By Rev. Daniel Headrick
Atlanta, the lonely city that once was full of people!
Bereft of her churches, synagogues, and mosques;
Churned up by racism and civil unrest;
Devastated by pandemic and fear…O Atlanta.
I lament what is happening in Atlanta because that’s where I live. But you can fill in the blanks with your city. Atlanta is a COVID-19 “hotspot” and the place where the Governor sued the Mayor for mandating that residents wear masks. Our hospitals are at or near capacity. We were one of the first states to “re-open” in contravention of CDC guidelines and there are fearful days ahead.
So, let us speak of lament. The amateur lines I wrote above are a modern acrostic,[i] inspired by the Book of Lamentations which teaches us in the painful classroom of lament. It has done my soul good to drink in the deep metaphoric world of Lamentations, and then imaginatively map those poems onto our world. Yes, Lamentations. That chronically overlooked set of enigmatic poems appended to Jeremiah in the Christian canon. For Lamentations provides us with language adequate to our grief.
Written in the aftermath of the greatest national tragedy narrated in the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations requires us to look at the lived experience of suffering across the divide of class and gender, impacting every citizen of Jerusalem. Babylon invaded in 587 BCE, destroyed the Temple, and exiled most of the political leaders and citizenry. Murder, rape, and famine were the new realities. In its poetry we read of the shock of confronting God during trauma, which perhaps explains why it is so underread and unheard in American churches.
Lamentations begins with a plaintive, traumatized and shocked utterance: “How?” As in, how did it come to pass that Zion is no more? How is it that children die at their mother’s breast, beg for food, and are eaten by their starving parents? (Lamentations 4:3-4,10; 2:20). How is it that the princes and priests, those who had led the people through political and religious spaces, are stripped of power? (Lamentations 1:6; 4:14; 5:12).
The answer to the plaintive how comes again and again, but it must first await the experience of witnessing trauma. So, we must hear words that would never be uttered in the triumphal liturgy of most American churches:
The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything. (Lamentations 4:4).
And we must read of acts that are as horrifying as they are unbelievable:
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people. (Lamentations 4:10).
We would like to look away, yet the Bible will not let us if we are to be truthful to its painful and necessary lament.
Indeed, during trauma at the national level, no one is spared from looking away. War and its cruel undiscriminating violence is—in a perverse way—like God in that it is “no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34 KJV). “The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets.” (Lamentations 2:21). Priests and prophets—both the false kind and the godly kind—suffer the same fate as everyone else: they too die. (Lamentations 2:20). War and famine destroy the privilege of wealth and power, for “Those who feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple cling to ash heaps.” (Lamentations 4:5). [ii]
Lamentations is rigorous in its insistence that the brutality and suffering narrated in its pages can be explained. And the poems’ collective answer is one that should set our teeth on edge. God did this. Yes, God commanded and ordained this. (Lamentations 3:37-38). In fact, God planned this from the beginning. The divine logic by which punishment would come was premeditated.
The Lord has done what he purposed,
he has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
he has demolished without pity;
he has made the enemy rejoice over you,
and exalted the might of your foes. (Lamentations 2:17).
And yet, God did not act arbitrarily, but in accordance with the covenant made with God’s people. God’s destructive violence comes about, rather ironically, because God is faithful.
The covenant made in Deuteronomy set the terms, plain as day. If the people make an idol they will “utterly perish” and “the Lord will scatter you among the peoples.” (Deuteronomy 4:25-27). The theology of blessings and curses is the primary explanatory device in Lamentations for the awful suffering in the land. The people sinned and God “faithfully” punished them.
And yet, the slippery language of Lamentations and our own theological sensitivities resist such attempts at explanation. No theology which has grappled with Auschwitz can blithely explain away murder, rape, and infanticide as the causal result of ancestral sin. Lamentations, arguably, offers an “explanation” which fits one of the dominant frames of the Bible—the Deuteronomic system of blessings and curses—and yet also offers a poetic counter to this theology.
We have the same human impulse to explain. Every funeral where we hear the whisper of “she’s in a better place” or “it was his time” evokes the notion that life and death proceed according to a plan. Everywhere we turn we encounter this god who has a “plan,” who is “in control,” and who “opens doors” when the “time is right.”
These are our explanations because, I believe, we seem to need them. But Lamentations moves beyond explanation to something more ambiguous. The poems dare to confront and address God, when our explanations have gone away.
