized Yahweh to action. Exodus 2:23-25 tells us,
“After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
We, as black people, know the Exodus narrative all too well and we know what it is to live out an Exodus experience. Maybe it is time to embody the narrative again in terms of Israel’s history of crying out to the God they knew was supposed to be for them when they were living in a situation that made God seem against them. Indeed it is time for us to return to lament to bind ourselves together in genuine covenantal community with each other and with our God.
Let us lament for Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and every person whose lives were taken by the hands of injustice.