Rage and grief at police violence; the anguish of losing loved ones to an uncontrolled pandemic; the dread of financial insecurity; despair for a culture in crisis—we yearn to express our devastation. There’s a word for an ancient practice that does just that: lament.
My own first brush with lament occurred several years ago during a trip to witness the impact of coal mining operations in southern Illinois. I was aware of the cost to the environment of my electricity-fueled Chicago home, but I found I had no words as I gazed out at the landscape: once flat farmland, now a vast expanse of dips and rises. Cracked concrete foundations were all that remained of homes, torn down after the families who once lived there sold their land to coal companies. Cones of mine tailings, three stories tall, threatened water supplies. I learned that locals had joined together to resist this threat until some of them, reassured that their own land and water supplies were safe, stopped fighting to protect their neighbors.
For weeks after my return I struggled with deep mourning, guilt, anger, and a sense of helplessness. Finally, I put a name to the ecological grief that I was experiencing—it was lament. South African scholar Frances Klopper describes lament as a kind of mourning “not about death, not for a purpose, but an existential wail as primal as a child’s need to cry.” Throughout the ages, Klopper writes, lament “was a way of bearing the unbearable”; it “is a vehicle for expressing the raw emotions that arise from pain so intense that it cannot be articulated in words.”
Lament, historians will tell you, is one of the oldest recorded human emotions. Over the past thousands of years, humans have left evidence of ritual expressions of lament, some quite elaborate and stretching over many years. Today, in some cultures, when people lament, they tear their hair in grief, scream, fall to the ground, weep uncontrollably. Indigenous peoples in Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia have traditions of the “death wail.” In several countries, women keen loudly. Rituals of lament give people a powerful voice and a structured way to share their hurt with their communities. Such rituals help people grapple with loss and rage by tapping into socially sanctioned expressions of these emotions. They help people in desperate situations connect to enduring and scripted acts of self- and communal suffering.
As I lamented what I discovered during my trip to Illinois’s coal mining region, I realized that a ritual of lament would help me move forward and decide on next steps. But where and how? Such rituals are not a regular part of the worship services of most Unitarian Universalist congregations. Of course, communal mourning takes place during memorial services, as part of ministerial transitions, or after disasters (see page 14). In some congregations, people are invited to share publicly the pain that they are experiencing during Joys and Sorrows. Still, though raised a UU, and now a community minister, I could not recall any recurring, congregation-wide, catchall ritual of lament. Not a single hymn or reading in the widely used UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition is categorized as a “lament.”
UUs are not alone in undervaluing the importance of lament. After watching the movie 12 Years a Slave, Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and author of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, called for communal lament and repentance. At the same time, Rah cited this data from Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting with God: laments make up a mere 13 percent of Churches of Christ hymnals, 19 percent of Presbyterian hymnals, and 13 percent of Baptist hymnals. In contrast, the Jewish tradition—one of Unitarian Universalism’s several Sources—is rich with lament. Fully 40 percent of the Hebrew Bible’s psalms are psalms of lament, including Psalms 3, 6, 13, 28, 56, and 142. But, when it comes to the North American church tradition, Rah finds: “We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain.”
Lament has an important political dimension as well. In no small part, my lament for southern Illinois was sorrow over the state’s lax environmental regulations and the economic calculus that has fractured rural communities. Communities of color, especially Black and Latinx, are on the frontlines of harmful environmental and climate policies. Rah believes that, while lament can recognize “a shameful history,” it can also acknowledge “the pain and suffering that has led to current injustices” and challenge the situation. When people sidestep lament, he insists, they fail to acknowledge existing systems of injustice and prolong them. Theologian and psalms expert Walter Brueggemann agrees. For him, lament is “a form of speech and faith” that can “redress power distributions.” However, like Rah, he holds that lament is no longer appreciated and has largely been “silenced and eliminated.” The result, he argues, is a “docility and submissiveness” that reinforces “the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.”
Rituals of lament, by asking us to take part in prayers of suffering and spend time exploring the “why” of our anguish, help us push past the paralysis sometimes caused by unacknowledged and unidentified anguish. They free us to reflect on what to do about the “why” and take concrete next steps like participating in acts of resistance and protest.
Creating ritualized, shared expressions of suffering, grief, guilt, and anger can help us break the status quo. Such a ritual in the aftermath of my visit to Illinois’s coal mining region would have comforted me in my brokenness and moved me faster to action. And you, in this time of plague, racism, and violence, how might rituals of lament, of protest and mourning, help you when you are driven to cry out? As we create new ways of being together, I invite you to imagine what lament might look like for your congregation. What enduring and scripted acts might you help put in place to hold collective grief and rage as we confront life’s challenges and work for change?