Shockingly, God has become “like an enemy” (Lamentations 2:5). Because God has carried out “in his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12). terrible destruction. “Look at my affliction” Jerusalem cries out to God. (Lamentations 1:9). But she can have no confidence that God is looking. For, as the man of affliction complains to God: “you have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through.” (Lamentations 3:44). So much for explanation.
God is a mute witness to the poem, one who is angry and destroys, and yet one who is ineluctably present. There is literally no one else to whom the poems’ prayers can be addressed. This is the God we have, the One who created a world where war and pandemic seem to thrive. We would sometimes prefer another god, and American evangelicalism has perhaps succeeded in authoring its own idol made in their image, but reality has a way of marching on.
God speaks exactly once in the text, and we cannot even be sure of that. The narrator of the third poem—a man of “affliction”—is one who has direct experience of atrocity. Read chapter three to live for a few moments in this man’s “wasted” skin and “broken” bones. (Lamentations 3:4). And it is this perhaps unreliable narrator who speaks directly to God, “You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’ (Lamentations 3:57). Perhaps God did say that, and yet fear is a pervasive emotion that threatens to overwhelm the poem. Fear that God does not see our suffering here on Earth. Fear that God does not hear our prayer.
In 5:21, the fifth poem ends with a bleak and ambiguous sense of non-closure. Hopefully, the poet asks God to “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21). We would have preferred the poet ended it on that note of hope, renewal, and restoration. But the pain of trauma lingers, and so lament gets the last word: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:22).
Speech which shatters the illusion that everything will end up “ok” is not speech that will fit on the preacher’s PowerPoint. Such truth telling is not what we think we need to hear but lament is the closest thing to telling the truth that we’ve got, and that is perhaps why we need the language of lament in our culture so desperately during a pandemic.
No prayer can pass through
I wish to return to Lamentations 3:44 for a moment, where the poet describes God as “wrapped” in a “cloud” such “that no prayer can pass through.” My God that is a painful image, and one that I hope is as ephemeral as a cloud. But it is the honest language of lament. When life goes to hell, we often feel that “no prayer can pass through.” God is up there, wrapped in a cloud, invisible, remote, mute, absent.
Struggling to breathe, George Floyd in his last moments cried out “Mama!” which we might hear as a modern Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani? “Mama” was a lament which millions of Americans refused to hear. It never reached their ears. Did it pass through to God?
It may feel like, for millions of Americans, that we are in a kind of hell where no prayer can pass through. Let us begin with the sheer magnitude of death and suffering caused by the pandemic. At time of writing, over 150,000 have died as a result of COVID-19 in the United States and over nearly 690,000 have died worldwide. Early reporting from Europe indicates that survivors of the disease are dealing with long term, and in many cases, debilitating health consequences.
The virus has been no “respecter of persons” in some regards, killing celebrities and people of economic means. And yet, those seem to be the outliers, as people with economic means can pay for private testing while the rest of the country struggles to find prompt access and deal with long test result periods. Meanwhile, communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
In my home city of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was diagnosed with COVID-19. She issued a mandatory mask order for Atlantans, only to be sued by the Governor on grounds that he alone could issue more stringent regulations during a statewide emergency.
The economic impact of the virus has been devastating and is ongoing. National unemployment hovers around 11%. The impact on both single parents and low-income people is unimaginable. And with American’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment, more suffering will follow for millions of those unemployed.
Our houses of worship are largely shuttered, and those which aren’t have sometimes been the site of infection. The poet laments that “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan.” (Lamentations 1:4). Yes, no one is coming to church, and we wonder for how long people will want to watch videos of us doing “worship.” A lot of priests are groaning.
Working families have been especially hard hit. Deb Perelman, writing for the New York Times, gave voice to our failure to lament this specific tragedy, describing the awful dilemma facing our nation’s parents:
“Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job. Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?”
It is because, she writes, “we are too bone-tired to raise our voices above a groan, let alone scream through a megaphone.” Put in theological language, we have lost our capacity to lament.
A necessary condition of engaging in lament is to describe, without flinching, the painful lived experience of this moment. To do so, we must have fidelity to facts. Facts are stubborn. They will not “go away” as the President has claimed many times of COVID-19.
