The Risks and Revelations of Protest and Lament

The Risks and Revelations of Protest and Lament July 8, 2015

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave voice to the unspeakable injustice of American slavery in an address unrivaled either before or since. As a former slave, he spoke from profound experience. As an orator, he spoke with deft and sharpened words. “What, to the American slave,” he asked his white audience, “is your 4th of July?” The answer: “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” This was not celebration; it was the blazing voice of righteous indignation.

The city of Rochester, New York had invited him to speak during its Independence Day celebration, but Douglass saw that his audience needed critical introspection more than joyous commemoration. “At a time like this,” he asserted unapologetically, “scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire.” As the people of Rochester heard these words, 3.5 million of their nation’s inhabitants were enslaved.

Obviously, America has since turned from its original sin, but Douglass’s call for the nation to live up to the best of its original ideals as they pertain to race still echoes today. Americans read it in the more demanding words of Ta Nehisi Coates or Cornel West. They have seen it in crowds marching through Ferguson and New York and Baltimore and Cleveland. And they recently heard it in the remarks of their President at the funeral of one of the most recent victims of racism in America, Clementa Pinckney. People rightly debate the worthiness of these voices (and many others) and the merits of their claims, but no one can ignore the continued relevance of voices like Douglass’s in our broken world, whether we’re dealing with racism or some other cause of injustice.[1]

As the need for such voices has been on my mind, I’ve pondered what scripture, especially distinctly Mormon scripture, might have to say about the necessity of voices of protest, lament, and indignation as well as their inherent risks.

Questions along these lines were constantly on my mind as I recently re-read the Book of Job. The book’s protagonist is, of course, widely praised for his patience and faith. (Within Mormonism, President Thomas S. Monson has encouraged Mormons to emulate Job in recent conferences.) And yet the Job of scripture expresses great doubts and demands. Most of the book consists of his poignant expressions of despair at the thought that God may not be the God he had once known and loved.

For years, I admired this complex Job as a model of mature, courageous faith. I learned that the unflinching refusal to ignore monstrous injustice that I found so compelling in Ivan Karamazov, the passionate agnostic atheist of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, grew from the ancient roots of Job’s revolt against God’s harrowing gift of an apparently irrational world.[2] Ivan’s agnostic protest (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, I just most respectfully return him the ticket!”) echoed Job’s theistic one (“Would that I knew how to find Him, . . . I would fill my mouth with contentions. I would know the words that He answered me” [Job 23:4]). My young twenties brought a growing sense of injustice and absurdity in the world, and I turned to the Book of Job, as Mark Larrimore writes in a recent biography of the book, “for confirmation of the truth of [my] questions.” Job’s indignation became my indignation. He would have goodness be his god, even if that meant rebellion against the Almighty, and I found a mysterious holiness about it. I found communion in pondering his protest.

Much of this sentiment remains with me today. But after returning to the book once again, I am much less romantic about Job’s protest and more aware of the risks of making his voice my own. Like the author of the Book of Job (as I read him), I see the risks of Job’s voice—its inherent egoism and its tendency to miss complexity and light. I certainly feel less worthy to handle it, not only because of my increasing sense of its power and my own weakness, but also because I am so unacquainted with great and undeserved suffering.

Nonetheless, I feel, perhaps more than ever, that Job’s voice must be heard. In the wake of World War II, many Jews declared that while Job may never have existed, he undeniably did suffer. Beside this sobering truth stands another: though Job may never have taken a breath, he nonetheless speaks. And his voice, however faint, can be heard in the breaths of those who suffer unjustly in our cities and towns—not to mention the countless others whose hearts once pumped blood that now cries from the ground, protesting the gross injustices of their lives and deaths.

In scripture, Job cries, “Let me speak!” He worries that his words will be forgotten (see Job 19:23). He is terrified by the prospect that God designed the world such that evidence of His crimes would be buried underground with mute mortal bodies and then covered up with the green allure of regenerating plant-life (see 14:8-10).[3] Indeed, one of the signature features of Job’s voice is its desperation to be heard: “I would speak when my being is bitter” (7:11); “I would speak, and I will not fear Him, for that is not the way I am” (9:35); “Let me give vent to my lament” (10:1); “I would speak to Shaddai, and I want to dispute with God” (13:3); “Be silent before me—I would speak, no matter what befalls me” (13:13). Another mark of his voice is Job’s audience. Even when he seems to be addressing his friends directly, Job speaks mainly to God: “Do You have the eyes of mortal flesh, do You see as man would see?” (10:4). And then there is Job’s distaste for life: “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (3:11). Joni Mitchell captures the gripping pathos of these qualities in “The Sire of Sorrow,” a song whose broad appeal attests to the fact that even those of us who have not experienced the gravest of injustices can feel the force of Job’s voice.

