November 30th is Remembrance Day for Lost Species. It’s a growing movement and in many places around the world people gather on this day to express a sense of grief and loss that every twenty minutes, on average, another species of living being dies out and is lost to the Earth forever. We are living through the sixth ‘mass extinction event’ in the Earth’s history, and the first one in human history. Human activity is to blame for a large part of it, through climate change, deforestation and other deprivation of habitats, as well as modern farming techniques such as the over-use of chemicals. In Brighton this year, some people will gather on the evening of November 30th, some in fancy dress, and we will process around a park to mourn, particularly, the loss of pollinators (not just insects but birds and mammals). There will be some form of secular ritual as a diverse group tries to express our feelings at the death of these amazing creatures.
In our diverse western culture, it is hard to find shared rituals, especially around grief and loss. The closest we come, perhaps, are the floral tributes placed at the scene of a tragedy. A culture of progress discourages the expression of what is termed negative emotion. To name and curse the darkness is an act of betrayal. The American environmental scientist who, a few years ago and in a bleak moment, tweeted ‘We’re all f***ked’ lost his job, not for swearing but for betraying the narrative that we will fix climate change [This is old news, and I haven’t found a source for attribution]. In the environmental movement, we’re always being told to keep the message positive, that gloom and doom doesn’t work, and so on. Lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness.
I am going to argue in this paper that there is a long tradition of cursing the darkness and that this tradition could be valuable for us in these days of great and rapid change, if we can recover it and appropriate it for our situations. I hope to present a case for naming and cursing the darkness through lamentation and how this can function as a lever that can turn us from despair to dissent and so act as a tool for change.
Writing as a Christian, I will begin by looking at lament in the bible, making various references to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as to the work of some theologians (see bibliography at the end). While I personally have religious concerns, I really want to address my thoughts to the wider culture in which I live. I will try to draw parallels between the religious context and the secular. Even in a post-modern culture, there are grand narratives that shape our conceptual and behavioural norms and govern the way we understand the world. When the world doesn’t work for all and makes little sense to many, the voicing of lament may rip a hole in the fabric of liberal economic and political consensus and let the darkness in – and then what will we do? That is, essentially, what I want to explore in this essay.
What is lament?
The Jewish scriptures (referred to as the Old Testament by Christians), are an anthology of writings from different perspectives over several centuries. A dominant idea that can be found in a number of biblical writings is, to put it crudely, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is punished. There are other voices in the anthology that challenge this. One such voice is that of lament.
Laments generally take the form of poetry. The longest in the bible is the book of Lamentations, addressing the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonian empire around 587BCE. Other biblical laments are also set against this back-drop. Many of these are found in the book of Psalms, which was the prayer-book and hymn-book of the Jewish and Christian faiths for centuries. Therefore these are communal laments in every sense. Other lament psalms are more personal, sometimes attributed to David. They may refer to illness or fleeing from enemies or being a victim of violence. But even with these, it is worth remembering that they have been said and sung by communities of faith as communal expressions of worship. As such, the community takes ownership of the lament of an individual or of an ancient people and shares, in loving solidarity in the present day, their experience of pain.
A lament is voiced by an innocent victim. There are other psalms and poems in the bible that are penitential, appealing for mercy and forgiveness. By contrast, laments not only express sadness, pain and loss, but a sense of bewilderment or injustice about the writer’s situation. They are poems of theological confusion and sometimes anger against God, calling God to action and reminding God of God’s nature, of God’s interventions in the past and of God’s responsibilities in the present. A lament therefore sits in a gap between the way the world is being experienced and the way the world should be. That gap, or tension, is also between the way God seems to be and the way God should be: a tension between experience and creedal, propositional belief. [See Dawes p.79; Roth p.20].
What does lament do?
Lament functions in at least three ways.
