“The Divine Politics of Lament”

The subject line comes from a presentation I heard last Thursday: “Professional Mourners, Grieving Mothers, and the Divine Politics of Lament.”  This was part of the annual two-day Schooler Institute at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO).  The speaker was CMCer Dr. Ryan Schellenberg.    

Some things I’m stilling pondering:

The practice of lament is woven throughout our scriptures.  There are Psalms of lament, stories of lament, and an entire book bearing the name Lamentations responding to the devastating loss of Jerusalem and its temple in Babylonian times.  Many traditional cultures consider lament an essential enough act as to hire professional mourners at funerals.  Most of us Westerners think it odd or even inauthentic to pay someone to lead us in the collective falling apart that is grief.  However, we’re more than willing to pay professionals for one-on-one sessions to help us individually hold it together. 

Public lament has been gendered, with wailing women, especially mothers, leading the community in ritual and informal expressions of grief.  While I’m hopeful us men become increasingly comfortable with expressing emotion, there’s something powerful and sacred about those who bring life into the world through their bodies leading us in embodying grief when a life leaves us.  Ryan cited a Yemini Jewish mother who stated, “When I wail, I remember what I’ve gone through.”  Lament summons prior personal and collective experience into the present.

It is helpful to make a distinction between grief and lament.  We feel and express grief at losses that are part of our mortality.  But loss can also result from injustice.  To this, lament brings an additional layer of crying out for an end to the cycles of violence that perpetuate suffering.  As an equation, it could look like this: Lament = Grief + Protest.  As such, lament is an inherently political act.  Lament refuses to hold in grief or hold back from naming injustice.  In this sense, perhaps our professional lamenters these days are community organizers earning small salaries at nonprofits, calling for an end to the death penalty, an end to murders of Black folks at the hands of police, an end to environmental devastation.  We rely on these lament leaders to harness not just emotion, but collective, and thus political, will to act for healing, for justice.

Ryan’s thought-provoking presentation has helped me consider lament as ultimately a creative and essential act of hope.