Of Anger, Lament, and Justice

The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842, by Thomas Cole.

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?

Good question.

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?”

When Allies Aren’t Enough

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

Yesterday’s panel on allyship at Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement: Racism and Antiracism, Our Realities and Our Roles, was disappointing, and highlighted several issues I have with the use of the word “ally” and current assumptions about how to move forward in authentic relationship together for real systemic change. I’m trying to think critically about our assumptions about effective roles in structural and regime change, and what I saw yesterday was just… not that.

The language of “allyship” has diplomatic and military associations, and alludes to treaties of mutual aid and protection. On the face of it, allyship seems a reasonable enough way to label a relationship whose purpose is to “join forces” to attack a common enemy: presumably institutional or systemic racism. I mean, that’s a cool martial metaphor we can all get behind, right? Fight the power!

But it shouldn’t take long in scratching the surface of this usage to ask: now, who is the “enemy” again? The truth of systemic racism is that the enemy is, for all intents and purposes, the ally (and vice-versa). Black folks and People of Color have been telling us this every time we come together. It isn’t overt, but implicit racism that is the real problem, and allies engage in it constantly, whether through big performative gestures or the death by a thousand cuts of relentless microaggressions.  

A recent article in Medium by Catherine Pugh put it flatly: “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally.’” The author reminded self-styled white allies: “You’re not ‘helping’ when it’s your mess we’re cleaning.” I know “good white people” who are taken aback by this discomfiting frankness. “It makes me not want to help at all!” one of my colleagues snapped during a group discussion on how we could best be of service to the BLM Movement recently. It was a disappointing remark, but you can see how the allyship frame sadly makes this a logical thought-process for many white folks. 

Alliances are arrangements built on power, after all. Between nations they involve treaties, containing casus foederis clauses that outline when allies are obligated to aid one another. But as we’ve seen in the behavior of the current US administration, alliances can be abandoned by bad faith actors at any time, especially those who feel they don’t need the protection the alliance provides its members. Mr. Trump never tires of reminding the allies of the US of what he perceives as imbalance in the power dynamic. Assistance is offered only where fawning appreciation is assured. In some ways this is the usage that has seeped into the implicit understanding of white allyship.

I realize it may seem frivolous to be arguing semantics at this point, but the words we use to describe relationships are important — and loaded. Sometimes they carry meanings we are not fully aware of until we begin to examine them more deeply and from different vantage points. I have been reading some trauma theory in preparation for a course this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about different ways to frame relationships steeped in abuse and generational trauma. Prof. Shelly Rambo has suggested “witness” as a theological response, something I’ll be exploring in a future post.

I’m also curious about Jewish and early Christ communities’ response to the systemic violence inherent and endemic in empire. How can we talk about a liberative agenda that goes deep into the structural roots of the particular kinds of violence we have internalized and normalized? How do we transform the awakening to systemic evil into relationship in community?

What are the words and metaphors we need to breathe life into this awakening?

Intolerable Civility

Valentin de Boulogne, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, c.1618

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ (John 2:13-16 NIV)

I can hear it now, can’t you? “What has happened to civility?” “Couldn’t he have just asked nicely?” “Here’s this guy who hangs out with publicans and prostitutes, and all the sudden he can’t handle a few money-changers in the Temple?” “What a hypocrite!” “Yeah, where’s the tolerance?” Pretty sure that’s how this would go down on Meet the Press.  

It is probably no coincidence that the “civility movement” always seems to gain steam when the marginalized have been pushed so far they must raise a ruckus simply to be heard. But we know as well from recent events that even silent protests, like “taking a knee,” can provoke charges of incivility when the message is one that threatens privilege. As Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic last year when the immigration and family-separation crisis sparked outrage: “Civility is … wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it” by “a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.”

Like the language of civility, that of tolerance can be a kind of cudgel as well, an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Tolerance speaks even more frankly than civility of inequality in the social order. Think of the profound asymmetry of the active and passive of the verb: while we may feel pride at our ability to tolerate others, how does it feel to “be tolerated”? Tolerance remains a pillar of the political life of a secular society, but like the language of civility, it is inadequate — I would argue inappropriate even — for communities of faith and coalitions of conscience.

Whether in our own communities or in interfaith conversations, tolerance, aside from indicating entrenched (if implicit) bias, is the language of spiritual scarcity. And if you doubt this, think again of a verb in the active and passive that communicates true abundance: to love and be loved. The language of tolerance is too often used in religious settings to begrudge admittance to those whose whole humanity we are unwilling to engage with our own. It often substitutes without our even realizing it for the language of abundance that truly opens up possibilities of transformation.

The language of tolerance and civility not only glosses over the difficult work of justice and equality, of radical love and hospitality to which our transformative communities really owe their existence and to which they must continually and explicitly recommit themselves, it also makes the work itself harder to conceive. Our uncritical use of language that continually reinforces power and privilege can actually silence the language of abundance out of which flows the courage and conviction to live in abundance with one another.

Language matters. In the beginning was the Word. Relying on the language of tolerance and civility limits what we can expect from encounters across difference and makes us complicit in the world of scarcity that this language depicts. That the language and life of abundance can embrace difference, encourage us to work together through difficulty and discord, and provide us with tools to navigate conflict in the pursuit of transformation is, for me, a fundamental article of faith. In fact, it may be what faith itself is for.

Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.