First, to state the obvious, lament voices grief. It gives form to deeply felt emotion so that the sense of grief, pain and loss can be articulated. The words may be inadequate, but even so, it brings the pain into the open, names it and tries to say how it is. The alternative is to bury it. Buried grief will come out one way or another and, uncontrolled, can be destructive. If the issue is loss through injustice or oppression, to leave that un-named and buried is to hand victory to the oppressor, unopposed. Heather Walton tells the story of drought in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, in the early 1990s. In desperation, people tried to draw water from abandoned mineshafts, but found that their containers just pulled up human bones: the remains of murdered dissidents buried there in the conflict of the early ‘80s that followed the country’s war of liberation. A spirit medium prophesied that until the evil was brought into the light, until the dead were no longer hidden away but buried with due honour, the rains would not fall. [From a sermon delivered in 1992]. The stories of greed, injustice, violence and death must be told. Stories of people being impacted by climate change must be told. You must look the refugee in the face. Extinct species must be named and honoured, their loss mourned and the story of how they were wiped out uncovered and told. The voicing of lament insists that evil be named and the darkness cursed and the perpetrators held to account. Otherwise, the easy narratives of peace and well-being that keep the status quo in place and hide the price paid by its victims will prevail.
Second, when a lament is shared by a community, it is a profound act of solidarity. In religious terms, that communal ownership of lament may symbolise God’s love, while also owning the helplessness felt when God seems silent, inactive or even absent. In general terms, there is something powerful in the choice to stand with another and co-own their powerlessness. To voice another’s pain, as if in their voice and from their place, can release compassion and anger and the realisation that someone’s suffering is my problem too; it is our problem that the world is not as it should be. As John Donne put it (in the language of his time): ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ [From Devotions 17]. Walter Brueggemann, writing on the psalms of lament, says that it is important to ask, ‘Whose psalm is this?’ [Brueggemann p.87]. Ask, who needs to pray like this today? Whose lament is this today?
Heather Walton, in the same talk referenced earlier, tells of seeing a statue in Chicago’s Institute of Modern Art. Titled ‘The Prophet’, it was a clay figure from Central America, over a thousand years old, with a disturbingly wide open mouth and wearing a tight-fitting costume. Walton recalls her horror when she looked more closely and realised that the costume was a human skin worn over the prophet’s own body. But she reflects, ‘Do not all prophets speak from inside the skins of the dead?’ She goes on to say, ‘The prophets are not people who tell things others do not know but rather the people who give voice to what everyone knows but dare not speak.’ The role of lament is similar. In lament, we take up the complaints of the dead and all innocent victims and give voice to what those who want to maintain good order don’t want anyone to hear: that a world that works well for some doesn’t work for others; that the good order that allows the rich to quietly and steadily rob the poor of what little they have is not good order at all but an evil destructive travesty.
Third, lament serves to challenge concepts of the way the world should be. Within religion, specifically within the bible, lament challenges religion itself: that God rewards good and punishes evil; that God will be your personal genie or talisman; that religious texts make sense of the world. Lament says, ‘Rubbish – the world doesn’t work like that.’ Lament challenges the idolatry that judges a person because they have suffered, or that is employed by states or other groups to murder and commit other evils in the name of God, or when religious texts are used as divine justification for the trashing of nature. Likewise, lament challenges the grand stories and the worldviews that underpin western culture: that endless economic growth is essential; that security justifies murder, torture and the loss of freedoms; that you will be happy if you have more stuff; that money is the ultimate value to which all other values must sacrifice and pay tribute. Lament will not let easy answers lie. It states what should not be stated but what must be stated: that the world is not right and that things need to change.
