The need for lament | Sharon Prentis [ANVIL vol 36 issue 3]

Sharon Prentis

Do you care to feel my pain and take this journey with me?

On it you will discover it is yours too and together we will question

How can we be so oblivious to each other’s need?

Then together we will lament and express our sorrows

Then God will hear.

No one can dispute the strength of emotion that followed George Floyd’s death. Not for the first time, the fatal impact of institutional discrimination was captured on millions of television screens. What was different were the global protests that followed, heightened during the pandemic, reflecting the reality that racism was not just about name-calling, but concerned the power to take lives, limit opportunities and marginalise. For many white people who were unaware of such things, nor had thought about the cumulative effects that racism had on the black mind, body and spirit, this was a revelation. On the Sunday that followed, sermons were preached and prayers said about the societal sickness of inequality, and racism especially, that continues to plague society.

However, the past few months have also brought about an equally uncomfortable revelation: the church is not immune from this illness! Stories from those of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) heritages disclose the pain and sense of alienation many experience. For a significant number, the body of Christ is not what it should be in terms of what Tomlin identifies as its call to “Catholicity” [1] as described in the New Testament (Acts 2:9). Neither is it fulfilling its vocation as the multi-ethnic, multicultural family of God as N. T. Wright suggests. [2] The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests stripped away any pretext of unity-in-diversity. It exposed the misconception held by many Anglicans that racial, ethnic and cultural harmony was a common experience. With those events, the error of that assumption was revealed and the disconcerting truth became evident in the way we, the Church, looked, worshipped and conducted mission. In the aftermath, many white church leaders and congregations struggled with what change is needed, fearing that it would be perceived as superficial at best, or further compound the problem because of existing cultural hegemonies. Where to start was the dilemma. This article suggests it starts with acknowledging the brokenness, through lament, protest and introspection so that a route to transformation can be found.

Lament and protest

Brueggemann suggests that lament plays a significant role in Israel’s faith relationship with God. [3] Used for communal and individual expressions of sorrow, their purpose was not to bring relief but to be honest about the despair. The book of Lamentations is a case in point, offering a unique insight into the expression and anguish of suffering during a time of desolation. Consisting of five poems, it describes the plight of Israel and God’s action at a time of great calamity. The use of poetic expression acknowledges suffering as a path to redemptive possibilities – a path that leads ultimately back to God. [4] Like the books of the Pentateuch, Lamentations derives its title from the first word, “Eyka!”, a cry or exclamation meaning “how” or “Oh!” as an express of shock or grief. [5] The despair conveyed by the term is expressed at the beginning of nearly all the poems contained in the book of Lamentations, the intention being to capture the pain and confusion of the Israelites following the destruction of Jerusalem in the summer of 597BC. Full of imagery, the text reflects the devastating impact, humiliations and degradations captivity had upon the people. In Lam. 1:1, Zion is personified as a woman who has lost family; she sits alone, condemned of all the sins committed by Israel’s male leadership. She laments her situation: “Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheeks… there is none to comfort her” (1:2).

Expressions of grief and lament have two main purposes: first, as a form of poetic protest and appeal that bears witness to the wickedness and gross injustice that cannot be tolerated; and secondly, as a way for God’s people to articulate their sorrow, anger, confusion and disappointment at the destruction caused by their sin. Lament gives space to the questions “why” and “how” this could happen and seeks earnestly for a response from God. Through emotive imagery and words, the poet shows that the city’s destruction causes such distressing emotional and spiritual trauma that hope seems almost obliterated.

God’s wrath in this context is not an unprovoked anger but a just response brought about by Israel’s breaking of the covenant agreement, the worship of other gods and the oppression of the poor. Because of the disobedience, divine justice permits the Babylonians to conquer the city. And so, this poem acknowledges that God’s wrath is justified. Nevertheless, as the poet laments, they continue to ask God to show compassion once again.

Chapter 3, the longest poem in Lamentations, culminates in a lone voice speaking of the collective suffering and grief. The language used is evocative of the laments found in Job, Psalms, Isaiah and other parts of the Old Testament. Like those texts, the poet speaks about the hope of God’s justice despite the prevailing circumstances and suffering experienced. There is no protest to God because the consequences are evident and acknowledged to be deserved. However, the outcome of their actions is immense.

Lament acknowledges the connection between action and consequences, desolation and consolation. Until that acknowledgement is forthcoming, the transformative work of restoration cannot begin. We find ourselves in the situation of racial inequity today due to the denial of the historical injustices that continue to reinforce, both overtly and covertly, notions of racial superiority and white privilege.

How did we get here?

Central to the issue of racism is the acknowledgement of personal and structural sin. During the twentieth century, the Christian conception of sin changed from the emphasis on individual sin to a perspective that embraced more structural dimensions – not absolving the individual from their complicity in structural sin, but nevertheless acknowledging the larger forces that promote systems of economics and status based on self-interest endorsed by privilege and the subjugation of others. For more than 165 years, Britain, along with other nations, played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, profiting significantly from the traffic of human beings.

