By Joe James, who is the associate minister at the Southside Church of Christ in Rogers Arkansas.
Part 1: Lamenting Our Violence
Some of you avid Jesus Creed readers may remember my story I shared here a few months back about my almost killing my neighbor. You can read that story here. I do not bring that story up to resurrect the debates about the justifiableness of violence. I bring it up now in order to talk about prayer.
But not just any prayer; the ancient Hebrew tradition of praying lament to God so prevalent in our Psalms. Today, I am launching a mini-series here on the psalms of lament, and why I am so passionate that now is the time for the American Church to recover a critical discipline. This is why I think the church should learn to weep.
In Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms, lament makes up the largest portion of any one type of psalm. Some 40% of the Psalms are songs of lament. Yet, so much of our more contemporary music (yes, even the oldest hymns in your hymnals are contemporary) lacks this sort of expression to God. My own faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, have only some 10% of our hymns that express lament to God. I think it is tragic in its consequences.
In his classic book “The Message of the Psalms” Walter Brueggemann breaks the Psalms down into 3 categories:
- Psalms of Orientation for when life is in balance.
- Psalms of Disorientation that lament injustice in the world.
- Psalms of New Orientation that celebrate God’s restoration in the world.
And it is critical to point out that, when Israel sang, they usually sang songs of disorientation (lament). They did this because they experienced so much disorientation. But what about us? Are we not surrounded by chaos? Are we not neck deep in evil today? I think so. But what if we are not actually “experiencing” that darkness? What if living a life of faith as an American Christian has turned from experiencing and lamenting the brokenness of the world and moved toward anesthetizing, insulating and securing ourselves from the pain of the world?
Brueggemann says this about contemporary Christian hymns:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented… It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. (The Message of the Psalms, pg. 51).
I don’t know about you, but I think Brueggemann is on to something. Case in point, violence.
2015 was a violent year in America. There have been several high-profile shootings in the last few months. As I am writing this piece, the San Bernardino shootings is the latest in a line of horrifying massacres on our soil. America now is at a place where we average more than one mass shooting per day. But this isn’t a post on gun-control. It is a post on prayer.
There is a scene in the gospels where Jesus is being arrested the night before his crucifixion. Judas and a troop of Roman guards arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him as an insurrectionist. Jesus goes peacefully, but Peter thinks this is a moment for justifiable violence. Peter grabs his sword and strikes a guard on the ear cutting it off. Peter surely was about to be killed right there on the spot, but Jesus intervenes, heals the guard, and says this to Peter:
“Put your sword away, for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
Jesus acknowledges an important principle at play in our world. Violence, while perhaps at times justifiable, is never redemptive. It is always a vicious cycle. And I have a hunch. American Christians do not so much have a theological problem with understanding the justifiable violence vs. pacifism debate, as we do a prayer problem.
Think about it: did Peter reach for the sword because he was backward, small-minded and hateful, or did Peter reach for the sword because he slept through the Jesus prayer of lament in the garden? Perhaps Peter resorted to violence not because he was weak on theology, but because he was busy dreaming of vengeance while Jesus had invited him to weep with him in the shadow of the cross. Maybe if he had been attentive to the work of lamenting with Jesus over the impending violence of the cross, he would have heard the startling words, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
So there is this new thing called “prayer shaming.” And I get it. I really do. We want to DO something. But I think we need to recover prayer as a way of shaping us into people who have something done to them. Prayer is work. Weeping over the violence of the world is disorienting and painful work. But I believe until we dare to lament the violence around us as a people, we will continue to reach for the sword, even if we know it will never save us.
We have churches filled with people whose souls have been wrecked by violence. We have soldiers with PTSD. We have people consumed by fear with ubiquity of news reporting the latest in bloodshed. We have people who live their life preparing for revolution, worshipping at the altar of security. We have people trapped in domestic abuse. We have people devastated by the violence of racism and systemic discrimination. We a mission to the impoverished neighborhoods wrecked by violence.
So here are some important question for American pastors, church-leaders, and worship ministers: Can we really continue to ask these folks to mask their pain in our assemblies? Can we really sing sleepy songs of joy when our hearts are filled with grief? And will our communal singing continue lull us to a dream-world where our deep consciousness dreams of the violence that haunts us? What are the consequences of American Christians sleeping peacefully through the painful late-night work of praying our lament to God?