Public Lament and Biblical Lament

Part 1—Theory

Biblical lament is not only asking the questions “why” and “how long,” it directly addresses the questions to God. It also often includes references to God’s past rescuing, and asks God for help.

If a lament falls in the forest, and the poet doesn’t address God, is it still a lament?

This is a question I’ve been pondering lately as I’ve listened to public laments in protest and song. I’ve wondered about how these public laments compare and contrast to the biblical  tradition of lament Christians learn from the Psalms. In this two-part series, I’ll first be providing a few examples of public lament (particularly in popular song) and contrasting that to the components of biblical lament. In the second part, we’ll explore ways we can utilize fragments of public lament as a bridge to biblical lament within corporate worship.

Public Lament Today

2020 was The Year of Opportunity for lament and it hasn’t stopped: political and social fractures throughout American society, racial conflict that has led to deaths, a pandemic that rages throughout the world. Children dead from violence in Chicago. Environmental disasters: wildfires in California; floods in Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas in the USA. Add your own contextual laments to this list: there were wildfires in Australia and British Columbia, Canada; floods in Brazil, the UK, Indonesia, Spain, China, and East Africa… and that is just the beginning. 

And public lament has grown louder. We hear this in the cries of protesters: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and the repetition of names of Black Americans who have died from police brutality or  or malice murder. In the June 10, 2020, Bible Project podcast, “The Blood Cries Out,” Semetic language scholar and pastor Tim Mackie described his participation in early non-violent Portland demonstrations. “It’s been really powerful . . . And we’re saying their names. Shout these people’s names.” Though Mackie is emphasizing the apocalyptic nature of the demonstrations, in his voice I hear lament and grief. The demonstrations, Mackie notes, “names our pain.”

And that is where lament starts: naming the pain. And after we have named it, then we begin to ask questions about it.

The Questions of Lament

In the face of tragedy, people ask why, just like the Psalmist (2:1). Tracy Chapman asks “Why” in her self-titled 1988 album:

      Why when there are so many of us
      Are there people still alone
      Why are the missiles called peace-keepers
      When they're aimed to kill
      Why is a woman still not safe
      When she's in her home

Asking “Why?” is foundational to lament. It puts the question out there. It relinquishes control. We have to ask because we don’t know. We don’t comprehend the mystery of evil and chaos.

A second question of lament is, “When will this be over?” How long? Psalm 13 asks this question four times. “How long will God forget me?” “How long will my enemy triumph over me?” It reminds me of the Irish 90’s grunge band, The Cranberries’ 1996 album, To the Faithful Departed (an album full of lament). The last song laments the Bosnian war.

      Bosnia was so unkind
      Sarajevo changed my mind
      And we all call out in despair . . .
      There are babies in their hands, terror in their heads . . .
      When do the saints go marching in?

When will the saints go marching in? How long until the rescuer comes? When will this end?

Biblical Lament and Popular Lament

Biblical lament, however, is not only asking the questions “why” and “how long,” it directly addresses the questions to God. It also often includes references to God’s past rescuing, and asks God for help.

Popular lament does not usually address God in any way, though it does specifically name the problem.

I have only pointed out two songs of public lament here, but there are many more. Consider Lecrae’s rap “Welcome to America” (2015) or the acerbic lament of the Drive By Truckers in their 2020 release “Thoughts and Prayers.” Your congregation is listening to public laments. What wordsmiths asking “why” and “how long” are they listening to?

This week, in preparation for next week’s blog, I encourage you to keep your ears open for public laments. Listen for the questions; listen for the complaints. Talk to youth pastors and students. Hear what they have to say, and join me next week as we use these public laments as a bridge into the Psalms of Lament within your worship context.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.