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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.

Breaking the silence

Language can often be taken for granted by those who are relatively stable, physically as well as psychologically. But when trauma, disaster, abuse, or violence happens, they are likely to become unable to speak. The story of Anna Mburano is exceptional, for she, at least, was able to protest against her rape by those she called her grandsons. In other cases, the victims of suffering become unable to utter a word. What the psalms of lament can do in that context is to provide the believer with words that she can use in protest. These words can start to provide healing from the inability to speak, and they provide language to protest what has happened.

Turning anger toward God

One of the interesting features of the psalms of lament is that the majority of them speak to God, and only rarely  to the human offenders. The psalms of lament can shape the imagination of the believers in a way that their anger and frustration do not become causes for further violence and suffering. They offer the victims of offenses the opportunity to consider their hurt beyond confrontation with the offender. Without ignoring the offender as the cause of pain and suffering, the victim realizes that it is to God that he should direct the plea. In the psalms of lament, the psalmist accuses God instead of accusing human beings alone. Enemies do not just happen to be there! God is accused of having something to do with the presence of enemies in the life of the victim. Therefore, it is God’s obligation to change things from bad to good.

Speaking to God in God’s word

In Verbum Domini, former pope Benedict XVI says that in the book of Psalms, “God gives us words to speak to him, to place our lives before him, and thus to make life itself a path to God” (# 24). This means that even when the pray-er accuses God of betraying her, the pray-er is on the right path, for it is God himself who gives her the word to speak to him. Unlike personal prayers where one is often hampered by an inability to speak to God from the depth of one’s frustration, the psalms of lament provide the believer with words to use and guidance in using them. The psalms of lament tell the believer, “it is OK to yell at God and to express your anger to God, and here is how you can do it.”

Letting others hear our pain

Sometimes when we pray the psalms of lament, we realize that, instead of being victims, we have actually been offenders.  These psalms give us the opportunity to hear the cries of victims, which might prod our conscience and convict our hearts. Praying and studying a psalm in which the ugliness of human evil is spelled out without compromise can challenge both individuals and communities to think more critically about themselves, their actions, and their relationships with one another.

A friend once told me, “I know you like the psalms of lament ...” I confess that I do not like the psalms of lament in the sense that I enjoy praying them. Like many people, I do not like to cry or to hear someone else cry. The psalms of lament speak about suffering, ugliness, and pain, and so we do not have to like them. Nonetheless, the psalms of lament are the prayer of God’s people; they are what God gives us to use when we are hurting. They remind us that there is something wrong in the hatred, the violence, and the evil that encompass most of our world, so that condoning such acts or remaining silent about them makes us unfaithful to God.

These psalms open for us new possibilities. Almost all the psalms of lament (except Psalms 39 and 88) end with hope and trust in God. We can be assured that, after our cries, there is possibility of breaking into song. Lamenting is not driving into a dead end; it is the expression of our desire to begin anew, to build a new community where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

 

Psalms:

“How long, Lord, Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Psalm 13:1

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
Psalm 22:1

“Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand.”
Psalm 39:10

“Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I depart and am no more.”
Psalm 39:13

“You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.”
Psalm 88:8–9