Last week, as I was sitting in a coffee shop, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation from the table beside me. Several people were discussing the election, who they were voting for and why they were voting for them. Their votes very much reflected their lament of the situation; politically, economically, culturally, and in terms of security.
Their lamentations, or complaints, were related to their individual and immediate community’s situations. That is often what happens when we lament. People attribute their hardships to an action made by or an attitude held by other individuals or communities. In our context, this is usually what you hear from Israelis or Palestinians; they accuse the ‘other’ for the difficulties they face. But the Prophet Habakkuk in his lamentation can offer us wisdom here.
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
Habakkuk 1:2-4, New International Version (NIV)
From this passage there are four key points on the true nature of lamentation. The first, is that Habakkuk’s lamentations are directed towards God. “How long”, he cries, “I call for help”, “but do you not listen?”, “you do not save?” He questions why the God who sees and hears, who can save and help, isn’t stepping in to assist in his time of need. This is one of the essential aspects of lamentation, to cry out and direct one’s loss to God, who has the power to change our situation, even when we don’t see God’s intervention in it. We, like Habakkuk, often miss seeing God act on the sufferer’s behalf.
The second point that came to mind from my neighbors’ discussion at the coffee shop was the nature of change they were looking for. No doubt individuals and political leaders have power to create change, but the change this group was asking for was ethnocentric and selfish; it was directly related to themselves. We see instead that Habakkuk is talking about violence that is inflicted upon everybody. “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds”, he says. Lamentation is not confined to injustice that impacts one community, it is also the injustice that other people and communities face. True lamentation is to look beyond our ethnocentric community and empathize with others experience of injustice.
Thirdly, through lament we are called to name injustice. Habakkuk very clearly names “violence”, “wrongdoing”, and “destruction”, he talks about strife and conflict abounding. He names those injustices very clearly. Injustice, violence and wrongdoing need to be exposed, but most of the time wrongdoers do their utmost in order to hide or conceal acts of injustice. Habakkuk encourages us to be clear and specific about such acts.
Finally, Habakkuk tells us that the consequences of all of the acts of injustice above are that the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. He is lamenting the result of these actions; that the legal and law enforcement systems that are supposed to protect the weak and the vulnerable from injustice are now helping to prosper the wicked. They have become part of the problem. Habakkuk demonstrates that lamentation not only needs to address immediate acts of injustice that are being inflicted, but also the consequences of them. For example, if enough corruption is overlooked, it in turn creates a corrupt system.
Another element of this is that as well as lamenting broken systems, we also lament that our leaders are not fulfilling their duty. In the discussion I overheard about the election, one of the people said, “Well, as long as we have a strong leader and we’re okay, those legal charges against our leaders are insignificant.” Or you might also hear, “because they sacrifice so much for their country and belong to our political ethnic-religious group, their disobedience to the law can be overlooked.” Here we see the leaders are using their position, privilege and ethnocentric biases through unjust actions to keep their power and prosper evil. This aspect of lament, I think, is missing among many of us, including the group at the coffee shop.
All of the above, the ethnocentrism, corruption of power, hampered systems, violence and destruction, make us numb to the reality of injustice that people face today. To lament is to awaken to situations of injustice around us and then respond. When we repent of this numbness we become aware of this reality, which in turn impacts our decisions to address it.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer