"The murder capital of the U.S."
That's the dishonorable distinction my city earned last year when the FBI reported that Chicago had passed New York for total number of homicides. It is strange to live with this violent label. Most days we go about the work of business, school, and church. The threat of another young person's unnecessary death fades behind life's regular pleasures and distractions. But then the phone call or text message or social media update brings news of another death. Suddenly the long sad story behind another murder emerges, the details similar to and different than every other story for which our city has become known.
On a recent Saturday, while beginning our monthly prayer walk around the neighborhood, a church member pointed to a makeshift memorial beside the street. Candles marked the spot where a young man had been gunned down earlier in the week. I looked down the street from the memorial to the park district gym where our church meets for worship, imagining our church gathering the following morning. Each Sunday we pass these barely visible but unforgettable landmarks—trees, playgrounds, and intersections that remind us of death.
Every congregation faces moments of pain and loss: cancer strikes, the town's largest employer shuts down, another tornado appears, a drunk driver swerves. Every congregation and every pastor must respond to these moments, hopefully with biblically formed imaginations and Holy Spirit enforced courage. There is, however, a palpable difference between facing these occasional moments and living in the midst of regular and visible brutality. How do we respond when tragedy works its way into our skin?
Lament in Scripture
The Israelites asked a similar question. "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4). It was a question born of despair and desperation. It was a question asked in exile and with tears. The psalmists and prophets asked these kinds of questions frequently and offer us a vision of faithfulness in the worst sorts of circumstances.
As I come to love and care for our church's neighborhood and as I hear the stories of chronic inequity and loss within and without our congregation, I have turned to these stories and songs of exile. Here I have found words and practices for a people who have known great loss but who are learning that even the greatest losses are not the end of their story.
The Bible provides a word that helps us imagine faithfulness when the tragic moments begin piling up. Lament is what the Israelites do in exile as they wonder about God's presence. Lament is what the people do when they listen to Ezra read God's forgotten law. Lament is Nehemiah weeping and fasting upon hearing about Jerusalem's disgrace. Lament is Mordecai's sackcloth and ashes, his loud and bitter wailing in response to Haman's plan for genocide.
Lament is a cousin to grief and repentance with a key addition: identification. Pointing to examples like Moses and Jeremiah, Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes, "The sufferer's agony, discouragement, opposition, and protests become the mediator's. We pray 'as' them, as if we have become them." We lament, that is, on behalf of the ones who suffer.
Personal identification was natural for a people who shared history, culture, and religion. But for we who aspire to independence and autonomy such identification is strange, even incomprehensible. I recall the young, white man who, after hearing of the ongoing racism experienced by African-American members of our community, admitted, "I feel bad for you, but I don't know how to enter this with you." His sympathetic response was appreciated even as it was clear that he lacked the theological imagination to enter more deeply into the pain of his brothers and sisters. He didn't know how to lament.