WALTRINA MIDDLETON'S VOICE lifts you to the highest highs with bellows of crisp spoken word. Seamlessly, her croons can plunge you down the rhythm of any blues-laced freedom song. Your heart is gripped with deep, rolling riffs of truth spoken.
Harnessing the power of pain is just one of her many spiritual gifts. Middleton is an ordained minister, activist, and artist with roots in the Gullah Geechee community in South Carolina. A self-professed country girl, she grew up in Hollywood, S.C., on the coastal Gullah Sea Island of Yonges, about 30 minutes outside of Charleston.
“It was beautiful—a swampland with dirt roads, farm, and fields,” she told Sojourners. “I made my grandparents’ hogs my pets before I realized they were actually dinner.”
It’s been a winding road on the path to self-discovery for Middleton, but she says music was there from the very beginning. “Music was central to our family,” she said. “It was an intergenerational medium that brought us together, but also rooted us in our faith.”
Her grandparents had 16 children, and all of them could sing or play an instrument. The family put together a group called the Middleton Gospel Singers that toured the local church community. “Part of the country circuit is to have some kind of gospel group,” she said. “The women in my family were the instrumentalists. I was always with my family when we would be in church all day going to these programs. The whole point was to worship God. It was just something that you did.”
Even when there wasn’t a church function or performance, Middleton says music was a part of her everyday life. “We had this big ol’ barn, and we would be in the barn sitting, rehearsing, and practicing,” she said. “Sometimes there would be a fire; sometimes people would just come, listen, and talk. While they were rehearsing, we would sit out there and eat crab.”
At these family gatherings, her artistic flair began to take shape. She admired her older cousins and says they heavily influenced her style. “They had this depth to them that I couldn’t describe,” she said. “It was very low and lamenting. I found myself trying to imitate their style. It also taught me that worship could also be lamenting.”
The assumed exceptionalism and excessive triumphalism of the American church conflicts with the biblical call for humility as evidenced by lament. The practice of lament in the Bible confronts our American Christian assumptions. Biblical lament calls for honesty and truth-telling about the broken state of society and the individual. As such, the excessive triumphalism of American society has nearly quashed a necessary countercultural practice.
A single chime rang out after each abuse victim’s statement was read over the speakers at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City, a solemn echo to enduring pain.
It was a simple, symbolic gesture but one that had an almost inexpressible resonance for those who had been abused, and for many Catholics in a diocese so identified with clergy abuse that its last bishop was forced to resign.
Without his community of his sisters and family, who have been mourning his death and questioning God for not saving their brother and friend, Lazarus would remain entombed. Without community, we remain bound and entombed. I’m not saying that our actions are as great as Jesus raising someone from the dead. But I am saying that God entrusts us with living into community, so that we may welcome our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.
The poetic prayers, songs, and laments of the book of Psalms were recorded to teach worshipers how to praise God, as well as to lament and grieve. When undergoing times of agony or when words are not enough, the Psalms can express the painful emotions for us, as processing emotion helps us to move forward with difficult choices.
Much of the Psalms were attributed to David, including the prayer of Psalm 55—a lament about suffering violence at the hands of a loved one. Many victims of abuse find themselves alone and abandoned by family and friends who become impatient and exasperated by their ongoing struggle with loving their abuser. Praying through a Psalm may be an emotional refuge during such a painful time.
TUVIA RUEBNER HAS earned the lament he wrote for King David, Israel’s better-known sorrow bearer. The poet came into the world 91 years ago in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, under Nazism’s shadow. It is a shadow he managed to separate himself from physically, but which sticks to him philosophically and is at the core of his poetry. The parched sound of random loss is the root sound in many of his poems. The spawn of an unimaginable yesterday, Tuvia Ruebner is more than anything a poet of today.
His parents, his grandparents, and his little sister Litzi all perished at Auschwitz in 1942, a year after he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Forty years after their deaths, Ruebner’s first son, Moran, was sent to fight in Israel’s first Lebanese war. Moran left for South America the following year, estranged from his country and its wars, and after a few letters, was never heard from again.