Picking at the fabric
‘No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.’ [Irving Greenberg, Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust, quoted in Roth, p.30]
Imagine a beautiful weaving, perhaps a tapestry showing a scene of serenity in which all is well. God is in his heaven (and God is a he, complete with beard) and the rich man is in his castle, and – hey – it’s the castle in which the tapestry hangs. How neat. There are birds in the sky, deer and rabbits frolicking on the lawn and some rustic peasants gathering sticks at the edge of a beautiful forest. It all makes sense. Then imagine that a ghostly hand appears out of nowhere, and the hand starts picking at the tapestry with its long, dirty nails. Pick, pick, pick. Bit by bit, loose ends of thread start showing. The picture starts to unravel. Pick, pick, pick. Before long, there are so many loose threads that the picture is utterly spoilt – no longer beautiful or serene, no longer a pleasure to look at. It’s become a world full of loose ends that don’t make any sense.
Lament picks at the fabric of the world. It tells things as they are being experienced, in language that emerges from dark depths, words barely distinguishable from screams. Lament cannot be heard in a world that makes sense, and when it is heard, the world no longer makes sense. Lament picks away at systems of meaning and systems of control and brings out all the loose ends that had been hidden away so carefully. Only when these systems have been exposed as inadequate, false and idolatrous, and the evil that has resulted from seeing them otherwise has also been exposed, only then can something better begin to emerge. But unless that new thing has plenty of loose ends, it will not be better than what it replaced. While there is suffering and pain, injustice and violence, it is idolatrous to try to make sense of the world. The world will never make sense while evil persists, and we need lament to keep picking at the fabric, even as we weave it. I cannot imagine any statement that would be credible in the presence of burning children, so we need to work towards a world in which such things never happen. We need lament to take us to the place of suffering, to burn alongside burning children, to know what darkness is and how much it hurts and to do something about it and keep doing something about it and keep going, always acting as if we have hope that one day the darkness will be no more.
For me, the image in my mind is Jesus on the cross. It makes no sense, this weak and helpless saviour. But those dirty nails pinning him there pick, pick, pick at the fabric of a world of control and pain and unravel it. His dying cry, as Matthew and Mark record it, goes to the heart of lament as Jesus screams out verse one of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Pick, pick, pick. This doesn’t match well to a world in which good is rewarded and bad is punished and God will underwrite justice in everything and sort everything out just so. Jesus is dying, mortally wounded, without any sense of God’s presence. Choosing this solidarity with every other victim of such violence, Jesus voices the lament of so many. But the gospel writers tell us that Jesus went to his death with hope that there would be a day of new life, a day of resurrection.
Lament as a lever of change
Lament takes us, first of all, to a place of despair. Whether it’s a situation where we suffer with others or one that we enter in order to stand in solidarity with one who is suffering, the voicing of lament takes us into the darkness. We may be wounded, we will certainly feel the pain, and we will see the world from the dark side. But what started out as despair becomes protest and dissent. This is what lament does. The alternative is to give up. The simple act of putting the darkness into words is an act of defiance. It is a complaint. It says that all is not well. Lament begins to expose the dark underbelly of the grand narratives that legitimise the systems of power we otherwise take for granted and it unravels their legitimacy. ‘Woe is me!’ turns into ‘Woe to you!’ Despair turns into dissent and powerlessness turns into resistance, especially when others choose to join in solidarity. Dissent and resistance drive action for justice, liberation and peace. Lament keeps that action rooted in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and the dying – without it, action becomes ‘for’ rather than ‘with’ and drifts into another tidy and oppressive system of control. Lament is a lever that can tip despair into a new way of being. Lament can be a lever that turns the world around.
The loose end
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 1984, Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing. Especially pp. 51-121 and 168-176
Stephen Dawes, SCM Study Guide to The Psalms, 2010, London, SCM Press. Especially pp.73-92
John Roth in Encountering Evil (Stephen Davis, ed.), 1981, Edinburgh, T&T Clark. Pages 7-37
Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 2004, Maryknoll, Orbis Books. Especially pp. 124-152
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 1987, Cambridge, Wm B Eerdmans
Some Biblical Laments
Psalms 13, 22, 35, 74, 79, 88, 109, 137