Learning to Lament
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King set out to convince his white colleagues that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." His identification with the plight of the African-American community in Birmingham compelled him to "carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] own home town." In contrast, it was the lack of lament over the plight of African-American neighbors that kept the white clergymen and their churches from saying and doing the things their Christian faith demanded. They identified with neither the pain of their African-American neighbors nor the sins of prejudice and privilege that led to violent discrimination.
Again, consider Nehemiah. In addition to lament, his prayer is also full of worship and petition. He is able to identify with the pain and sin before him and simultaneously praise God and ask for courage and deliverance as he moves forward. Lament neither overwhelms him nor does it paralyze him from acting. Through his lamentation Nehemiah becomes an actor in the story and he is compelled to respond in faith.
The words and concepts of lament may be unfamiliar to many of our congregations, but it is a language we can begin to learn rather easily. Pastors can comment on events in the community that call for lament. Certain Psalms can be adapted for corporate prayer and responsive readings to teach us this ancient language.
Members of our churches can share their stories, inviting the rest of the church into their experience and perspective. The language may be new, but our ancestors in the faith have set a precedent and example that we can follow.
We celebrated communion on the Sunday after learning of the young man's death near our gym. After praying the liturgy and before receiving the bread and wine, our small congregation filed onto the sidewalk and made our way to the place of the murder. In small groups we prayed for our neighbors, for the one who pulled the trigger, and for the young man's grieving family. We did our best to lament, to step into the ugliness and confusion of the situation. A woman confessed that she has benefitted from the same structures that made this man's death a statistical likelihood.