A Lament Unheard

During the season of Lent our church took a detour from the normal lectionary cycle and focused our attention on the biblical book of Lamentations, which, to my mind, is the perfect book for Lent. For me it was an incredibly rewarding detour, and I hope some in our congregation felt the same way, but I’m not entirely certain about that. Preaching and reading Lamentations is tough. The book itself a series of five poems, the narrative world of which is set after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

The poems can be absolutely brutal. They are raw, often grotesque, overflowing with pain, anguish, desperation, and misery. And perhaps most difficult of all, particularly from a faith perspective, hope is almost entirely absent from its pages and God is completely silent.

The central figure in the first two poems is Daughter Zion, the personification of Jerusalem—that once great city that now lies in ruins. Over and over again in the poems she begs for someone to see her suffering—simply to see her and hear her. She laments that she has no one to comfort her, for “a comforter is far from me” (1:16). She even calls God out by name, perhaps hoping to get a whirlwind summit like Job. But the winds remain still—God never shows up.

In the past week or so Daughter Zion has been on my mind again. I think what we are seeing on the streets of Baltimore, and in many other places around the country, is what happens when laments go unseen and unheard. In her marvelous commentary on Lamentations, Kathleen O’Connor, Professor Emerita at Columbia Theological Seminary,  writes:

Pain kept from speech, pushed underground and denied, will turn and twist and tunnel like a ferret until it grows in those lightless spaces into a violent, unrecognizable monster. Whether in personal therapeutic or political terms, Lamentations invites us into healing by giving speech to pain. It offers us language, form, and the power of example…And if our personal pain needs no attention at present, Lamentations still calls us to heed to voices of suffering around us. It reminds us that wholeness and reconciliation—personal, national, and global—cannot occur without the articulation of suffering in the face of denial and injustice. It calls us to see.

This, I think, is what we are seeing in Baltimore and New York and Ferguson and Minneapolis and in so many places around the country. Laments unseen and unheard.

She goes on to suggest that what we need is a “theology of witness.” What she means is not only that we give voice to our own sufferings, but also that we listen for the voices of suffering and lament around us, particularly those voices that are routinely and dismissively ignored and suppressed. She goes on to quote from the powerful and difficult book Lament for a Son, where Nicholas Wolterstorff, grieving the death of his nineteen-year-old son says:

What I need from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

But coming close is far easier said than done. Sitting beside people on their mourning bench is difficult enough as it is, but it is particularly thorny when you see the world fundamentally differently than the other person. Or when they say there is a problem and you just don’t see it; or perhaps you refuse to see it.

This brings me to Project Implicit, which is a collaborative, multi-university research project whose stated mission is to “foster dissemination and application of implicit social cognition.” One of the ways they do this is by creating online tests, called Implicit Association Tests (IAT), that are designed to measure “attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.” In other words, the researchers associated with this project are trying to get at what people think, often unconsciously, about things like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Today I took the Race IAT to see how I would score. The test itself is somewhat complicated to explain, but very simple to take (it only takes about ten minutes—you should try it!). The results you receive will tell you whether you have a preference for European-Americans over African-Americans, or vice versa, and how strong that preference is. These are my results:

IAT

“Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

So what do these results mean? Should I take this to mean that I am a terrible person—a nasty racist who secretly despises black people? Not exactly…

The point of the test is not to measure whether or not you are racist, but what implicit associations/biases you may have for a particular racial group, even if you yourself are largely unaware of those biases. After you take the test and before you receive your results you are also asked a series of questions to explicitly state whether or not you have a preference for one race over the other. Of course, I answered that I view both races equally—that I have no preference when it comes to race. And that is genuinely what I believe to be true about myself and how I try to carry myself.

And by most accounts I’m not racist at all. I honestly can’t remember ever being accused by anyone of being racist, or even of doing or saying something racist (which is different from saying I’ve never done or said anything racist—I’m certain I have). Let’s review the facts: I did “urban ministry” for several years, I’ve lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, I love hip hop, I’ve read just about everything James Cone has ever written, I used to worship (and work) at a church in Decatur that had a black Jesus in the front of the sanctuary (and a white Jesus in the back), I know that Malcolm X was actually pretty awesome (and not the violent hatemonger most white folks think he was), I’ve led and participated in many conversations about issues of racism and white privilege, I’ve been to a bunch of MLK prayer breakfasts, I listen to PostBourgie religiously, and, the ultimate proof that I can’t possibly be considered racist, I have black friends! I don’t mean to brag, but my non-racist bona fides are rather impeccable.

So, it seems that I have a choice to make. I can either lean on what I know to be true about myself, informed by the exquisite credentials listed above, and thus ignore the results of the IAT. I can write it off as a silly exercise that doesn’t actually tell me anything important about myself—this is just another pointless academic enterprise, the accuracy of which is likely on par with some stupid BuzzFeed quiz that tells me about my “Inner Potato.” Or instead I can choose to do the harder work of facing the reality of my implicit biases and how they might affect the way I interact with people and view the world around me—to whose laments I am able to truly listen and to whom I am able to come close.

The point of the test, and my reason for sharing it, is not to foment white guilt and blame all the issues of the world on white people and racism. Rather, what research like this demonstrates is that we all—every single one of us—carry biases with us at all times, of which we are largely unaware. Chances are you don’t consider yourself racist, but chances are even stronger that you do have similar biases. The problem is not so much with the biases and associations themselves, but when people, especially people with power and/or privilege, remain unaware, whether intentionally or unintentionally, of those biases and how they might affect their decision-making and their ability to see and hear the laments and the sufferings of those around us—particularly those who have been systematically shoved aside.

The most obvious example, and the one most in the spotlight right now, is how this affects policing.  But this is not just a police issue, this is our issue. We need to be willing to admit that we do have biases and that these biases significantly affect how we will relate to people, specifically people of color, and how we’ll respond when we hear yet another story of a black man dying at the hands of the police under mysterious circumstances.

But beyond that I hope that this awareness might also make us—that is, white people—a bit more willing to listen when people of color share their stories of pain, suffering, and lament without dismissing them as simply “playing the race card.” When stories like Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests begin to break we are so quick to repudiate their pain, condemn the (usually wildly exaggerated) violence, and are so unwilling to listen. As activist and organizer Deray McKesson said to Wolf Blitzer when he was asked if he would condemn the violence by some of the protestors, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” Understanding requires listening. Listening means coming close.

Perhaps if we are a bit more willing to admit and confront our own biases we will also be a bit more willing to listen and to understand and to come close. We are not asked to condone acts of violence, but simply to begin by listening. This is especially important if, as Dr. King suggested, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and as Kathleen suggests, unheard laments easily mutate “into a violent, unrecognizable monster.”

Langston Hughes once famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” That poem ends abruptly with a stark shift in tone and a haunting question:

Or does it explode?

Today we might rephrase it to ask, “What happens to a lament unheard?” We need only to look at Baltimore for our answer.

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