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God's church needs to lament until justice waters roll

The Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin is the director of U.S. Ministry for American Bible Society.
The Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin is the director of U.S. Ministry for American Bible Society. | Courtesy of Nicole Martin

Trauma in surround sound. This is the phrase that keeps coming to mind as I try to process what’s happening around me right now. The quarantine brought unexpected collisions of home and work life together, forcing all of us to reorient the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Shortly thereafter, studies began to reveal disproportionate COVID-19 deaths affecting black communities. As COVID-19 deaths increased, my community, like many others, faced the tragedy of saying goodbye from far away.

As if that wasn’t enough, I felt my heart crumble as I watched a grown black man cry out for his mother, declaring, “I cannot breathe,” while officers abused their power and aided his execution. We were already grieving the limitations of the quarantine, already grieving the impact on our communities. I was already grieving the loss of my grandmother and now, on top of everything else, I was grieving again, wondering aloud if black lives matter at all in this country.

In times like these, the language of lament from God’s Word echoes through my soul. God’s people and those who claim Christ as Lord understand that grief and loss, frustration and pain are consistent throughout Scripture. Our faith is built on the agony of the cross that gave way to the glory of eternal life. And it is this strong faith that equips us to moan and groan in holy grief as we process what is happening around us right now. We echo the words of Jeremiah in Lamentations, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” We cry out like David, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

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In his book, Prophetic Lament, Professor Soong-Chan Rah suggests that lament is the proper response of God’s people to the brokenness of the world. Lament acknowledges that there are some pains from our past that we have not yet overcome. The reality for our nation is that wounds from the chains of slavery have yet to be healed. As a result, all Americans suffer from the negative effects of racism that keep us from fully seeing one another as God sees us: equal, loved, united, and made in his image.

But, the cross teaches us something else: God is not satisfied with depth of feeling without subsequent action. The horror of crucifixion was matched and exceeded by the triumphant act of overcoming death through resurrection. We must not rush through the aching of our souls in lament. Yes, we must linger in sorrow for the injustice of our times in order to emerge with enough courage to act in a way that glorifies God. We can only appreciate the sweetness of justice waters when we have tasted the bitter gall of despair in the cup from which black Americans must drink. 

Now is the time for the Church — God’s Church: black, white, Latino, Asian, all of us —to grieve together until these justice waters roll down like an ever-flowing stream. Now is the time to stand together in solidarity, as one Body in Christ, unafraid to name the pervasive nature of racism and confront the systems of privilege and power that have been permitted for generations. Now is the time to open our eyes to the trauma and find healing in God’s Word that leads us to act for good.

In the past, we would gather in person, in prophetic worship, lifting our voices in one sound to the God who brought us out of Egypt, pass Jim Crow, and out of the land of bondage. We held hands in symbolic strength, recognizing our need for each other and leaning on the faith of those who have overcome.

Today, we must find ways to make room for collective outrage in the absence of gathering at church. We must cry out however we can: by marching, voting, changing policy, weeping, and seeking the understanding we need for times like these.

Come, let us lament together. Let us grieve together. And let us set our hearts on working and worshiping until the surround sound is broken and all are free.

The Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin is the director of U.S. Ministry for American Bible Society.

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