The Art of Lament

In light of the events in Charlottesville, the biblical practice of lament has been on my heart. Social media has been lit up, and much of it has been justifiable. However, much of it has been reactionary as well (which is expected).  It seems, at least, if one holds to scripture as a template for dealing with injustice, as a people we are called to the practice of lament.   

Lament is about pausing. It is about slowing down and refraining from reaction so that one has the time to remember rightly, which will ultimately lead to right-action.  Lament is about allowing oneself to stay in the moment of discomfort.  It is about allowing current events to point us toward the reality of a wounded world and human sinfulness.  Lament is to momentarily sit in the brokenness rather than rush through it. 

As an example, I want to briefly go over Habakkuk 1:1-4, as a way to maybe posture us toward the practice of lament.   Let's start with a few key points to frame in the book Habakkuk:

  • Synopsis: In this 3 chapter book, Habakkuk has a vision of a conversation with God.  It was a vision about what God planned to do about the suffering, pain, and injustice in his land.
  • History: Most of what we know about Habakkuk the prophet is based on educated guesses.  However, based on several factors, many scholars believe it was written sometime in the 7th Century right before the neo-Babylonian empire lays siege to Judah.
  • Different from other prophets: Traditionally in the prophetic traditions, the prophet’s role was to call the people back to right relationship with God.  Habakkuk was a different kind of prophet, instead of confronting his people, he confronts God about the violence and injustice in the land. 

The book starts out with Habakkuk's first complaint toward God, which was about God's apparent apathy in the face of the violence and injustice in Judah - let's read

Hab 1:1-4 - O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk is willing to name the injustice taking place in his own land.  He’s not worried about misaligning himself with his political party, he names the reality of what is happening.  He knew the character of God, and God’s hatred of violence and injustice.  The weight of the text doesn’t stop there, Habakkuk feels he has the right to rail toward God over God’s apparent inaction, and he does. God, or so it seemed to Habakkuk was at the very least allowing these injustices and at the very worst approving what seemed to be so obvious - rampant injustice! 

In our world, where the social, racial, economic, ecological, and gender injustices that many of us have prospered from are so obvious, Habakkuk should be our example as one full of angst crying out to God about injustices in our land.  Habakkuk’s initial response to the injustice in his homeland is to slow down and allow it to haunt him to the point of lament.  

So, what is the art lament?  According to Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, "Lament is a cry directed to God.  It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world's deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace.  It is the prayer for those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are…If we are to follow the path this practice lays out for us, we have to unlearn speed.  Lament views speed with pessimism.  Lament slows reconciliation down because it sees the challenge of transformation not from the top but from the margins - indeed from the bottom.  Lament teaches us to see the world from the standpoint of the powerless, the marginalized, the orphan, and the slave.”  

There are two ideas I read in this, that I believe to be reflective of what motivates Habakkuk’s cry of lament.  

Lament begins with slowing down:  So often we prefer to work superficially and fast.  We are quick to sensationalize our cause, to move quickly to “solutions" (or defense), that we end up masking our brokenness.  Lament calls us to unlearn these habits of speed.  "To learn to lament is to become people who stay near to the wounds of the world”, which is where Habakkuk starts.  Habakkuk isn’t the only one who starts there - it must have been a thing for God’s true prophets, to be so close to the brokenness of their people that they do not exempt themselves from the sin that caused such brokenness (i.e - well, I've never owned a slave; I didn't run the natives off their land).  In Nehemiah 1:6, while confessing the wickedness and sins of his people, Nehemiah takes ownership and says, “we have sinned against you”.  As long as we distance ourselves from the brokenness of the world rather than include ourselves, lament will never have its intended effect in helping us see through the eyes of God.  

Lament includes empathy:  Often we are quick to get defensive.  We are ready to prove our point.  We have a response ready to combat anything that is thrown at us from the "other side".  Or, maybe our response is less drastic, maybe we attempt to lessen the gravity of the hate shown, by attempting to point out what the offended party did as well.  I really appreciate Tim Keller's response to this tactic, "First, Christians should look at the energized and emboldened white nationalism movement, and at its fascist slogans, and condemn it—full stop. No, 'But on the other hand.'"    When we take either of these postures - defensiveness or an attempt to lessen the gravity of it - not only are we fostering the environment that thrives on injustice, we are preventing our own growth to become better humans.  What if, we began all interactions with the “other side” assuming that we might be the wrong ones - that we are the ones with limited or wrong perspective? Would this not allow us to grow in true empathy as we give ear to those who differ from us?  For years I couldn’t see my own unrecognized racist tendencies, simply because I was armed and ready to defend myself against any idea that I might be.  Until, one day, I entertained the thought that they might be right.  That was the day I realized that being right was not a virtue, but empathy is, and empathy makes for a better world for both myself and the other.

If we, as a people of God, rather than cast blame or play the tit-for-tat game, actually want to be part of a Kingdom movement, we need to begin by allowing events like we saw this past weekend move us to practice the art of lament.