Still, the aforementioned qualities do not make for pleasant discussion in Sunday School (or anywhere else, really). As the Mormon literary critic Michael Austin writes in his recent study of Job, “Nobody wants to cut out flannel board pictures of a man shaking his fist at God or put students in small groups to talk about the last time they tried to obliterate the day of their conception.” And perhaps that is the point. Life undeniably includes many unpleasant things, and our faith, if it is worth anything, must speak to this reality. Early Christians made ample use of Job’s voice in their burial rituals. And while medieval scholars attempted to carefully defang its problematic theological implications, common folk found truth in its fearless honesty (in popular plays like Griselda). In our time, Mormons are not excluded, I think, from the critique implicit in Mark Larrimore’s observation that “[t]here are registers of religious expression—such as lament and protest—that saccharine modern understandings of religion can no longer imagine.”

All of this despite the canonization of Joseph Smith’s anguish in Liberty Jail in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants (where, incidentally, Job makes an appearance), and the many tragedies of our early history. And, of course, like the Jews and other Christians, we have Lamentations and Ecclesiastes and the desperate Psalms. But most strikingly, to my mind, we have a unique scriptural story that attests to the link between protest and revelation. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Moses, Mormons read that God showed the prophet Enoch “all the inhabitants of the earth” and their suffering. In the vision, Enoch witnesses God weeping. He is unsettled and amazed. How can God weep? The answer: how could he not? (Moses 7:21-37). It is a stirring story, familiar and moving, I suspect, to many Mormons.

But, recently, with Job and Frederick Douglass on my mind, Enoch’s response to the suffering of his fellow humans, rather than the  weeping of his God, took on new meaning. “[T]he Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41). Sometimes, as Douglass told his fellow citizens in Rochester, “[w]e need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Sometimes the revelations we need, whether or not we are calling for redress and change, are not peaceful, exhilarating, or comforting. God answers Job in a “Voice from the Whirlwind.” Sometimes we need to learn that we don’t know what we think we know, that the world or God or our own convictions are not what we thought they were. Sometimes we need space carved out of us to make room for the Truth.

The floods of light that do the carving are, of course, disorienting, even disheartening. As Enoch saw the floods of Noah, “he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted” (7:44). Like Job, Enoch is overwhelmed. Life is too heavy, the suffering too great. God responds with a vision of the coming redemption through Christ, but not before Enoch’s despair. All suffering, just and unjust, becomes Enoch’s, and he protests in despair. His refusal to be comforted is akin to Job’s lament—a protest against God’s creation. But it’s more than that. It’s a mark of revelation, a sign that Enoch actually saw the vision, that he heard the voices and felt the pain. As the account has it, “Enoch knew” (7:41). He experienced what Abraham Heschel described as one of the defining qualities of a prophet—fellowship with the divine pathos.[4]

This uniquely Mormon scripture underscores what is for me the most important verse in all of Christian scripture: “Around three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34/Matthew 27:46). The opening line of the 22nd Psalm—these were words that countless Jews had made their own during travels in the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus makes them his own on the cross. And, importantly, this is a cross he has courted in his protest at the Temple. Like Job, Jesus is driven to put injustice and hypocrisy on display. And like Enoch, we know he has come to really know the suffering that results from that injustice and hypocrisy because of his lament. Our God sanctified protest and lament as he answered Job’s question: “Do You have the eyes of mortal flesh, do You see as man would see?”

But while the voices of protest, lament, and righteous indignation are important to the life of faith—indeed, indispensable to the power and credibility of Christianity (and, therefore, Mormonism), it would be profoundly shortsighted to make them the only voices that matter. Elsewhere in Mormon scripture, Mormons hear Jesus reminding them that they “cannot bear all things now” and offering words of encouragement: “nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along” (D&C 78:18). And they hear Christ’s call for humility and patience: “Behold, ye are little children and . . . ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (D&C 50:40).

The Five Books of Jesus, a dazzling and provocative retelling of the gospels by Mormon writer James Goldberg, captures what I hear in the above verses. Jesus, at a few key moments, directs various followers to keep their eyes on him, rather than the present cause for anger, fear, or sadness. In these moments, they are in need of hope and confidence, great trust in God. The point is not willed ignorance (at other moments, Jesus disturbs people with hard truths), but humble acceptance of human limitations and a practical response to the world’s terror in light of them. Goldberg’s Judas tragically misses this point in his impatient attempt to force God’s hand.[5] Like Job before facing the humbling Voice from the Whirlwind, the voice of indignant protest so consumes Judas that he cannot see any light. But there is light, and the world needs voices that will remind us of it, too. How else will we bear the revelations of just indignation? At the very least, we will see less clearly without it. Just as much as America needed Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, we need Felicia Sanders and Nadine Collier and Bethane Middleton-Brown in our own. If Jesus lives, he was in that light shining in the darkness of Charleston.

