Bible Matters: Lamentations: Political Protest, Grief, and Transforming Theology

Lamentations comes from the word “lament” which means a “passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”

(For the entire Bible Matters series, click here.)

The book was written during the Babylonian exile, a traumatic time for the ancient Jews. Jerusalem was conquered, the temple was destroyed, and many people were exiled throughout the Babylonian Empire.

Lamentations is about grief. It implores us to express our sorrow and grief and to honor sorrow and grief in others. If we do not express our sorrow and grief, we will not heal from that pain. Instead, we will try to medicate it through drugs and alcohol, or through acts of self-destructive or socially-destructive behaviors.

Lamentations is also about the human propensity to scapegoat. Rene Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, claims that former enemies find unity by converging their hostility against a common enemy, or a scapegoat. This phenomenon of the scapegoat mechanism is clearly on display in Lamentations, as one character asserts that enemies and former friends have united against her. Lamentations is a political protest. It claims that the world isn’t right and is a direct critique of the scapegoating mechanism.

The book also explores that nature of God. Zion, a character who represents the city of Jerusalem, claims that God is behind all the scapegoating and that God’s violence is out of control. Zion asserts that God is abusive and oversteps the bounds of justice. But another character, the “Strong Man” of chapter 3, says that God punished Jerusalem because of its sins. The Strong Man claims that the God’s punishment is just, that it fits the crime of Jerusalem. Yet, Zion continues to assert that it is innocent and doesn’t deserve this punishment from God.

Lamentations understanding of human nature is profound. We need to express grief and we do have a propensity to unite against scapegoats. But its theology crumbles due to inner conflict. The protest of Zion is part of the Bible’s theological trajectory that claims God desires mercy, not violent sacrifice. We see this trajectory in the prophets. Christians ultimately see it in the Jesus, who took human violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return.

What does this mean for today? What does it mean for the protests of racism in the US? For violence in general? And what is God doing about it?

Ellie Wiesel, the 20th century Jewish thinker and survivor of the Holocaust, claimed about God, “Ought we not to think of your pain too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?”

The Jewish-Christian Story transforms our theology so that we no longer think that God behind our violence or anyone’s violence; rather, God suffers with our scapegoats – the victims of violence – and implores us to stop our propensity for violence so that we can “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

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2 replies
  1. Anne Harrison
    Anne Harrison says:

    I follow your thoughts here and what you’re saying makes sense. God chooses to limit God’s own power to intervene and make things right. Why? Maybe for the same reason we do as parents? To allow our children to learn hard lessons? I’m not sure which is more painful: to be helpless to fix a brokenness in our child’s life or to be able to fix it and know that it’s not in our child’s best interest that we do so. In either case, I would think we are only experiencing a small part of what God suffers watching us try to learn the way of love. But it seems to me we don’t like this idea of God. We want to believe in a God who can and perhaps will make everything right for us. In my tradition, we sit through lengthy prayer concerns at services and meetings where people ask us all to pray for very specific things in their lives and their loved ones’ lives. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this. Miracles? Intercessory prayer? Surely God doesn’t need our guidance, but is this what you mean by expressing our griefs and sorrows? And sharing it so that healing can occur? I tend to do that with closer friends rather than large groups, but I’m troubled by an idea that seems prevalent and painful – if we are faithful and pray hard enough God will give us what we ask for.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Those are great points, Anne. God doesn’t promise us safety or healing. Even Jesus suffered and was killed. The Christian God, who isn’t a God of power over and against, seems powerless to us. And you’re right, that’s not the kind of God we want. We want a God who will fix things.

      As a chaplain, I hear people struggle with this frequently. Isn’t God supposed to heal the faithful? Why doesn’t God fulfill God’s end of the bargain/covenant? Some think it’s a lack of faith that asks those questions, but Job, Lamentations, even Jesus on the cross asked those kinds of questions. I think they are honest questions and part of the spiritually healing process is to explore them in community. But I, like you, tend to do this in smaller groups. It feels more intimate – like concerns will be taken seriously. And you are absolutely right, it breaks God’s heart to see us suffer and inflict suffering on one another. That’s because the Christian God, who isn’t power over and against, is power with us. God isn’t somewhere out there in the universe, God is intimately with us and suffers with us.

      God’s compassion, the ability to suffer with us, is a good model for us to suffer with one another. Miracles of spiritual healing can happen in those situations. And that gives me hope.

      Reply

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