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.