I’m deeply grateful for the skill Mormon communities have in focusing on such light. The impulse to magnify all that is good is often a truly motivating and stabilizing force in the lives of church members and those they serve. I have been a benefactor of it, and I could certainly do more magnifying myself. But despite the many strengths of such vision, I think at times we could benefit from widening our gaze. Whether we are dealing with dissent, despair, or natural disasters, we must learn to see how the burning fires of protest, lament, and indignation are sometimes needed precisely because there is light in the flames. Those of us who handle these flames should take care; the voice of fire comes with great risks, even when it is necessary. But this reality should also give those of us who do not wield the flames reason to be forgiving of those who do, all while we learn to see the light burning in their voices.

[1] When it has come to race, we have certainly needed such voices in Mormonism, and although we haven’t had a Frederick Douglass, a handful of voices in our history have acknowledged the ways our nation’s most costly sin found its way into our collective life—Orson PrattSterling McMurrin, President Gordon B. Hinckley, and Darius Gray (among others). More recently, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes, Fatimah SallehRussell Stevenson, and the LDS Church itself have called for further acknowledgment of the racism in our history. A few years ago, one couldn’t miss the indignation in Brad Kramer’s voice when parts of that history were shown to be with us still. “The priesthood/temple ban is, at present,” he wrote, “not just a symptom of a racist past. It is a thorn in the side, an unhealed open wound on the body of a still racist present. And the sooner we can collectively realize that our unwillingness to fully condemn the racism of our past preserves a deep nucleus of that past racism in our present, the sooner we can actually experience the full power of repentance.”

[2] The Book of Job was a profound influence on Dostoevsky throughout his life.

[3] I owe this perceptive insight to Richelle Wilson, one of my trusty comrades in a recent study group dedicated to the Book of Job. (In fact, I’m sure I owe more than this acknowledgment to her and other members of the group.)

[4] Incidentally, this insight is why all Mormons should love Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Its weaknesses are all redeemed by the profound meditation it offers on something like Enoch’s experience in Moses 7. In the film, Noah leaves the wilderness where he is building his ark to find wives for two of his sons. The scene shifts into a subtle dream-mode, suggesting revelation, as he witnesses terrifying iniquity among the descendants of Cain. But after a fire consumes the scene, we watch a changed Noah walk back to the ark. He seems to have been overcome by the evil. There is a new harshness in him. His son asks where the women are, and he answers with a shove: “There will be no wives.” Why? Because humans must perish for their incredible wickedness. As I see it, the film presents Noah as being tasked with handling the indignation of God at the gross iniquity he has witnessed. The fire is scalding hot, and Noah has trouble handling it. But this, as with Enoch, is evidence that he has in fact held it, that he has seen the evil for what it is. In the end, he is tasked with seeing human life for the wondrous miracle it is, too, and seems to see this all the better for having felt the depths of its darkest possibilities.

[5] Here’s the relevant passage, which comes after Judas has the last of his many haunting dreams of his sister being abused: “‘When is it going to end?’ says Judas. Judas wants to scream, but the air is trapped in his chest. He should go out with his knife right now and find the one who did this. The one who made him feel this way. ‘When is it going to end?’ says Judas, ‘When is this world going to end?’ The angel is sitting across from him. ‘You know it’s him,’ the angel says. Judas nods. ‘So why do you keep asking if it’s time?’ says the angel. ‘I need to know,’ Judas says. ‘Not even I know,’ says the angel. ‘No one knows but God.’ ‘Who do you think I’ve been praying to?’ asks Judas, and the angel is gone. ‘Master of the Universe,’ says Judas, but there’s nothing. It’s so hard to focus. He clenches his teeth. He drives his fingernails into his palms hard enough to hurt. ‘Master of the Universe,’ asks Judas, ‘when is it going to come?’ But God’s silence is an echo of his sister’s. God’s silence is his sister’s until Judas’s heart suffocates in the thickness of it. Enough, thinks Judas. And he gives up on prayer. If God is planning to wait, thinks Judas, then I’ll have to force him. If Jesus wants to go away, Judas will force him to call down a legion of angels first, will force darkness and light into the violence of their final collision. Judas will force into motion the chain of events that will break this fallen world open, and then what will God do, what will God have to finally do?” (page 251).

"For some reason, this article popped up in my feed just today. I can't imagine ..."

The Women Who Enable Abusive Men
"In response to a 2012 atheist billboard I wrote the following about it saying the ..."

On Mormons and Planets
"Season 4 of Fargo--where Timothy Olyphant plays the Mormon lawman Deafy and Chris Rock plays ..."

Mormon ‘Niceness’
"I pretty much wrote the exact same thing about my husband's "bachelor name" back in ..."

No, I Did Not Keep My ..."

Browse Our Archives