There have been so many different kinds of responses among allies to the events of the past few weeks, and likewise, so many responses to those responses, that it’s often been hard to orient myself toward different colleagues, family members and friends whose experiences and perceptions have been so vastly different from one another. This range of responses drives some people crazy. It seems impossible to account for everyone’s experience and at the same time move forward together on an urgent social justice agenda. What is often being expressed is some form of anger and lament at the recognition of injustice. That’s an important first step for people, and while our culture today tends to focus on individuals “sitting with” their guilt, grief and anger, many traditions have recognized the importance of making communal space for these powerful emotions. Not just to heal the individuals feeling them, but to give them legitimacy as impetus for social change.
The limits of empathy (both our own capacity and its usefulness — something I have been struggling to grasp myself) have certainly been on full display lately, but it’s important to push back against the tendency to exaggerate the power of a personal response to systemic injustice. It’s not that personal awakening is not important; it’s very important. But personal awakening in itself is simply not sufficient to “do justice,” to achieve systemic change. A widespread and sustained justice movement, which is what is desperately needed at this point, is simply not possible without a communal process that incorporates lament in a formal and symbolically resonant way. We need to build just relationships to sustain just systems. Legitimizing lament is a part of that.
I’ve just read an essay from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on “The Costly Loss of Lament,” in a collection of theological reflections on anger that came out a couple years ago and remains timely as ever. In it, Brueggemann is concerned with the implications for the pursuit of social justice of a conception of an omnipotent God, especially well-known to Christians, whom believers are often expected to praise without question. As one of my Christian friends posted to Facebook just this morning: “Praise God even when you don’t understand what he’s doing!” Brueggemann (along with Job and the writers of the Psalms of Lament) asks: or what?
Brueggemann makes the intriguing claim — he says his sense is — that “in the Old Testament, Israel is more concerned with dike than with theos, more committed to questions of justice than to questions of God.” This claim takes me back to my own formation. One thing (among several) that drove me away from Christianity when I was a teenager was a (frankly wonderful) mentor in the church, a young pastor who got fed up with my constant questioning. Like most young people, I was concerned with dike much more than theos. Young people are, after all, always crying “It’s not fair!” This is usually self-serving, as most of us know, but sometimes, when, often by accident, it’s not, it can hit a nerve. Adolescent tantrums aside, properly and patiently guided, it can also be the beginning of serious theological reflection. After all, theos + dike = theodicy. The question of justice is of fundamental concern to theology.
But we didn’t quite get that far. The youth pastor must’ve felt badgered by my constant questioning (which often focused on my enduring skepticism around Christianity’s supernatural claims), because one day he just flat-out told me we couldn’t be friends if I kept questioning The Faith. I understand his frustration better now, of course, after years of teaching and mentoring young people myself. But this episode from 35 years ago obviously made an enormous impression on me. I was a young, socially awkward queer kid, and this fellow was one of the first to coax me out of my shell. It was an abrupt and painful rupture in my young life, the likes of which I had not experienced before. It certainly did nothing to bolster my Christian faith. It was obvious to both of us I wasn’t going to stop asking questions. So, off we went, our separate ways.
I’d been interested in Judaism anyway, and had a massive crush on a brilliant and witty red-headed Jewish boy (really his whole family) at the time. I had recently worn out my copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a story about a friendship between two boys, one orthodox and the other a reform Jew, set in Brooklyn in the 1940s. While there was nothing queer about the relationship between Reuven Malter and his friend Daniel Saunders in the book, it might as well have been a Harlequin romance: the idea of a passionate, intellectual friendship like the one in the book, was swoon-worthy. Jews were always asking questions, sometimes very serious, often very funny, and always answered with another question. Indeed, “to be Jewish,” as Edgar Bronfman said in Why Be Jewish?, “is to ask questions.” I was sold.
I went on to read the book of Job, Qoheleth and the Psalms of Lament– first as great literature (I never returned to the church) and only much later as theology — like most, not fully aware that Psalms had a formal, “cultic” function. It’s common, especially for casual Christians, to ignore context when reading bits and pieces of the Tanakh that have been transposed to, say, a daily devotional. This is often encouraged by supersessionist ideologies and popular ideas of Biblical inspiration that treat the text as a book of divination, like the I Ching. And books like Job and Psalms do stand alone as expressions of universal sentiments so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it’s easy to forget they had a ritual function, as well.
More than simply a poem to read when you feel sad, the Psalms of Lament go beyond personal petition. Brueggemann understands questioning God in the lament form as something that speaks to specific ideas and constructs of justice. The lament form constructs a very specific power relationship between the petitionary party (the psalm speaker) and the greater party (God) that legitimates the former and places into question the unmitigated supremacy of the latter. This is aligned with the covenantal nature of the relationship in Judaism, and, as Brueggemann suggests, keeps “all power relations under review and capable of redefinition.” This is a very different relationship with God than one that mandates absolute obedience and loyalty, and also a very different relationship to questions of justice.
Lament is not not just crying to God; it is questioning God, usually on matters of justice. Brueggemann reminds us that “lament occurs when the dysfunction”– political, economic, religious, moral — “reaches an unacceptable level, when the injustice is intolerable and change is insisted upon.” But “when the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate…. A community of faith which negates laments,” he warns, “soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise.” (Note here that the power of “the throne” is often transferable to earthly powers — often appallingly and blatantly corrupt — who claim it for themselves.) The Psalms of Lament are there to demonstrate to us that not only are we responsible to God, but that God is responsible to us. They remind us that we must raise our voices when we encounter injustice, and they remind God that God is a sojourner with us, the “The Fellow-Sufferer who Understands,” and must listen and learn.
Now, I don’t practice a theistic faith. That’s not what I’m getting at here. What I’m saying is that there are lessons in faith traditions we can look to as resources in times when questioning how we construct power — implicitly and explicitly — becomes imperative, understanding that to question dike is always to question theos, regardless of how we conceive of the latter. In lament as it is modeled in Judaism, we see a practical and prophetic mode that not only recognizes but honors our justifiable anger, and helps to move us from grief to hope, building new relationships, constructing justice.
“If not now,” as the sage Hillel famously asked, “when?”