We Must Lament

On Saturday I shared the article I’ve read this year that has been most personally transformative. Indeed, even as I type I am participating in that life-change in a most delicious manner.

On a more serious note, as I think about academic articles I have read, and how they have shaped either my thinking or my life in general, I can only come up with one that has made such a strong impact that I would call it “life-changing.”

It is Walter Brueggemann’s “The Costly Loss of Lament.” It starts with the typical academic slowness, but then he starts unpacking the theological ramifications of a collective failure to mourn and lament.

What happens when all we have permission to do in our encounters with God is to praise? What happens when we leave off such a singular framework and let God know that the world, and our lives within it, are not as they should be?

To the latter question Brueggemann says:

My answer is that it shifts the calculus and redresses the redistribution of power between the two parties, so that the petitionary party is taken seriously and the God who is addressed is newly engaged in the crisis in a way that puts God at risk.

Lament shows us that God is a character in this story. Being bound to a story is an inherently dangerous business. It is like being in a relationship. In a relationship, mature people change. In a story, characters develop.

Lament calls out God for not using the power God has to act in a way befitting God’s character and the relationship God has with God’s people. This creates a necessary crisis in the relationship: will God do what is right?

Brueggemann goes on to talk about the necessity of lament for a true, full, and faithful covenant relationship. Without lament, God is simply surrounded by sycophantic yes-men and yes-women. And this is a problem.

Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.

God wants true covenant partnership, and is willing to change in the midst of it.

Brueggemann then turns to theodicy. Lament brings God into the great human disputation which says that the world is not as it should be, things can change, the speaker will not stand by while things are so unjust, and God is the one who must act to rectify them.

But the main point is the first. Life isn’t right. It is now noticed and
voiced that life is not as it was promised to be. The utterance of this awareness is an exceedingly dangerous moment at the throne. It is as dangerous as Lech Walesa or Rosa Parks asserting with their bodies that the system has broken down and will not be honored any longer.

The cry to God is both religious and at the same time social and political. Lament can be inherently costly, but more costly still is its neglect. If the call for justice is not appropriate before the throne of God, then they are not appropriate before the throne of the president or senator or governor or principal or administrator or boss or landlord.

Lament makes an assertion about the world. But not only that.

Rather, the lament makes an assertion about God: that this dangerous, available God matters in every dimension of life. Where God’s dangerous availability is lost because we fail to carry on our part of the difficult conversation, where God’s vulnerability and passion are removed from our speech, we are consigned to anxiety and despair and the world as we now have it becomes absolutized.

In the lament psalms, the voice of the people causes a change in heaven.

In another piece, Brueggemann expands on the social dimension, noting that we engage in lament not just for ourselves but to stand with those for whom the world is not right and to take their side in calling upon God to be who God has promised to be.

This complex of themes, in particular with its taking seriously God’s own involvement in the world and God’s willingness to be changed by the cries of the people in the world, has pulled me more deeply into both praise and lament.

It has shown me one way that the story-bound God wants to hear from us: we have to tell God when God’s world is dysfunctional, and entrust that dysfunction to the God who has the power to fix it.

And, it has shown me that the dynamics of social power inevitably create a situation in which the cry of the poor needs to be heard–and that it is all of our duty to raise it as high as heaven, and the slightly lower heights of human seats of power.

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4 thoughts on “We Must Lament

  1. I am certainly in agreement with our need for lamenting the condition of man’s state in this world. However, I have struggled with these issues for quite some time now. I have found God’s interest to be more existential than circumstantial, and more about the nature of our own being than our social conditions. My question would be, how long do we cry out for people who are not in covenant relation with God in Christ?

    1. Perhaps I have misunderstood, but who is to judge or determine who is “in covenant with God”? It sounds like one must check the credentials before addressing injustice or need in persons! Certainly not a model Jesus gave: Jesus only asks ” do you want to be healed?”, not ” are you in Covenant with God?”

      I do like Brueggeman’s point, for if we lament, we will surely “work for what we pray for”

  2. I would be remiss to not say this. I truly believe in the idea of our lamenting or simply presenting our needs before God as vital in the relation between God and man–both for man’s sake and for God’s. I am acutely aware of God’s high degree of interest in “this world”. I would say far more so than most christians I have met through the years.

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