In Ruebner’s poem “[My father was murdered],” one by one he enumerates his losses:
THE KILLING OF 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year and the events that followed sparked protests by the community in the St. Louis area asserting that black lives matter and ignited a discussion on race relations in the United States.
On the heels of non-indictments in the slaying of Brown and other black men, our nation focused its attention on the drastic inconsistencies inherent in our judicial system. To many observers, black lives had less standing in our nation than white lives.
Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., are part of a long list of black victims of violence. They are victims of an American narrative that devalues black souls, black lives, black bodies, and black minds. In response to these tragic events, particularly since the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, many evangelicals have been calling for a biblical practice that is often absent in American Christianity—the call to lament.
On one level I am thrilled that evangelicals are discovering the importance of lament in dealing with racial injustice. However, I am concerned that the way lament is being used by some white evangelicals is a watered-down, weak lament that is no lament at all.
Lament is not simply feeling bad that Brown won’t be able to go to college. Lament is not simply feeling sad that Garner’s kids no longer have a father. Lament is not asserting your right to confront the police because, as a white person, you won’t be treated in the same way that a black protester may be treated. Lament is not the passive acceptance of tragedy. Lament is not weakly assenting to the status quo. Lament is not simply the expression of sorrow in order to assuage feelings of guilt and the burden of responsibility.
Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.
Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.
I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.
And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.
We are brokenhearted by the murders of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. We join our brothers and sisters in deep lament for the lives lost in this evil act, and our prayers go out to all of the victims, their families and their communities.
Atrocities like this wound the very soul of our nation. We must not merely attribute this horror to the depraved actions of one individual, mourn those we have lost, and move on as if there is nothing more to do. In his statement yesterday, President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words in the wake of the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama in which four little girls were killed:
"...We must be concerned not merely with who murdered [these girls], but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream."
The deep wounds of racism, America's original sin, still linger in our society, our institutions, and in our minds and hearts — sometimes explicitly, but far more pervasively through unconscious bias. Wednesday's terrorist act is the latest manifestation of this lingering sin. Are there no safe places for black people in our country, even the places where they come together to worship?
We all have the responsibility to overcome both the attitudes and the structures of racism in America. Today we mourn, but tomorrow we must act.
Lament is not a passive act. Many Christians may hear the word lament and assume that feeling bad about suffering is the purpose of lament. How sad that people died. How sad that the shooter had a mental illness. But lament moves beyond bad feelings for the privileged. Lament is subversive and an act of protest. The powerful and the privileged have no problem being heard. It is the marginalized that need to be heard. The voiceless speak through lament. They cry out that things aren’t right. They are not the way things are supposed to be. Lament voices the prayers of the suffering and therefore serves as an act of protest against the powers.
The work of the prophet is to stand as an advocate for others. The advocate role is an important role in the ministry of justice. Many American Christians hold a position of privilege in American society. As the privileged, there is an important voice that can be raised on behalf of the marginalized. American Christians can advocate for the rights of the unborn, the poor, and the oppressed of our society. Part of our strength would not be to effect change that would further our privilege and affluence, but to advocate for change that would benefit the very least of our brothers and sisters. The role of the geber is to advocate for the suffering in Jerusalem and offer a lament on behalf of the suffering.
When stories of human trafficking or dramatic rescue operations come across our news feeds, we are understandably shocked. For a moment, our attention is grabbed and we feel genuine outrage toward the traffickers and, hopefully, compassion for the trafficked persons. But to what end?
Sadly, the underground and criminal nature of human trafficking helps to keep the stark realities out of sight and, consequently, out of the minds of most people. When we do think of human trafficking, it tends to be as something that happens “over there” or in seedy brothels. It is somehow easier to blame the bad actors, pimps, traffickers, and sweatshop managers rather than recognize the multiple ways that we are connected to human trafficking through our everyday actions. Because we are, in fact, connected. As Pope Francis observed in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “There is greater complicity than we think. The issue [modern slavery] involves everyone!”
