Police brutality. Looted stores. Outrage. Burning buildings. I sat horrified in my California home in front of the television back in 1992 as I followed the unfolding story. Four Los Angeles police officers had been acquitted of using excessive force and beating Rodney King, an African American. The incident had been caught on video tape, and the whole world saw that the officers had gone far past what was necessary. Yet there were no convictions. This injustice confirmed what many minority groups already knew: they couldn’t trust the police to protect them, and the judicial system had failed. I watched, at the time, uncomfortable and unsure how to respond. I just wanted the whole thing to be done so I could feel okay.
Fast-forward 28 years.
The viral video of George Floyd pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck shocked me. Hearing Mr. Floyd cry out for air and be completely ignored by all the officers present appalled me to the point of disbelief. But then when I realized that Mr. Floyd was killed because he supposedly used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill? The logic center in my brain blew a circuit. There was no rational explanation. And my insides tied themselves into a knot.
What’s to be done?
I’m praying for justice to yet be accomplished. Can our legal system pull it off? Many doubt it, but I’m cautiously hopeful. Yet even if all guilty parties are convicted and given the strongest sentences allowable, what then? Change is desperately needed, of course, to see that something like this and other similar incidents don’t happen again. Change to any laws that would protect this kind of behavior, change in unacceptable police procedures, change in people’s attitudes. And it’s the last one that is the most elusive and yet the most necessary.
When I examine my own attitude, I’m ashamed. The discomfort over what I watched in 1992 was similar to what I’ve felt these past few days in my present city of Minneapolis. Injustice and then violent outrage. I want it to be over: just do whatever is needed to get through this and close it. I know in my head that there is no quick or simple way out of the pit of racial animosity our country smolders in. But that’s what I find myself looking for: arrest, convict and put away these perpetrators. And then everyone can feel better. Right?
Yet deep down I know that’s not the way it works, and the hoped-for convictions guarantee no larger shifts in people’s attitudes. Something else needs to happen within me and a lot of others before meaningful change can come. I personally need to allow something to happen within that I closed off back in 1992. I need to let myself grieve—grieve for a man’s life snuffed out too early; grieve with a family that has experienced a traumatic loss; grieve with the African American community as they deal with yet one more reminder that they are not safe in their own neighborhoods; grieve for my nation that is still weighed down with the burden of racism. Where do I begin?
Where is God in all this?
He may be trying to tell me to start feeling it. In His Word, the Psalms, is a repository of ancient songs of worship, praise, thanksgiving and lament. While I have spent many mornings reading and meditating on the first three genres, it’s the fourth that I’ve often not known what to do with. These poems of grief and sadness feel so negative, and well . . . I don’t like that feeling.
There’s Lamentations. A whole book of the Bible is dedicated to sorrow and mourning over life in a world where it looks and feels as if God has abandoned us. Why would He make this a part of His holy scriptures? Perhaps it’s modeling an appropriate response to the brokenness, sin and injustice that plague our world on so many levels. Or, at least maybe it’s the starting point for changes within myself.
Then there’s the Book of Job. This one’s hard because the sufferer never gets his complaints answered. God comes to him in the end but doesn’t tell him why any of the terrible things happened to him. Pain and sorrow with no resolution as to why it’s happening has to feel the worst.
“But when I hoped for good, evil came, and when I waited for light, darkness came. My inward parts are in turmoil and never still; days of affliction come to meet me. I go about darkened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.” Job 30:26-28 ESV
What is Lament?
Grief, however, is a necessary part of our lives in this world. Any good counselor will tell you this is true when we experience intense loss. Jumping immediately to activate solutions before fully grieving may bring a short-term feeling of satisfaction. But when terrible, unimaginable, devastating forces hit and we have no quick answers, lament may be the only place to go where we can drill deep to open passageways for hope.
In a recent interview, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” Why did God allow this injustice? Why are we as a nation still dealing with this kind of stuff? Why can’t we all just respect each other? I know theoretical answers, but I have to slow down and not jump to them for my quick comfort. I need to let myself lament, as uncomfortable as it may feel. God wants to take me to a deeper place.
So, what does lament look like? From what I can tell, it has a lot to do with not rushing myself or anyone else quickly out of sadness or grief. It’s sitting in the pain, confusion and sorrow without demanding immediate closure or forced happy thoughts to distract. It’s allowing myself and those around to express the anguish of our souls. I understand it will likely look and sound differently for each individual, group and community. And behold, the Bible is ahead of me here with ready-made passages to get me started.
“For all these things I weep; tears flow down my cheeks. No one is here to comfort me; any who might encourage me are far away. My children have no future, for the enemy has conquered us.” Lamentations 1:16 NLT
And there’s more you can read and meditate on.
A Pathway in the Right Direction
Jeremiah, the writer of Lamentations has been called the Weeping Prophet. Jesus was called the Man of Sorrows (Read Isaiah 53). To know certain aspects of God’s heart, we will be required to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and get a taste of the sorrow that God Himself feels over the brokenness and sin that has marred His creation.
And when I allow myself to invest the time as well as spiritual and emotional energy into lamenting George Floyd’s death, I make a bit more room for something to happen within me. I also lament my own hard heart that takes so long to change.
Choosing to lament gives me an opportunity to identify with God and what He feels. A deeper sensitivity can develop. My eyes can see people a little differently. My ears can hear words and cries of despair from another perspective. Even angry accusations against my own skin color and privileged upbringing don’t have to stir in me the drive to defend myself as much anymore. I’m seeing that allowing myself to hurt with others can change something inside. And I can then become a more effective agent for change on the outside. God help me.
So I’m challenging myself to feel uncomfortable. And in my discomfort, to cry, pray, groan and learn. I doubt I’ll say or do all the right things all the time or perform the way others think I ought to from now on. But I’m trusting it’s a place to start. I only wish I had embraced this 28 years ago.