It was my first pregnancy. I was excited and I had told, well, everyone. When it ended abruptly a few weeks later, I had to go around and untell everyone. I found myself on the receiving end of all the “at leasts.” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” What? How does that help? I didn’t know if I could stay pregnant, and besides, I had all the hope and expectation building for that pregnancy. “Jesus will raise your baby for you.” I wanted to raise that baby, but okay. “At least if this had to happen it was early.” I get that the later it gets the harder it is physically and emotionally, but can we sit with my pain here and now?
These “at leasts” were people distancing themselves from my pain and loss because we as a society don’t know how to sit with people in grief. We don’t want to hear about chronic illness with no cure. We don’t want to admit that control is an illusion; life is unpredictable and often brutal; and for every moment of intense joy we experience, there’s at least one of intense sorrow as well. Only a few friends knew how to sit with me and just let me be how I needed to be.
I grew up in conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist circles, but it was in a Psalms class in seminary where the Psalms of lament first struck me. I’d read them before but had no framework to attach them to, so they didn’t make much of an impression. With a pseudo-theological framework of prosperity and positivity, even in those churches that didn’t claim to be part of the prosperity gospel in name, there was a general feeling that you didn’t talk about your struggles. To be a Christian was to be blessed, therefore you weren’t supposed to have big difficulties.
Sarah Bessey recently wrote on Facebook, “But I grew up in a faith tradition that so highly valued ‘our confession’ that people could hardly name a thing for what it was: you weren’t sick, you were ‘coming down with a healing, bless God.’ Which is super unhealthy and can be weaponized against us.” All sickness whether physical or mental was viewed as something to be healed. If you weren’t healed, had you enough faith? There was no room to ask what God was doing even though the Psalms show us that this type of questioning is a normal part of a relationship with her. (Side note: I bet if we regularly used female pronouns for God, people would get comfortable really fast with questioning God. Does God really have the expertise to be doing what God is doing?)
The writers of the Psalms frequently both ask God questions and blame God for inaction. Almost one third of the Psalms can be categorized as Psalms of lament—a significant percentage that ought to make us realize lament is not just allowed for people of faith: it is required.
Without lament we don’t have a vehicle for repentance and we can’t move into shalom. We become stuck trying to prop up the swiftly crumbling facade that everything is okay. And this is one of the ways in which church reflects culture reflects church. America’s rugged individualism belies the necessity of community and interconnectedness, stranding each of us on our solitary islands, waving to each other and claiming everything is just fine. Better than fine. We’re #blessed.
In the midst of a pandemic that ought to force us to rethink almost everything, what do those in the culture most closely identified with the pseudo-theology that is American Evangelicalism do? They go out and demand everything be opened. They trend #faithoverfear as though those are mutually exclusive. And it shouldn’t escape notice these are white evangelicals, who are either unwilling or incapable of confronting the endemic sin of racism that puts people of color in jobs they can’t quit and thus at higher risk of experiencing the ravages of this disease. As death tolls in some cities show 70-80% of the deaths are among the black and latinx populations, white evangelicals and conservatives run amok in our streets demanding access to restaurants and haircuts, free refills and movie theatres even as healthcare workers end their own lives—lost to the battle they couldn’t win, overwhelmed by a tide of deaths they could not staunch.
Our culture has always been willing to sacrifice the lives of those we deemed less. As long as this pandemic continues to affect people of color at higher rates, the less this event will directly impact white lives and families. History rhymes with itself because we as the dominant culture–as the white church–haven’t learned lament collectively or individually. Because of this, we have no framework to process or learn from this global event.
I can’t help but wonder, if we could access lament as a culture and a church, could we change what has become an inevitably partisan clash of ideals? Even among the more progressive-leaning churches and denominations, racial justice remains an enormous blindspot. We’ve not learned repentance because we haven’t learned to lament the actions of our ancestors. And without lament, we cannot bear to look in the face of what was done in our names. But until we do, we cannot right the wrongs and heal this nation.
Lament isn’t just about mourning the things that happen to us and to our friends: lament is a vehicle for repentance. Without lament we can’t get to justice. We need lament for our own sins as well as for the things that have happened to us.
Putting lament back into our framework gives us both a place to hang our current experience of collective grief and suffering and a way to work backwards through our history to lament the sins of our ancestors and our ongoing complicity with systemic racism. Only through lament can we discover how to repent and move towards justice. And only through lament can we discover the depths of love that lead us to work for true shalom.