Human trafficking is present in virtually every human community. Moreover, because the majority of people held in slavery today are forced to work in agriculture and mining, it is inevitable that products make it into the supply chain and our shopping carts. Sex trafficking also does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in a social context which tolerates, and even normalizes, sexual exploiation and the commodification of the human person.
Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:
-the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;
-the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)
-the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?
Can we be as honest as the Bible?
Like many of you, I’ve been overwhelmed and deeply saddened by the events that have transpired in Ferguson, Mo. And at times I’ve felt helpless, 350 miles away in Cincinnati, as friends of mine are in Ferguson praying, marching, organizing, and working for peace and justice.
In my conversations with friends of color, I have witnessed their pain and frustration and deep angst over the events of Ferguson. The past two weeks have hit very close to home for them.
With white friends, the response has been mixed, but the overwhelming sentiment is one I’ve already identified: helplessness. I am not satisfied with this response. I believe there are ways we can respond, bear witness, be in solidarity and work for justice in this moment. Our love for God and neighbor demands we engage. If you are like me, you are praying without ceasing for the Shalom, peace, and justice of God to reign in the hearts and minds and streets of Ferguson and throughout this nation and world. So how can we pair our prayers with constructive action?
Here are ten ways white Christians can respond to Ferguson.
The first time I heard the news about the 270 Nigerian school girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram was last Sunday. I was sitting with the rest of the band at St. Augustine's Catholic Parish during worship. Fr. Gabriel, a priest from Nigeria, was preaching. In his sermon, he offered a litany of events, incredibly difficult events that had transpired in the preceding week as examples of how God does indeed respond when we are in our darkest moments. No matter how we may doubt, fear, or struggle, Jesus will walk through walls to get to us.
All the other events he listed I had heard of. There had been media coverage. People had been given the opportunity to respond to the needs of others.
The girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram on April 14. I had not heard the news until April 27. And it still wasn’t in the papers.
This week I heard the words of Cleopas, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there these days?”
So, like the stranger in our story, I asked, “what things?”
According to reports in The Guardian and Smithsonian Magazine 's website , the girls are being sold as brides across the border in Cameroon and Chad for the equivalent of $12 each. This means, of course, that the girls are being sexually assaulted.
Boko Haram is a loosely knit organization. There appears to be no specific hierarchy, only the desire to carve out of Nigerian territory a so-called "pure" Islamic state. Their vision is beyond radical. Violence against other Muslims is not uncommon. They target churches and mosques with the same viciousness. This time they targeted the last school left in the region. They targeted the girls. Translated, Boko Haram means "western education is sinful." To educate girls, then, is a form of Western education. To educate girls is a sin. To sell them across the border is not.
And they need women. They need brides. The girls are being sold. Sold.
When we consider the typical church worship service in the United States, we discover certain trends. Lament and stories of suffering are conspicuously absent. In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton notes that laments constitute 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, laments make up 13 percent, the Presbyterian hymnal 19 percent, and the Baptist hymnal 13 percent.
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches for the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are employed by local churches, and its list of the top 100 worship songs as of August 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would qualify as a lament. Most of the songs reflect themes of celebratory praise: “Here I Am to Worship,” “Happy Day,” “Indescribable,” “Friend of God,” “Glorious Day,” “Marvelous Light,” and “Victory in Jesus.”
How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.
Twenty-first century readers of the Scriptures are likely uncomfortable with the book of Lamentations and its stories of weeping, groaning, and grieving. But, the act of lamenting is not unique to biblical Israelites.
Today’s world is full of lament-worthy situations. One need only turn on the nightly news to hear countless stories from places like Detroit, Michigan, and Camden, N.J. – plagued by record foreclosures, abandoned buildings, corrupt government officials, and boarded up businesses – to understand the devastating impact of high unemployment, increased crime, and precarious civic finances that have taken a toll on communities. Further, the country’s working poor earn wages that are so meager they have a hard time providing basic necessities for their families. Many cannot make ends meet without help from public assistance programs, which ultimately leads to feelings of despair and a decreased sense of self-worth
Modern readers also lament over the following.