Lamenting the City

October 5, 2016

Lamentations 1:1-6    Psalm 137

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!

What a terrible reality underlies these words from our first reading, from the book of Lamentations. The Holy City has fallen; the armies of Babylon have completely defeated Israel.

The once bustling avenues are scenes of devastation. The buildings left and right collapsed, burnt out. The streets are empty of people – only a few corpses lie strewn about under the rubble. The population has fled, whoever could; those who remain lie huddled in the cellars, until the soldiers come to kill them or lead them away. The air is choked with dust and smoke and the stench of death. The city is called Jerusalem. The city has many names. She is called Nanking and Berlin, Stalingrad and Hiroshima. She is called Kigali and Sarajevo and Baghdad. Today she is called Aleppo.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;

She weeps with the tears of a million mothers for their lost children. She weeps like the mothers of Gaza, for their children playing in the courtyard, killed in an airstrike, for their sons recruited to be martyrs in some hopeless gesture of blind rage. She weeps with the mothers of Ferguson, for their sons and husbands gunned down in the streets in a racial everyone is pretending is not happening. She weeps with the mothers of Kashechewan and Grassy Narrows, for their toddlers sick from the poisoned waters, their hopeless teens driven to suicide, their daughters disappeared in a distant city, their bodies dumped in the river. She weeps with the mothers of Africa, for their children kidnapped into a jungle militia, or washed up on a Libyan beach.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted because they are no more.

And so it goes on. Two and a half millenia after the fall of Jerusalem, still the violence and hatred and injustice continue unabated. Still falls the rain: the rain of bombs, the rain of bullets, the rain of tears. The steady rain of bad news stories, of casual violent death, that fills our news feed and our airwaves. A day doesn’t pass without some new atrocity assaulting our hearts and minds.

What do we do with it, as Christians? What do we do with the toxic violence that poisons our hope? No doubt we take them into our private prayers. But that can be a lonely place to confront so much sorrow. And that also can silence the voice of outrage and anger. Where in our public worship do we make room for our feelings, where do we support one another in our private grief, where do we speak up against the things that should not be, yet have become normalized?

The Bible offers us a robust tradition of lament, a rich and passionate language of confronting violence and injustice with grief and outrage. The book of Lamentations is of course a prime example. The many psalms of lament show how deeply ingrained this tradition was in the prayer life of Israel. The prophets proclaimed and embodied the pain of their people, and reflected back the pain and outrage of God. Even the disordered nightmare of the book of Revelation, which frightens us with the rawness of its emotion, finds a voice for the pain and stress of oppression. The Bible, if you like, is an entire literature of PTSD.

Where in our corporate worship do we make room for this kind of honesty and rawness? Occasionally we will say a psalm of lament, though we generally censor most of the really intense material out. (How hard it was to say the horrible last lines of today’s psalm. Of course they are deeply offensive, in their quest for revenge. But I left them in, because they help us taste the intensity of emotion these psalms can contain.) Perhaps in the intercessions we leave room for lament, though as Anglicans we tend to deal more in polite requests than with the passion of the prophet: “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.” Maybe on Remembrance Day, maybe at a funeral, if we can resist the family’s request for an upbeat “Celebration of Life.” But on the whole, let’s be honest, our incessant optimism, our compulsive need not to make anyone feel uncomfortable, our narrowness of vision, and our moral and political cowardice have left little place for lament in our communal worship.

The popular Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in an essay contrasting the psalms of lament with the worship practices of today, speaks of “the costly loss of lament”. Lament is, Brueggemann says, a form of redressing the distribution of power. Before an omnipotent God, our needs and concerns are irrelevant – if God is only omnipotent, it is our job just to suck it up and submit. The practice of lament, however, insists that our needs are in fact important. It calls God to account for what is seriously wrong in the world; it refuses to accept the status quo of violence and oppression, because it is intolerable.

