This morning I began preparing for a trip to Canada. I pulled out my grey North Park University hoodie to pack for the colder nights. Last year, a few days after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, North Park sponsored a justice conference. I wore that hoodie during my talk.
In retrospect, it feels like an empty gesture — an attempt to empathize with an experience that I, as a Korean-American, could never fully understand. In light of the Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been stunned into silence. I’m reeling from a deep disappointment in the American justice system and maybe even more distraught by the response of many in the white evangelical community that wants to argue the minutia of the law rather than trying to understand our brothers and sisters who are expressing a deep sense of lament.
A corporate injustice has occurred and the last thing we should do as people of privilege is to try to shut down the voices that have experienced genuine suffering and are speaking to the reality of an ongoing oppression.
So what is the proper response? There are a myriad of proper responses, but I’d like to look at lament as a Biblical grid through which we could respond. In the Old Testament, much of the poetic literature can be divided into psalms of praise and psalms of lament. Psalms of praise worship God for the good things he has done. It celebrates and lifts up the blessings of God. Lament, however, recognizes the broken reality of human life and seeks God’s intervention in times of suffering.
The typical American church fails to engage lament. Several different studies have shown that our liturgies, our hymnals, and our worship songs lack lament while disproportionately over-emphasizing triumphalist songs of praise. Our worship does not reflect the balance of praise and lament found in the Scripture. The American church avoids lament. Even when lament is found, it is often a quick stop on our trajectory towards victorious praise psalms. We move quickly away from lament to praise because we want a nice, neatly wrapped narrative that meets our worldview.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin requires an ongoing lament, which may be why it has been so difficult for evangelicals to engage on this issue.
This past Tuesday, July 17, 2013 marked the Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar. The little-known religious event commemorates the fall of Jerusalem in Old Testament times with a reading of the book of Lamentations. Lamentations serves as an exemplar work of Hebrew lament and reveals the power of lament for a broken community. It is also one of the most ignored books of the Bible. I offer a few reflections from Lamentations applied to our current dialogue on race.
When there is a death, you cannot ignore reality.
The book of Lamentations encompasses the wide range of lament genres, including the individual lament, corporate lament, the city-lament, and dialogical lament. One of the most important genres employed by the book of Lamentations is the funeral dirge. The funeral dirge reacts to a real death. When a death occurs, we cannot bury our head in the sand and operate out of denial. Something has died and we must deal with that reality.
In the American social-historical reality, there has been a death. Whether it is the actual death of a teen, the death of identity, the death of a cultural history, the death of dignity, the death of community — the racial history of America is marked by death. Lamentations calls us to deal with this reality. We cannot move too quickly to our triumphant cries of victory over race when there are still dead bodies around.
Lament is important truth telling.
Lament acknowledges that something is wrong with the world. Lamentations offers a real view of what has happened. It does not sugar coat the fact that God’s people are culpable in a corporate sin that has led to the fall of Jerusalem. It is hard truth telling that we are the reason for God’s judgment. We are the ones that have sinned before God.
By telling the truth about racism, we acknowledge that our own strength is unable to fix the problem. We acknowledge that even as we have created the problem, God is needed to bring hope. Telling the truth about our tainted racial history and our deeply troubled racial social reality does not undermine our gospel, it moves us closer to the God who redeems.
Lament compels us to hear the voice of the marginalized.
Lamentations is characterized by a myriad of voices offering reflections on the tragic fall of Jerusalem. One could argue that Lamentations offers the most feminine voice of all the books of the Bible. Rather than the strong and the powerful, Lamentations elevates the voice of the widows and the orphans. The marginalized voices hold the truth.
American Christians with power and privilege are often too quick to speak and too slow to listen. Many Christians have already determined that this incident was not about race. Some argue that issues like abortion and gay marriage more accurately reflect the spiritual condition of American society. Listening to the voices of a community that has been historically marginalized is an important element of lament. The most powerful act of Job’s friends was to rend their garments and sit and listen to their friend. Some would argue that the moment they opened their mouths is when they stopped being helpful friends.
Are we willing to hear the truth from those that have suffered? Are we willing to hear God’s heart of pain as experienced by our brothers and sisters, who for too long have been told that their lives and their bodies are disposal as chattel labor or as a threat worthy only of target practice.
No matter your opinion on the verdict or on the state of race relations in America, listen to the lament of your brothers and sisters whose pain is very real. By embracing the power of lament, could we begin our movement towards healing?
Soong-Chan Rah is author of The Next Evangelicalism and a forthcoming commentary on the Book of Lamentations. He is also a member of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.