After hearing the news that a Cleveland grand jury decided not to indict two police officers for the killing of 12-year old Tamir Rice, I thought of my own son. He’s five. He has bright brown eyes that can make me grin even when I’m grumpy. His boisterous energy at once exhausts and amuses any adult who has the privilege of spending time with him. His favorite game is “chase” because he just loves to run. Perhaps Tamir’s parents saw the same in their young child.
The similarities between my own son and Rice and the fact that we shared the same color skin made his death and the grand jury’s verdict painfully personal. But I felt uncertain about expressing my sorrow publicly. When I’ve let my sadness show in the past, instead of sympathizing, people have questioned the validity of my feelings. Particularly when it comes to racial issues, they’ve increased my grief with their disagreement and made me regret the choice to communicate my vulnerability.
Nevertheless, several days later I shared my pain in an essay, focusing on the fear I had for my son. I’ve been working for racial justice long enough to know there would be Christians who would disagree. But some comments still stung.
"What are black fathers doing allowing their children to mess with guns, even fake ones? ... If you allow your kids to behave like gangsters, they are going to get killed, whatever color they are,” one commenter wrote.
Another dismissed my essay because I hadn’t heard the testimony or evidence that the grand jury received.
“I would have hoped for more careful analysis from an [Reformed Theological Seminary] grad and staff member,” the commenter wrote.
As someone who has felt burned after speaking honestly about my feelings on social media, I’m not surprised at my reluctance. But increasingly, I’m realizing that God calls us to share our grief, mainstream and popular—or not, with the very people who might hurt us.
Why We Lament
In biblical language, sorrow about injustice is called “lament.” At least five psalms are dedicated to lament (44, 60, 74, 80, 90), and the author of Lamentations devotes the entire book to grieving the fall of Jerusalem. When David learns of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, he writes and teaches a song to the people of Judah (2 Sam. 1:17). Jeremiah composed a dirge for the deceased King Josiah. (2 Chron. 35:25). In each case, they lament “in public.” Lament is anguish out loud. There is a time to process affliction in solitude, but there is also a time to reveal your ache to others.
But lament communicates more than despair; it cries out for deliverance. In Psalm 44, the people of Israel plead with Yahweh to have mercy on them.
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love. (vv. 23–26)
The New Testament also gives ample backing for the legitimacy of public lament. In fact, Jesus’ final public address is a lament for Jerusalem.
About 40 percent of all the psalms include lament in some form, notes North Park University professor Soong-Chan Rah in Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. The songs we sing, though, rarely express lament. In one study Rah cites, hymns of lament comprised just 19 percent of a contemporary Presbyterian hymnal and 13 percent of a Baptist one.
Embracing public lament can be difficult, especially for white American Christians. Historically, white Christians have been a part of the dominant culture and have understandably emphasized themes of victory and optimism.
But “the triumph-and-success orientation of our typical church member [needs] the corrective brought by stories of struggle and suffering," writes Rah. In many ways, lament serves as a tool to help believers live in the tension between the perfection to come and the sinfulness of the world right now.
Lament is also “an act of protest” that allows the lamenter “to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering," says Rah. In other words, when we denounce tragic outcomes and the unjust systems that produce them, we lament.
Consequently, public lament requires courage. Calling out sin and the damage it causes always meets resistance. Most in power have little desire to admit they may be misusing it, especially if their intent is benign. But not expressing grief over unrighteousness in the midst of it implicitly condones it. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Grief that remains hidden can convey support or indifference to injustice.
The public nature of lament allows an opportunity for Christians to bear one another's burdens. Anyone who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death knows it is much easier to keep plodding with a friend nearby. Sometimes the greatest comfort in times of disaster is another person or a chorus of people who weep with you.
First Corinthians 12 describes believers as one body, different yet connected. "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (v. 26). Lamenting is a way of inviting other members of Christ’s body to suffer together—even if some reject the offer.
The Risks of Public Lament
Public lament isn’t just about exposing injustice; it’s about exposing your heart. Sharing your pain with others often results in even more pain since those who disagree may inflict further harm. In my experience, those who make the most injurious remarks seem detached from the issue. At times, people don’t recognize the genre of lament and misdiagnose public sorrow as punditry. To them, it’s just another hot take or social media rant.
To others, it’s a philosophical problem—an issue on which to pontificate or an abstract theory to dissect. These commenters leap straight to the “facts” without pausing to consider the person. Attempts to explain result in frustration on both sides because two different conversations occur.
In my own experience discussing race, I’ve watched one person talking about what was said or done or what should have occurred. Meanwhile another person is attempting to express his or her feelings about what happened. Both are legitimate conversations, but they can’t occur simultaneously. When someone responds to your public lament with data, it’s as if they are delegitimizing your reaction, and by extension, your humanity.
These responses hurt because lament is personal. Ask the couple who has endured a miscarriage how they grieve over legalized abortion. Ask the ex-inmate trying to get a job how he feels about prison reform. The more personal a situation, the higher the risk you will get hurt when you publicly lament.
The Shalom of Lament
Our lament expresses God’s desire for justice and shalom. When Christians lament, it helps us envision a more righteous reality and can spur action. Vigorous Christian activism is always connected to a passion to see God’s kingdom come and a righteous discontentment at anything less.
Ultimately, lament is about hope. It doesn’t merely point out problems, but directs us to the One who can fix it. The almighty God draws near to us in our sorrow and comforts us. He promises to redeem our woes in the new creation, where there will be no mourning, crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:4–5).
Jemar Tisby is president of the Reformed African-American Networkand director of the African-American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.