So, last week, I considered writing about how the events in the US made me feel, as a black man in the UK. But then I thought I’d sit with it a bit. Some of that was because I asked myself if I really wanted to talk about it, and I realised I didn’t. It felt too personal and too heavy and I didn’t want to process it publicly just yet.
I do now.
See, it’s not even just the US events. It’s stuff going on here in the UK, and back in Nigeria as well. There was news of killings in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. On Sunday a 22-year old undergrad, Uwa Omozuwa, was reported to be raped and murdered. And then yesterday, on the first of June, there was news that Ebola had reappeared in Congo. And that’s on top of all the still ongoing disruption from COVID-19.
Honestly, it’s all a lot.
The world has always felt broken, if you’ve been paying attention, but this year feels particularly so. And in the midst of it all, I’ve come to find a deeper appreciation of lament.
Lament is the category of prayers that are complaints to God about people—and about God. There’s a long tradition of lament in Christian history, going all the way back to its roots in Judaism, including an entire book named Lamentations.
Lament was key to the ancient Hebrews because much of their history was, honestly, lamentable. They were a small people holding on to outlandish prophecies about future greatness, but who instead often found themselves, for long decades of their history, either subject to global superpowers or actually in exile. And that was just on the national level: there were also inter-tribal conflicts as well as all kinds of injustice and oppression. For those who took the promise of the prophecies seriously, the brokenness of the people was even harder to take: when your expectations are high, your disappointment at falling short is necessarily far more so. As Paul Miller says in a A Praying Life:
That’s what makes laments so messy. They bring together two things (reality and promise) that recoil from one another. A lament connects two “hot” wires—God’s promise and the problem. When that happens, sparks fly…
But somehow, in many of the sanitised versions of mainstream modern Christianity, this tone of lament is gone. Which can only mean either we’ve somehow lost our hope for a better world, or are blind to the brokenness of this one. Or both.
Which is itself lamentable, because there is a much to lament in our day. Injustice continues to feature prominently. COVID-19 has shown up the insincerity of many governments and forced us to take a rest from a planet breaking under our collective industrial weight. Having to stay at home has confronted us with the inequalities that make that impractical for so many. The events in the US while we’re all stuck at home have left many unable to ignore, for the first time, black people declaring racism isn’t “gone”. And back in Nigeria, the brutal murder of a young girl after she was gang-raped is forcing many to face the gravity of injustices to women in things we have taken as norms.
The world is broken.
To quote Miller again:
There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something. If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down… In a lament we tell God, “Your word has not become flesh.”
Perhaps 2020 is the year we’re forced to confront its brokenness, and our part in it. Because, make no mistake: we are all complicit in some aspect of the brokenness of the world. (Or, to put it in terms of Christian thought: we are all guilty of sin.) And so our lament must be twofold: for the brokenness of the world, and for our own part, intentional andunintentional, in it.
But lament mustn’t stop at just words or emotion. In fact, if our lament doesn’t move us to act, it calls its sincerity into question. To return to biblical terms, there’s a difference between remorse and repentance: one is simply feeling bad about one’s part in some wrong while the other is about acting on the feeling and changing how one lives going forward from there. To use psychological terms, it’s the difference between intellectual insight (I get it, but don’t act) and emotional insight (I get it enough that I’m making a change).
Lament is the expression of our pain at seeing the difference between how things should be and how they are. And then thinking about what role we can play in bridging the gap and doing it.
And that last part is important, because it’s easy to blow things up to such a scale that we feel like nothing we can do would make a difference.
But you don’t know that.
You don’t know how your actions can cascade. You don’t know what it can inspire, whose life it can change, what difference it will make. Very few people who changed things forever knew at the time how far-reaching their actions would be. So yes, think about what you can do, but don’t overthink it. Do something. Act. Like trying to learn a language, you’ll learn far more by actually trying and failing and trying again than by sitting around on your hands trying to figure out the best thing to do.
Those who see lament, and those who lament act. And the seeing and lamenting and acting all happen together. And yes, there’s joy too, even in the lament, because there’s still beauty and brilliance, but it is a joy that does not forget.
One last word from Miller.
[O]ddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief. Reality wins, and hope dies. Put another way, the reality of a broken world triumphs over the new reality of a redeemed world. You miss resurrection and get stuck in death…
May we recover the gift of lament.