In 2010, my wife and I adopted a beautiful black girl with tight curly hair and a joyful, engaging spirit. To this day, it’s almost impossible to meet her without cracking a smile. “How could anyone not love her?” friends have said. And yet, as a white parent, I’ve come to see how there are systems and structures of sin that stack the deck—opening and closing doors beyond the individuals that she befriends.
Then, in 2012, I was diagnosed with an incurable, terminal cancer. I previously assumed that I could pursue my own plans until my hair turned gray and my kids were grown. But again, I bumped up against a kind of evil that goes far beyond the individual will.
Both racism and cancer have this in common: They are not flesh wounds. They require more than bandages. They run deeper than any one person’s actions. And as important as individual repentance is, it’s not sufficient for these toxins that flow through our blood.
How should we as Christians respond when evil is deeper than what an altar call can fix?
We need to admit that our best efforts, and even our individual acts of repentance, can’t solve this. We need to lament.
Biblical laments bring anger, protest and grief before the face of the covenant Lord. The Lord promises to remember his people. Yet from the pit the Psalmist cries, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” The Lord promises to shine his face upon his beloved. Yet, as we wait for his Kingdom to come in fullness, we cry “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) Laments fix our eyes on God’s promises, asking, “How long, oh Lord?”
But in most churches we turn to laments only in moments of crisis. They are the most widespread type of Psalm in the Bible, but they are not part of our regular prayers.
This has big implications, and not only for cancer patients. It has implications for my daughter and the prospects of her flourishing. We’ve evacuated cries of grief and protest from the sanctuary. No wonder so many formed by this “upbeat” form of Christianity have been tone deaf to the cries for justice in the wake the tragedies in Ferguson, Stanton Island and elsewhere.
Opening Up the Space of Lament
Lament opens up a space that can help us pause and reflect rather than just react in our culturally conditioned ways. There are a couple of aspects of this. First, lament can move us beyond the knee-jerk reactions of our “Tweet and Retweet” culture. In the words of Soong-Chan Rah:
It we believe in the necessity of prophetic lament, we wouldn’t so easily dismiss the call to understand the need for #blacklivesmatter and not so easily move to all lives matter. Lament is a necessary discipline if we are to have important, crucial conversations.
Second, this “pause” is in a place of brokenness and distress: When we lament in prayer for ourselves and others, we embrace the fact that the world is not the way things are supposed to be. We live in Babylon. My daughter will face lordless powers of racism as a black women—powers that do not bow to King Jesus. We long for Jerusalem. But we’re not there yet.
In this way, lament not only brings our sorrow and rage before the Lord, it empowers us for action in the world as those who belong to King Jesus.
Lament and Repentance
Sometimes Christians like myself move too quickly to individual repentance when the topic of racism arises. We don’t want to exemplify “white silence,” so we quickly repent of any conscious racial prejudice. Or, perhaps we hear about racism in a particular worship service, and we end with a corporate prayer of repentance. We leave the sanctuary feeling better about ourselves and the world.
Indeed, Christ calls us to daily repentance. But lament is different from simply repenting. The vast majority of Psalms of lament are not preoccupied with personal sin: They complain to God about “enemies” who desire their demise, the powerful for whom “pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.” They also complain to the Lord, for his loving care seems distant in their broken, crumbling world.
If we make lament part of our prayers, we can begin to move in a different direction than simply making racism a matter of personal guilt. We can begin to dwell with those crying to the Lord in sorrow and anger. We can begin to wait for the Lord’s deliverance.
This waiting is active, praying for Christ’s Kingdom to come—praying with the alienated and the hurting. Thinking that an individual’s repentance is an adequate response to systematic racism is a bit like responding to my system-wide blood cancer by bandaging a sore on my arm: Both are well-intentioned actions, but only a more radical response is truly realistic about the affliction.
Lament, Prayer and Action
Racism, like cancer, is much deeper than a flesh wound. It is a part of our American story—not just in the past, but flows in the blood of the body-politic that keeps American society functioning as it does.
And yet, as those who belong to Christ, we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. For under Christ’s kingship, the “dividing wall of hostility” between peoples has been broken down (Ephesians 2:14). In Christ, Jew, Gentile, and peoples of all nations have been reconciled to God and one another, incorporated into God’s household. This is the beautiful, astonishing work of God’s new creation: that people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” declare before the throne of the true King that “salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10).
Precisely because we hope in God’s new creation, we ache for it.
We cry out in grief and anger to the one true King, protesting the evils of Babylon. Until the Lord has fully established his Kingdom where the lordless powers of cancer and cancerous racism bow down before King Jesus, we groan and lament in hope—“Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
J. Todd Billings is a professor at Western Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtoddbillings. He's the author recently of Rejoicing in Lament.