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Dominique D. Gilliard: Reclaiming the power of lament

Somewhere along the way, we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith. A strange word to modern ears, “lamentation” feels inherently ancient. It brings to mind images of an overwrought demonstration of mourning — sackcloth and ashes, “wailing and gnashing of teeth” of biblical proportions.

More than the mere expression of sorrow and regret, however, lamentation is a powerful act, one that the church desperately needs to reclaim. In our world of nonstop news and social media, lamentation is an essential and even revolutionary act.

Scripture suggests that lamentation is a liturgical act that reorients and transforms us. Lamentation is uncensored communion with God — visceral worship where we learn to be honest, intimate and humble before God. Lamentation is both an acknowledgment that things are not as they should be and an anguished wail, beckoning the Lord to intervene with righteousness and justice.

When we lament, we confess our humanity and concede that we are too weak to combat the world’s powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness on our own. When we lament, we declare that only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness.

Why is that so relevant to our times? Tragedy, after all, has always existed. But today, we are bombarded by an unprecedented, unceasing stream of media that exposes us to the world’s pain and brokenness as never before.

We not only hear about the tragedies in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and Waller County, Texas; we now also routinely see traumatizing video of unarmed civilians being killed — Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose.

Nevertheless, before we truly grieve one tragedy, another occurs. So in our rush to keep up with our newsfeeds, with the latest scandal, the newest tragedy, we move on before processing the trauma we have just witnessed. We move on to stay up to date — and in part, because we believe that our minds and our hearts, like our smartphones, can hold only so much.

Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down. In the midst of daily tragedy, lamentation requires us to stay engaged after the cameras and publicity move on. It summons us to immerse ourselves in the pain and despair of the world, of our communities, of our own sinfulness.

Still, why lament?

Because, paradoxically, often the best way to cure pain is to engage it.

Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and of those whom we shepherd. Lamentation begets revelation. It opens our eyes to death, injustice and oppression we had not even noticed. It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world. To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.

Lamentation requires four steps: remembrance, reflection, confession and repentance.

The first step, always, is to remember.

Memory and faith are fundamentally connected. Again and again, more than 100 times, Scripture implores believers to “remember.”

God repeatedly instructed Israel to remember that they were once slaves, foreigners and exiles. As a people liberated by God’s grace, Israel was to use that memory to shape and dictate their purpose, praxis and relationships. Remembrance was the linchpin of Israel’s faithfulness.

When Israel forgot, they turned from God, became self-centered, practiced idolatry and enacted injustice. Forgetting God’s command to “not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NIV), Israel became disobedient, building social systems and structures that privileged some while discriminating against others.

Remembrance, therefore, is vitally important; it anchors our identity and compels us to make connections to the past. History is essential, because it provides context and greater clarity for our present and future.

Without history, lamentation seems unnecessary. Why would you lament what you do not remember?

A faith devoid of lamentation aborts history and forsakes remembrance. This is the predicament we find ourselves in today.

One of the primary failures of Western Christianity is its ahistorical nature. History summons us as Christians to confess, lament and repent of our role in and apathy toward our nation’s record of injustice and exploitation. Lamentation compels us to expose what the powerful seek to conceal and deny. If the church took history seriously, it would have no choice to but to lament the exterminated, demarcated and violated bodies of our nation’s past and present.

From the days of Pharaoh and Caesar right down to today, history and Scripture reveal that oppression is always institutionalized and structural. The sinful manifestations of a hardened heart have never been confined to interpersonal interactions. Too often, the hardened heart of an entire people is expressed collectively through institutions, organizations, governments — and even the church.

Institutional injustice is part of our nation’s history. As a church, we have failed to confess and lament this reality. Too often, we have conformed to the pattern of this world and have not been transformed by the renewing of our minds. Consequently, we have become as prone as anyone else to engage in segregation, discrimination and oppression. The injustices of racism, sexism, classism, mass incarceration and militarism are all consequences of our failure to live in remembrance and lamentation.

History, however, roots us in humility; remembrance compels us to lament. In lamentation, we acknowledge that sin has distorted our relationship with God, our neighbors and creation. Lament beckons us to discern how we can recalibrate our relating in light of the gospel.

When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows. It reminds us of our need for God, one another and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Lamentation is a form of centering prayer that shapes our discipleship and missiology; it illuminates blind spots in our lives and ministry, helping us to make our evangelism more responsible and contextual.

How well are we as church leaders cultivating space for lamentation? Recent studies suggest that we have room for growth.

In his upcoming book “Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times,” Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, cites several studies documenting the church’s tendency to avoid lament. Psalms of lament, he notes, are the psalms most commonly omitted from the lectionary and other liturgies. Though they account for almost 40 percent of the psalms, laments represent a very small percentage of the contents in many denominations’ hymnals. And very few of the songs most commonly sung in worship are laments, Rah tells us.

Rah contends that the absence of lament in our liturgy results in the loss of memory.

“We are reluctant to stay in the narrative of suffering, lament and pain,” Rah writes in the book’s introduction.

In a watershed moment like the one we are in today, this is a problem. Without history and lament, how can the church know what healing, unity and reconciliation look like? And how can it model them for the world?