Failing to cultivate a robust practice of lament, then, has consequences. It has a consequence for our relationship to God: without lament, we are left with praise and thanksgiving and confession of our unworthiness as the only appropriate attitudes to bring to God. We have to be positive all the time, except when it comes to making ourselves small. When we do this, God is reduced to a petty tyrant who wants to hear only positive things, who insists on flattery and blind obedience from his followers. This in turn distorts our faith life: rather than being able to honestly bring to God what is on our hearts, we become yes-men, and so our true selves are neglected and stunted, because they are irrelevant. Surely this is not who we are meant to be: surely the God we meet in Scripture wants adult believers, “responsible mature covenant partners”, capable of honest and deep relationship.

The loss of lament has consequences for the missional witness of the church: why would an engaged and caring outsider ever want to be part of an institution and a mindset that seems unable to name with passion and indignation what is wrong in this world?

There is also a political dimension to the loss of lament. Where there is no lament, there is no place to name that things are actually not all alright in this world. There is no place to name dysfunction as dysfunction; and so it becomes normalized. Without lament, “justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate.” And this, of course, is precisely what those who benefit from the present order want. As long as we cannot find a central place for lament, we will not shake off the old suspicion that the church is there to legitimate the powers that be. Why is it, a friend of mine asked a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, that so many churches rush to post pictures from the blessing of the pets, but have such difficulty speaking up for Black Lives Matter or for indigenous Canadians?

A third cost of neglecting lament, which I would add to the two that Brueggemann lists: without lament, we lose our capacity to hope. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, lament often feels like the opposite of hope, it seems to be about giving voice to our despair. The problem we have with hope, though, is the problem we have with our approach to the world: it is our can-do attitude, our modern optimism that there is no problem so great that we can’t solve it with a little more willpower and a little more technology. As a culture, we don’t really know much about hope, because we don’t need it. We have optimism instead. When we encounter a problem, we want to fix it, which is great.

The trouble starts when we encounter a problem that has no easy or apparent fixes. Faced with the intractable horror of Aleppo, for example, we reach for the two tools in our toolbox, diplomacy and bombs. And when it is evident that neither of those will solve the problem, we are simply overwhelmed with despair and don’t want to think about it. Faced with the overwhelming challenge of climate change, we default so quickly and easily to despair and denial. The practice of lament teaches us precisely to stay with the problems we can’t solve, to recognize and confess our own helplessness, and to look to God.

Lament may feel like despair, because it gives voice to our despair. But just as true courage is not about not feeling fear, but sticking with it through the fear, so true hope is about holding out through the hopelessness, continuing to feel and name the pain, and to demand that God be God and give us redress.

There is one more dimension to lament that we as Christians should not forget: we are not alone. The passage from Lamentations continues, and a few verses later comes a familiar verse:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.

Now, where have we heard that? It is, of course, the beginning of the Reproaches from the Good Friday liturgy. The church has taken these ancient words of lament over the destruction of a city, and put them in the mouth of Jesus on the cross. On this one day of the year, at least, we do make room for lamentation, uncensored, heart-felt lamentation. And as long as the cross remains at the centre of our faith, we have not lost our orientation altogether.

Having Jesus speak the words of Lamentations is echo of an ancient tradition that says that because Jesus, as a Jew, would have looked to the Psalms as his prayer book, whenever we pray the psalms, we are joining in with the prayer of Jesus. That I find a comforting and helpful thought. As we struggle to find the courage and clarity to give voice to lament, to stop our collaboration with the middle-class pretense that all is right in the world, to name out loud what is hurting in our hearts and demand a more just world – we are simply following where Jesus has already gone.

In the wonder of the mystery of the Trinity, God is not just the one who lends an ear to our laments; God has identified so much with us as to become our voice; God’s self gives lament from the very heart of God. The one who intercedes for us without ceasing before the throne of grace is praying the psalter, and so giving voice to the laments of Israel; Christ is lamenting without ceasing, lamenting the torment of Aleppo and the children of Grassy Narrows, giving voice especially to the cries of those who have no voice.

So let us pray for the grace and the courage to find more room for this lament in faith life, both in our private prayers and when we come together. Let us ask for the freedom to speak more openly what is in our hearts; the clarity to name what is wrong; the hope to persist in the face of despair; the passion and integrity to live what we believe before others; the faithfulness to follow Christ and share his lament for his lost and hurting, yet still beloved world.