Derek Nelson’s examination of nineteenth-century Christian abolitionist Charles Finney’s stance on slavery illustrates this. [6] Finney, an abolitionist, argued that the sin of enslaving others was down to individual choice. This position, though condemning the act of ownership of slaves and the brutality it brought about, never considered the complicity of powerful social interests, nor held them to account for the impact of slavery long after it was abolished. These antecedents of racism found in our history and which have shaped social structures still have a deleterious impact. The reluctance to discuss the subject of reparation, even in a theological sense of making amends and forgiveness, fails to recognise the cumulative impact of iniquity and the generational legacy it has left.

Whether we care to admit it or not, the church, like other historical institutions and organisations, has profited as a result of that history. Evidence of the benefits are well documented. [7] Of the many words that have been spoken since May 2020, few have been couched in terms of the lament that we are not where we should be. Perhaps there is genuine paralysis of actions by this understanding; or perhaps, it is something more fundamental – the failure to acknowledge the extent of supremacy that has led to a denial, in deeds if not in words, of Christ’s mandate to love others as we love ourselves.

Put simply, segregated churches come from a reluctance to embrace difference – not just doctrinal and denominational differences, but those based on ethnicity, social background and identity even within the same domination. It is not always intentional or malevolent. People tend to gravitate to those most like them. This human inclination towards homogeneity is further compounded in the face of widening social inequities and the unwritten rules that define who is acceptable. It is also played out in the lack of diverse representation in the body, be it leadership or in the congregation. A paucity of diversity means that the church is impoverished. A predominantly monocultural representation (culture being defined here in the widest sense) is at odds with Christ’s mandate to go out into the whole world and make disciples. Mutual interdependence in Christ is a distinctive Christian identity and witness. If that identity is not expressed through its constituent parts, then power of that witness is undermined.

Belonging and church

An insight into barriers that undermined mutuality was gained recently when some research I was involved in highlighted the importance of identity, belonging and the connection to faith. In 2018, the University of Birmingham carried out research for the Anglican Church in Birmingham. [8] The intention was to understand BAME perceptions of church culture around invitation, welcome, inclusion and belonging in the diocese. Using a validated psychological measure across a wide range of groups of different ethnic backgrounds, Christians of BAME heritage reflected lower levels of belonging than their white counterparts. Many also spoke of a deep sense of rejection. Where there were clear attempts made to include them and celebrate cultural/ethnic identity, the sense of belonging was more pronounced. The data also reflected that people of BAME heritage had a greater sense of affiliation with the wider Anglican Communion than their own local church. Reasons given included experiencing racialised behaviour that resulted in “othering” or another negative connotation. Not everyone had a negative experience. Many had also worshipped in the same church with no difficulty. The study concluded that while the nature of belonging, association and identification in congregations is complex, ethnicity and culture does play a significant role. In Birmingham, we were confronted with the empirical evidence of BAME peoples feeling estranged in church.

The nature of diverse church challenges their members to go beyond their usual norms to develop a spiritual aptitude for living in ways that honour difference. A context is created where the priorities of one group’s familiar ways of being become secondary to others. People from these contexts come together to learn from one another and engage in mutual relationships that recognise the gifts of others. However, if the power dynamics are not addressed, and one culture remains dominant, true intercultural fellowship, as an expression of unity in Jesus, is difficult to achieve. [9]

In the New Testament this intercultural unity is conveyed in the key words for fellowship – koinōnīa and metochē, which describe interdependent mutual relationships within a community of believers. Such koinōnīa is rooted in fellowship with God as Father (1 John 1:3, 6) and love for others, which is orientated in extending a radical hospitality to everyone. It is countercultural in its emphasis on creating familial associations across cultural and social boundaries and opposed to the membership of an exclusive club where coexistence without mutual dependence is acceptable. Relationships are purposely different in the former, being based on mutual love and shared faith (John 13:34, Jude 3, Titus 1:4). From the beginning, those early Christians “devoted themselves” to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, and the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). It is easy to idealise relationships in the early church, but social divisions have always been evident in the body of Christ from the beginning.

