As social media has been flooded in the last week with the realities of systemic racism in America, I’ve been questioning why - why now? Why are white pastors everywhere now coming out of the woodwork “lamenting” the murder of Ahmaud Arbery? Haven’t our black brothers and sisters been crying out this whole time? So why now? Why this time? My gut tells me it has something to do with the absence of a badge and uniform this time around. Sadly enough, I think it might have some merit. (And by the way, I’ve seen so much rhetoric around “This isn’t a political issue.” It is 150% a political issue. I think what people mean to say is, “Please don’t disregard this post because you think it’s inflammatory.” If you want to try to take politics out of it so that a certain demographic of white people can hear it, then fine. But make no mistake, systemic racism is and has always been political. That’s what racist policy making entails: a big political, power-keeping game.)
Here’s the story. I’ve seen this word “lament” all over social media in the last week. It’s everywhere. But at this point let me diverge and speak deliberately to my white brothers and sisters and paint with a broad brushstroke: most of us don’t know how to lament. We don’t know what it means. And I’d also take a wild guess that Lamentations is a highly skipped book of the Bible in most majority white churches. It’s because we don’t get it; it’s so disconnected from our reality. Some of us understand it deeply on an individual level (thank God for these prophets among us), but we have no concept for the reality of a collective lament. It is exactly why we also don’t preach on the cursing Psalms (Brueggemann calls this “Psalmectomies”- the ones that cry out, Why? And How long? we’ve carefully removed.)
I think about September of 2001, and how America was getting to know the families of those who were killed. The names of victims scrolled on a marquee for weeks. We said their names. We said as a nation that our reality would shift (and it has, for better or worse). But that’s about as close as any of us get to a collective understanding of lament.
I think some of us are really trying (again, some), and whether that intention meets impact is an entirely different question. But for those of us out there trying to wrap our heads around what it means to actively engage in antiracist work as followers of Jesus, let me say this: give pause to using the word lament until you’ve come to understand it, embody it, exercise it. White people need to do our own work in educating ourselves, 100%, but we also need to do our own internal work to look at our own pain, our own selves, because what we reject in ourselves we will reject in another person. That’s the law of bearing God’s image. Only what I accept in myself can I accept in another person. Where I have rejected my own humanity, I will reject the humanity of another.
This is not to say that white people need to just spend some time navel gazing for a while without actively engaging the work. But I do think there’s a reason why a gap exists between what writers of color have been telling us (Soong-Chan Rah and others) about lament and why we as majority white churches can’t get there. We don’t know how. And we don’t know how because we have a lot of pain we have refused to look at, or truthfully, because our ancestral pain has come at our own hands. It becomes a game of who has lost the most. That’s not how grief works, and that’s not how empathy works. Here is an invitation to sit with reality, to actively educate ourselves. Don’t wait for your friend of color to teach you everything you don’t know and absorb the learning curve for all that we have yet to learn.
When lives are lost, we tell their stories. We say their names. We learn what we can about what led to this moment in history. Lament is active; its task is to move us on a downward trajectory toward hope and renewal of life. It involves weeping, yes, but it also involves cursing and anger and confusion and oftentimes a dark night of soul, the feeling of crushed bones, a sour spirit. It is sitting with the question, Why? And How long?
Let the Psalmist teach us how to pray the prayers that involve the entirety of our humanity.
Dearly Beloved, let us curse and confess.