Lament and Creating Justice

The prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt

A Year for Lamentation

What a year this has been. In January, the Hong Kong protests were news. That same month, bushfires in Australia killed millions of animals. Later, the House impeached President Trump, and the Senate acquitted him. In Yemen, a civil war broke out. Then the pandemic hit, George Floyd was killed, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted. Hurricanes and fires destroyed wilderness and devastated communities. Kobe Bryant died, as did John Prine, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and others. We are reeling. Lament is a totally appropriate response.

The term “lament” may bring up images of professional mourners wailing and carrying on as they stumble along behind a casket. Beside them, loved ones proceed more quietly, allowing others to cry for them as they hide their broken hearts. But though professional wailers have been used in certain places at certain times, lamentation belongs to the bereaved.

How Do We Mourn

There are many ways to mourn, some demonstrative and some not. Yet the extreme emotional displays that are part of lamentation have their place. When we give ourselves over to grief, our pain may ease sooner than when we resist. A devastating sadness in response to the death of a loved one honors the dead, for our tears prove that the deceased mattered, that her life had value. Also, as Ann Suter explains in her introduction to Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond, lamentation “seeks to mend the fabric which had been torn by loss, and to reconcile those close to the dead to their loss.” [1]

Mending hearts and spirits, reconciling ourselves to what is, may be the point of grief. After a loss, we strive to build a life from what is left, to find acceptance and move forward. In his well-known prayer, which starts out “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” [2] Reinhold Niebuhr implies that, to reach a state of acceptance, we must uncover serenity. To do that, we must mourn.

Acceptance

While acceptance may not be the best term for what is sometimes thought of as the last stage of grief, and though no stage in this journey of grieving is ever finished, if we do not find some measure of peace with the reality of our life and our loss, we will get stuck in anger and despair.

Sometimes we imagine that the rage that can rise up in us during those first, tender moments of loss, make us brave. They do not. They make us foolhardy.

Courage, the second part of Niebuhr’s prayer, comes after the serenity to accept what we cannot change. Then a true courage may emerge from within us, one that does not lash out in pain, but faces the injustice of a broken world and stands up to evil. Change is never guaranteed, but if we can find enough serenity to lament our loss, we may be able to move beyond a reactive fury. In the peace that lies beyond vengeance, we may discover a courage that seeks kindness and healing instead of revenge. True courage gives us the strength to build a more just world from the ashes of our pain rather than to create more ashes.

In this way, we make meaning out of meaninglessness.

The prophet Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt

Strength Out of Lament

In her essay about lament, Rebekka A. Klein points out that death and the other evils we suffer shatter our belief in an ordered and purposeful world. When we experience a great loss, we struggle to uncover meaning in our suffering. More than the loss itself, Klein writes, more than the suffering we feel in the face of our loss, it is this “abyss of meaninglessness” that “provokes and warrants lament.” [3]

But that is not necessarily the end of the story. An honest and expressive grief can lead to healing, and healing brings us the courage to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose. Despair need not consume us for the rest of our life. The courage we need to make changes in the world is the same courage we need to make changes in ourselves. In the beginning, we lament because in the frenzy of our emotion, we can do nothing else, yet if we give ourselves up to lament, we will gain a new self.

The Ultimate Powerlessness

That’s because, as we let go of control, we begin to let go of our pain. We move from shock and rage to the emotion that lies underneath, the sadness, fear, confusion. The world may be unfair, but it is our world, even so. Eventually, we will find our strength again.

In Fredrik Backman’s novel, Britt-Marie Was Here, a young man named Sami is murdered. Backman portrays Sami as flawed, but noble and loyal. He works hard to provide a stable home for his younger siblings after their father deserts them and their mother dies. In the process of protecting a friend who, it is said, doesn’t deserve his faithfulness, the young man dies. As is every death of a twenty-year-old, it is a tragedy.

In the telling of the story, and in the response of the book’s characters, Backman helps us feel the meaninglessness of this event. Sami’s loved ones long to turn back time. They fall to the ground, bereft. Silent tears streak the policeman’s face. Sami’s friends seek retribution.

Yet as Backman shows us, taking a life for a life will not change the reality that we are powerless in the face of death. Death, he writes, is the “ultimate powerlessness.” This is true whether we die or we kill.

False Power

Fury may feel like strength, but it is impotence masquerading as power. The avenger can never undo what has been done, so his act is meaningless. Because he is generally driven by an emotion he cannot control, he is himself controlled. Besides, vengeance typically makes things worse. Some people claim they find peace when they take revenge on one who has hurt them. Perhaps they do. Maybe they think destroying another life brings balance to the world.

Yet, as Backman’s police officer asks, when does it end? Throughout our world, feuds and wars are fought for generations because we are unwilling to sit with the pain of powerlessness. We are unwilling to mourn. In our rage, we imagine justice can be served by annihilation. We are controlled by our rage as much as any addict is by his drug.