And yet, the facts only skim the surface of the suffering and as such, are shallower than the descriptive poetry of Lamentations. What we lack in such factual recitation is the lived experience and pain of individual human beings. We lack being confronted by those who are suffering: by those who are currently struggling to breathe, hooked up to a ventilator; by those family members who are barred from seeing their loved ones who are in the hospital; by those front line medical workers who are exposed to COVID-19 every day; by those parents who have lost their jobs; by the women and children who are locked up with an abuser because of a quarantine.
Their suffering cries out!
Back in May, when we crossed the threshold of 100,000 deaths, the New York Times devoted its front page to brief obituaries of those who died. You can scroll down the Times’ interactive page and see, at random, 44 year old Louvenia Henderson, “proud single mother of three.” Or, Sherman Pittman, who “dedicated his life to his church and his neighborhood.” Reading their names aloud and even the ever so brief obituary line is a form of lament. It is truth telling. These are real people with real lives, leaving behind a hole in the world where they used to be.
False and deceptive visions
Instead of the truth telling of lament in this country, we get something far bleaker—a series of evasions and obfuscations, all calculated to avoid honest description of what we are experiencing. We are surrounded by “false and deceptive visions” which, if we let them, prevent us from engaging in lament.
Here are a few that strike me. You can add your own.
The false vision of princes and kings. When the Babylonians invaded, the political leaders of Jerusalem acted like “deer” and they fled, leaving the people to fend for themselves. (Lamentations 1:6). Political solutions to real world problems were unobtainable, then and now. Late in chapter four, the specter of a political solution is offered, and then shattered: “The people were watching eagerly for a nation that could not save.” (Lamentations 4:17).
What we have experienced at every level of government is a catastrophic failure of courage, wisdom, and moral integrity. We asked for testing, but the testing is still not here. We asked for truth telling, but a cascade of lies ensued. We asked for compassion, and we were told that the economy must reopen. The nation cannot save, then and now.
The false vision of the anti-science movement. I think of the so-called anti-mask movement in the United States, which traffics in the language of personal liberty and hyperbolic references to oppressive regimes, and yet is strangely immune to both the evidence of science and love of neighbor. Whether you wear a mask during a pandemic is largely an indication of “what side you are on.”
So, the CDC director can say “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.” And yet, there are many Americans who believe they have a constitutional right to endanger their neighbor who vehemently oppose wearing masks in public.
The false prophets of greed over human life. In the rush to reopen the country, leaders were guided by economic considerations that devalued human life. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas said in April about the push to reopen his state, that “there are more important things than living.” He recently stated he would not be listening to Dr. Fauci’s counsel: “I don’t need his advice anymore.” The President has pushed relentlessly for re-opening the economy, schools, and places of worship.
Taken together, all these strategies of evasion and deception work against lament. The refusal to listen to science is a refusal to name what science tells us: the virus is here, people are suffering, and there are concrete things we can do to combat it. The refusal to acknowledge the toll of human suffering is a refusal to look at suffering and name it as real.
Great is thy faithfulness
Lamentations has been neutered of its lament for too long. We have chosen to sing that wonderful hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness again and again without acknowledging that the poet cannot say these words from Lamentations 3:23 without first engaging in lament. The poem ends on a note of tragic ambiguity, and yet at its center is the kernel of hope. Perhaps we can carry such hope around in the center of our lives.
We must look at suffering, name it in truth, resist the false denials of those who would rather not look, and only then may we emerge from lament.
The poet wants God and the human reader to look. “See, O Lord, how distressed I am” (Lamentations 1:20). “Look, O Lord and consider!” (Lamentations 2:20).
The poet wants God and the human reader to remember and not to forget. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (Lamentations 5:1).
It is only when we look, remember, and narrate the painful reality of this awful moment that we will be ready to affirm, in the words of the poet,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23).
The Rev. Daniel Headrick is associate pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Northside Drive, he practiced civil litigation with a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a former fellow of both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
[i] “The first four poems are acrostics, which means that each succeeding line or set of lines begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet.” Duane Garrett, Song of Songs, Lamentations (vol. 23B; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2004), 306.
[ii] Lamentations 4:5. Purple or crimson is a reference to wealth, evidenced by the expense associated with dyeing clothes with the expensive color. Duane Garrett, Song of Songs, Lamentations (vol. 23B; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas, TX: Word, Incorporated, 2004), 439.
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash