As you saw and heard from the last-minute sermon Fr. Matt and I preached together this past Sunday, we’re deeply grieved and angry about the recent incidents of racial violence against Black people, and we believe that responding with empathy, lament, and solidarity is what the gospel of Jesus Christ requires of us.
I find that it’s difficult to know how to do this well. Most of us at The Table are only recently waking up to the long history of oppression and violence that people of color have been suffering for hundreds of years in this country.
In the face of this, sometimes it seems to me that my only options are 1) to endlessly scroll social media, allowing the images of violence and oppression to sear my soul and dominate my consciousness with despair and hopelessness, or 2) to turn away in apathy, numbing out so I don’t have to feel the pain.
But thanks be to God, those aren’t our only two options. The truth is the world has always been in crisis. We’re just more aware of it right now because the evidence is closer to the surface of our all of our everyday lives now. It’s been helpful for me to remember that refreshing my news feed every 30 minutes won’t help me be more faithful in times like these.
Because even while the world has always been in crisis, God has also always been present and at work in his creation, and God is present and working right now in the midst of the current crises, as well as in our lives as we grapple with how to respond as the Body of Christ.
So I wanted to share what I’m learning about how to respond, how to participate in what God is doing in and around us right now. There’s a lot more to say than this, but we can start with empathy, lament, and solidarity.
One of the most basic human ways to respond to someone who is in pain is to acknowledge their pain and sit in it with them. God hears the cries of his people in slavery and comes to rescue them. God in Christ responds to humanity’s pain by becoming what he loves, suffering with us, as one of us.
So let’s listen to the pain of the marginalized, especially our Black sisters and brothers right now, and seek to put ourselves inside their experience and feel it with them, as best we can. Here are a couple great places to start:
- Emmanuel Acho just launched Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, where he addresses some of the common questions white people ask him. (This one might be good if you have people in your life who ask these kinds of questions.)
- Erica Buddington taught a history lesson via Twitter thread that shows why the protests are not just about the recent killings, but hundreds of years of oppression.
- Take a break from your social media feeds and read a book that tells the story of Black people in this country. Right now I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns and I’d heartily recommend it to you, as well as Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and, from a Christian perspective, White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White, and Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity.
- Take an evening this week and watch Just Mercy, which is now free to stream.
A second way of response is to take our anger and grief and pain to the Lord in lament. This is something almost none of us know how to do well, and so many of us feel stuck when we hear this.
We see Jesus lamenting especially when he prays in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, and when he cries out the first lines of Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus can cry out like this to God, we can, too.
To lament is to allow our anger and grief and confusion to spill out toward God. To lament is to name bad things as bad, without sugar-coating it. To lament is to give space, for ourselves and others, for the full range of our real emotions in response to injustice.
And this is not just a therapeutic exercise for isolated individuals to feel better about things. The power of the kingdom is released in lament. God invites us to partner with him in his work through prayer. This isn’t the anemic “thoughts and prayers” of people who will not think about or pray for anyone, this is how we pull down strongholds and battle against the principalities and the powers that hold the world in bondage.
But knowing about lament is not the same thing as doing it, so how can we learn to lament? Here are a few ideas on how to start:
- Pray the Psalms. I’ve noticed lately as I read the Psalms each morning and evening that so many of them were authored by people in deep trouble, who were at the end of their rope, crying out to God to save them. Try praying them out loud, loudly, to God, with our current crisis in mind.
- Fast. Our Archbishop has called for a week of fasting and prayer June 3-10. Fasting is a well-worn pathway of lament that our tradition commends to us. Try skipping a meal or two this week and crying out to God for justice.
- Join us for morning prayer. Lament is best done together, and I’m finding our regular morning prayer gatherings (M-F, 8:30am) to be a safe place to offer these kinds of prayers. Why not join us to pray and lament together?
Finally, I’m learning that all of this must lead to action, standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, in spaces we (white people) don’t control or manage. This is what Christ has done for us, and we follow him by doing this for others, trusting that in doing so, we actually find Christ in the faces of the marginalized and oppressed.
This past Pentecost Sunday several people from The Table participated in a Procession For Racial Justice, organized by Faith In Indiana. Part of the event was doing a “die in,” where we laid on the ground in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the amount of time the police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck). The names of Black people killed by police were read out, and a drum beat out a heartbeat rhythm after each name. Eventually the drum beat slower and slower until it stopped, and we laid there in silence until the time was up.
Participating in the procession, as well as the embodied act of lament at the end was a small attempt to simply stand in solidarity with our Black sisters and brothers, submitting to their leadership and, in a very small way, putting our bodies on the line with them.
In doing so, we aren’t entertaining grandiose visions of “changing the world” or anything. We trust that we are simply participating in the life Christ offers to us. He promises to meet us in the poor and the oppressed, so standing in solidarity with them is a kind of sacrament, a way of encountering Jesus that happens in no other way.
We are continuing to look for and discern ways of standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed in this time, and we learning as we go. If you have thoughts or ideas or contacts or questions about this, please get in touch.
Jesus has overcome the world
Finally, it’s really important as we practice empathy, lament, and solidarity that we do so not as those who are striving in our own strength to make good things happen or to “change the world.”
No, we do these things as a way of participating in the kingdom of God that is already present among us. Jesus has already overcome the world. He has defeated death and won the victory over the power of sin and evil.
In our marching and praying and lamenting and listening, we are merely placing ourselves in the real world where Jesus is Lord, joyfully trusting that eventually God will be all in all, and, as our Lord told Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Finally, I know this way of thinking about these things is new for many of us, so I want make sure we are hospitable to any questions you may have about how we are responding, both personally and as a church. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to Fr. Matt or me if you want to talk.
John Maher says
Thanks for this, Ben! I agree with you- these three dynamics of empathy, lament, and solidarity are essential for faithfully following Jesus. I read The Warmth of Other Suns when it was first published a few years ago. It is a very helpful book! The influence of the Great Migration in our society today is still very powerful. Isobel Wilkerson will from time to time post some very eye-opening stories on her Facebook page.
Ben Sternke says
Your three dynamics are for sure a good starting point in handling this matter,Ben.The recent George Floyd matter caused a huge upset in this world.This is usually the result when power is misused.We had the same problem in our previous dispensation where the minority ruled over the majority.There is no medicine for these type of offences and should be eradicated.I’m praying everyday for this world,affected with the covid 19 pandemic,that change will come soon and that His Kingdom will be first priority in this world.Regards.