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Why Must I Go About Mourning?

The Psalms of Lament for a People in Grief
Reclaiming the psalms of lament gives the church a vocabulary for times of suffering

Anna Mburano in Luvungi, Democratic Republic of Congo.“Grandsons,” yelled Anna Mburano, “get off me.”   

A decade ago the name of Anna Mburano would not have meant much to most people (it might still mean nothing to many people even today). But the name of that 80-year-old woman from the village of Luvungi in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo harvested unfortunate fame after she was gang-raped by a group of rebels who could have been the age of her own grandsons. In the past decade, cases like that of Anna Mburano have become so frequent in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that her story is no longer unique.  She has been just one example of the pain and brokenness and suffering in this part of the world.

Since the beginning of the so-called wars of liberation in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996, more than six million people have perished, and the end of the ordeal does not seem to be in sight. Sixteen years ago, I was still in high school when those wars began. After spending two weeks suffering from hunger and lack of clean water in the woods with students and faculty from my boarding school, it did not occur to me that 16 years later people would continue to be killed and women raped, the fields and savannas teeming with corpses and human bones. But here I am, 16 years later, studying the Bible at Duke Divinity School, still hearing many victims of violence crying out for peace, justice, and life.

The recurring question in discussions about conflicts in Central Africa (Burundi, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda) and the African Great Lakes region (Burundi, Rwanda, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, northwestern Kenya, and Tanzania) has been, “What can be done to stop the violence?” I have to admit that I am no expert in peace studies and do not have the slightest idea about what can be done to stop a war once it has begun. Other people are believed to qualify for that task, and we have to pray that their efforts will bear fruit. What, to my judgment, should occupy our imagination is finding a way of living in the midst of that chaos, even as we—the Christian community—look forward to the complete renewal of creation by Christ at the end of time.

I want to suggest that the Christian community in Central Africa and the African Great Lakes should recover the millennia-old tradition of praying, especially praying in a way that does not deny the reality of pain and suffering endured by that community. Without ignoring the importance of other forms of prayers that the church has been using for many years, I would like to emphasize the importance of lamenting and mourning within a context of suffering and violence. The Christian community needs to study the psalms of lament and use them as the prayers of the church in the midst of suffering and pain.

The psalms of lament are a collection of biblical prayers in which the psalmist expresses his anguish and rage to God. Examples of such psalms are Psalms 13, 22, 39, and 88. Biblical scholars posit that these psalms could have arisen from situations of anger, rage, doubt, despair, bewilderment, or confusion. In them, the psalmists speak without considering whether their cries will offend God and human beings. They speak, to use the words of one of the biblical poets, “in the bitterness of [their] soul” (Job 10:1).

The reader of these psalms might wonder if the psalmists ever knew what polite language was. If they did, they certainly did not use it in the psalms of lament.

The psalmists do not seem to woo God or humans; on the contrary, there are even times when they go as far as to want God to “look away” from them. Might this be the reason why the psalms of lament are not the most popular poems in many churches?

Like any verse of the Bible, the psalms of lament can be dangerous texts when used carelessly. Instead of offering a suffering community a way to approach God through God’s own words, an uncritical use of these psalms could lead to the escalation of hatred, retaliation, resentment, or withdrawal from the community. Yet the study of the psalms of lament is urgent for the Christian communities in Central Africa and the African Great Lakes, because the psalms of lament offer believers a distinctive perspective on both God and their circumstances. They express a scriptural imagination about suffering and our response.

To point out that things are not right

Good pastors would seem to be those who offer words of consolation to believers. They are supposed to wipe the tears of those who cry and tell them that everything will be fine. But there are communities where believers are not even aware that they are in a situation where they need to weep. In a society where killing and raping have become widespread, it is possible to believe that violence and atrocities are the norm for daily life. In a place where an 80-year-old woman can be assaulted and violated, and yet she is just another in a long line of victims, our imagination can be shaped to think that this pain and suffering is just the way life will be. Even when it becomes obvious that the situation in which the community lives is deeply broken, the victims might try to deny the reality of pain and give the impression of living in a perfect community.

The psalms of lament teach people how to weep, how to mourn, how to cry or cry out. And when the members of a community cry out, it is a sign that something is wrong in that community. The psalms of lament tell the community that denial does not heal a community. As Jesus points out, consolation can be offered only to those who are in need of it and express it—that is, to those who weep (Matthew 5: 4). And that consolation can come both from God and from the community. For communities as well as individuals, the psalms of lament bring to light our shortcomings and somehow urge us to reimagine our lives and not to accept things the way they are, since they are not acceptable.