Lamenting with one another

An outward sign of unity is the ability to stand in solidarity with others in times of sorrow as well as joy. The prophet in Lamentations gathers together the bitterness and sorrow felt by the people to make them known in a communal rehearsal of this lament. The first book of John speaks of a communal love that goes beyond words and theory, evidenced in truth and action (1 John 3:18). Consequently, racial injustice amounts to disunity, undermining the ability to love and serve one another (agapate allelous: John 13:34, John 15:17). Fellowship dictated by the experience of one group contradicts the call to mutuality and interdependence. Authentic Christian community is a result of mutual love (John 13:34) based upon a shared salvation (Jude 3) and shared faith (Titus 1:4). A functional unity in Christ is an admission of what Christena Cleveland sees as being intentionally mindful in our ways of being together: “This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist. In receiving Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, we, in a sense, receive all those whom Christ received by suffering.” [10]

These are the unexpected signs of God’s kingdom in times of increasing moral desolation and escalating injustice – when we can enter honest and courageous conversations that facilitate the truth-telling needed for healing. Here, the example of Lamentations gives an insight. The poet does not offer superficial optimism, nor neat solutions that deny the pain and suffering of the situation. Instead, it expresses it in raw detail through poetic form! The unresolved nature of the grief due to being separated from God becomes paradoxically the seedbed of hope, because who else can redeem and bring about justice? Contrary to what is going on around them, the author of Lamentations knows that the mercies of God have not failed and they are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). His mercies are an indication of the hope for healing and reconciliation work.

The deep work of grace is required because of distorted relationships. According to Willie James Jennings, it starts with the church understanding that its Christian imagination has become attached to individualistic and racialised identities that undermine all attempts at meaningful reconciliation. [11] Meaningful engagement with one another acknowledges the deformity in our relationships before we can develop a sacred understanding of our diversity in Christ.

How long, Lord, how long?

The final poem in Lamentations is different because it breaks the acrostic pattern of the previous poems. It is as if the poet has abandoned all attempts to contain the grief and is overwhelmed. What then ensues can only be described as a torrent of feelings. What the recent protests have indicated is that those who are the subjects of brutality can only contain it for so long. Repression of historical pain and outrage will eventually find its own expression. This may be done in ways that are constructive and healing to the physical and corporate bodies or ultimately destructive. The power of the lament poetry arises from the need to express the depth of the suffering that is experienced while demanding attention from a sovereign God. Injustice impacts both the subject and perpetrator to the extent that neither escapes its impact. Both are inextricably linked. Seeking forgiveness is a necessary requirement for hope: it is also integral to repentant action and restitution. Both are necessary to move forward together. As Miroslav Volf writes:

The principle cannot be denied: the fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict. We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness. [12]

Hope within the sorrow

The final poem in Lamentations takes the form of a communal prayer in which the author appeals to God about the misery of the people and pleads for the creation of something dramatically different. There is a change in tone, almost abandonment to God’s mercy as the author, as a representative of the people, confesses the effect of collective sin while also expressing bewilderment. No immediate resolution is apparent other than the assurance that God is God. The expression of the pain through lament is part of the healing.

These strange times call for a different consideration. Lamenting is an opportunity to identify the historical antecedents, collective pain, to confess wrongdoing, to ask difficult questions of injustice, to own misdeeds of an ecclesiology that settles for and reinforces the status quo, and to see God differently amid the suffering. The church should lament the invisibility of some, the denial of others and the missed opportunities to form deep bonds of empathy and even deeper relationships. The final poem in Lamentations culminates in a prayer that describes the ravages of captivity. God is asked to restore the people (5:21). At the end of Lamentations, we are confronted with seemingly unresolved grief, the chaos of which can only be answered, if God so chooses. The poet shows that there is no hiding from the suffering of others, the pain we inflict and the pain we all carry.

The Rev Dr Sharon Prentis is the intercultural mission enabler and dean of black, Asian and minority ethnic affairs in the Church of England, Birmingham. She is a member of the Archbishop’s Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC). In 2019 she edited the book Every Tribe, which tells the stories of diverse saints and holy people from around the world.

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Notes

[1] Graham Tomlin, “Christ, Catholicity and the sin of Racism,” Academia.edu, accessed 4 September 2020, https://www.academia. edu/43753394/Christ_Catholicity_and_the_sin_of_Racism.
[2] N. T. Wright, “Undermining Racism,” accessed 4 September 2020, https://ntwrightpage.com/2020/06/14/undermining-racism-completetext/.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Lament as Wake-up Call (Class Analysis and Historical Possibility),” in Lamentations in Ancient and Contemporary Cultural Contexts, ed. Nancy C. Lee and Carleen Mandolfo (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 221–36.
[4] Issiaka Coulibaly, “Lamentations,” in Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press, 2006), 926.
[5] Ibid., 927.
[6] Derek R. Nelson, What’s Wrong with Sin? Sin in Individual and Social Perspective from Schleiermacher to Theologies of Liberation (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2009).
[7] Church of England Committee on Black Anglican Concerns, “Seeds of Hope: Report of a Survey on Combating Racism in the Dioceses of the Church of England” (General Synod, 1991).
[8] Sanjee Perera-Child and Andrew Davies, “The Minority Anglican Project” (The Edward Cadbury Centre for Public Understanding of Religion at the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham: Unpublished Report, 2019).
[9] Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, eds., Intercultural Ministry (King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 2017), x.
[10] Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Recovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2013), 36.
[11] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and Origins of Race (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011).
[12] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 217.

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