Yet rage is a common part of grief. We see it in Sami’s friends and in the Black Lives Matter protesters who burn police cars and smash windows. This is because, not only do we experience meaninglessness and powerlessness in the face of a death like Sami’s, like Floyd’s, like so many others who have been destroyed by the evils of the world, but there is a sting of injustice. Death is not fair.

Unable to tolerate such wrongs, we lash out. What else is there to do? How do we regain the power of serenity when anger sweeps us away?

Choosing Lamentation

We mourn. We lament, publicly and privately. First, we cry, for if we let outrage have its way, we will become the perpetrator, and we will create more victims. Of course, when lives are taken and lives are lost, we are all victims. When will we figure this out? When will we stop trying to make the world bend to our will? Can we humans learn to sit with our powerlessness, to find the serenity that gives us the courage not to destroy, but to rebuild?

As humans, we live in a universe we cannot control. At times, this powerlessness makes us furious. Yet more than this, and more than the meaninglessness inherent in death, we rail against injustice. In his book about the Lord’s Prayer, John Dominic Crosson writes about God’s justice. The Lord’s prayer, he explains, is about creating the “kingdom of God.”

After all, that’s how it starts. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt 6:9-10).

This is a kingdom of justice, but not of “retributive” justice. As Crosson says, in God’s kingdom, there is “distributive” justice. [4] This means everything is distributed fairly to everyone. It does not necessarily mean we should never punish, perhaps, but it does mean that if we are going to punish one offender, we must punish all. If we feed some, we must feed all. God’s justice means that even the poor, and the oppressed, and the marginalized would have what they needed to enjoy life. Everyone deserves to laugh and dance and experience peace.

Justice, Kindness, and Humility

Crosson notes, however, that throughout the prophetic books, we see that justice set up against prayer.

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

The prophet Micah agrees that God does not want sacrifices. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

It seems God is less interested in prayer, worship, and praise than that we do what is right in his sight. Yet that does not mean prayer is wrong. After all, isn’t the Lord’s Prayer a prayer?

But if God loves justice and kindness, Crosson tells us, then we “cannot pray to such a God in a state of injustice,” at least not if we want to be sincere. To pray with sincerity is risky, though, for as Crosson notes, if we pray in humility and kindness, we risk being expected by God to build his kingdom on earth, not through vengeance, but through distributive justice, a justice grounded in kindness, humility, and love. [5]

We’re In This Together

When tragedy breaks our hearts, when the planet suffers because of our greed, when the isms of society strike down the innocent, we lament. To lament is to cry out against injustice. When the world no longer makes sense, we lament. We cry out against that which shatters our belief in the right and the good, that harms the widow, the orphan, the alien.

After all, we are in this together. The philosopher, William Mackintire Salter, wrote that everyone’s loved ones die. Our grief is not special or singular. We “enter into a common sorrow, a sorrow that visits the proudest and humblest.” Such a sorrow should bind us together, Salter tells us. It should “dissolve all other feelings into sympathy and love.” [5]

Anger can distract us from the intensity of our grief. We can take revenge on the humans who hurt us, or we can scream at God, hoping to feel strong in our helplessness. But while retaliation and rebuke can be part of grief, and though sometimes we must sit in our fury for a while, it would be best if we would sit still, not lash out. If we could do that, the world would become more like the kingdom of God. If instead of seeking retribution, we would allow ourselves to mourn, and kindness and justice would reign.

Choose Lament; Choose Justice

One of our recovery church members asked, “Can an open heart dissolve regret and remorse?” In other words, can an open heart ease our suffering, pacify our rage?

It is a good question.

These days, we have so many losses to mourn. Society seems to be breaking down, the earth is thrashing in her pain, sickness and plague are spreading around the world. Nothing is certain. Loss is everywhere. So what will we choose? Will we choose hatred and sacrifice or kindness and justice? Will we choose to lament rather than steel ourselves with rage, choose to open our hearts to our pain?

We are all in this together. Everyone alive has known loss. Choose lament, for that is the path to distributive justice. Lord knows, our world needs a little justice, and a little kindness, now.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Suter, Ann, “Introduction,” Lament : Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond, edited by Ann Suter, New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2008, 3-17, 4.
  2. Though there has been controversy over who wrote the prayer, it seems that Niebuhr really was the author. See https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/serenity-prayer/ and https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/us/11prayer.html.
  3. Klein, Rebekka A., “The Phenomenology of Lament and the Presence of God in Time,”Harasta, Eva, and Brian Brock. Evoking Lament : A Theological Discussion, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2009, 14-24, 16.
  4. Crosson, John Dominic, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, New York: HarperCollins e-book, 2010, 41.
  5. Ibid.
  6. William Mackintire Salter quoted in Seaburg, Carl, Great Occasions: Readings for the Celebration of Birth, Coming-of-Age, Marriage, and Death, Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998, 249.

Image by Rembrandt. Date: 1630. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain from Wikimedia

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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