Learning the Language of Lament

 Photo by Jah Grey from Pexels

Photo by Jah Grey from Pexels

I’m having a difficult time finding the words to express how I feel about what’s taken place in our country over the past week.

Angry words, I can find. I know how to articulate fury. I can do righteous indignation all day long.

And while all of those things are a potent part of the emotional bouillabaisse that makes up my inner life, there’s something pushing its way to the front of my feelings about the fact that two African Americans were shot just a couple of miles from my house in a Kroger by a white supremacist–after he’d tried to force his way into an African American church to unleash an even more potent murder spree. I’m speechless about the pipe bombs sent to critics of the president. I hold in my heart the people in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, who are trying to find a way to deal with the terrorism of anti-Semitism that left eleven people dead…in the sanctuary of a Synagogue.

Usually, I have no difficulty putting into words the outrage these kinds of utter moral debacles evoke in me. High dudgeon is a primary color in my emotional palette. I’m totally willing to cop to that.

But what I’m feeling is more than umbrage; it’s grief. And I don’t have the same verbal dexterity with grief. The appropriate words seem distant, unfamiliar.

But framing this lack of ability to express heartbreak as a religious problem provides gives me some sense of what those words of sorrow might sound like. In religion, we call this kind of social anguish communal lamentation.

Communal lamentation, in this sense, is a very public cry of despair in the face of injustice. It is a way of screaming out to God that the world seems to have turned to shit, and we just don’t know where to turn or what to do, or even how to put into words the feeling of lostness we experience.

The Hebrew Scriptures offer a model of what it looks like to cry out in pain:

O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved (Psalm 80:4–7).


The words of communal lament, the words we need to rediscover in this dark time, begin with the plea: “How long, O Lord?”—which is a way not only of expressing our distress, but of being honest about the fact that the world feels too much like God has abandoned us, like God has left us to reap the harvest of violence and hatred that have been sown while we remained silent.

So many of us are unfamiliar with the words of communal lament because the communities we inhabit have insulated themselves against the searing cries of our neighbors. We’ve had the “luxury” of ignoring the pleas for a justice from those who cannot afford such apathy.

But people like me cannot afford apathy any longer—not so much because people like me are in danger of the violence that spreads, but because people of privilege have a moral responsibility to attend to the desperate appeals for justice and peace from our neighbors who have every reason to believe God has left them holding the bag—or if not God, then the people who so casually claim to be in relationship with God.

People like me–people who don’t live in constant fear that an angry white guy with a gun or access to bomb-making equipment will emerge from fever dreams long enough to tear their world in two–need to develop not merely the words of communal lament, but an understanding of why some know those words only too well.

How long, O Lord?

[This article first appeared at The Good Men Project.]