Lament, Cancer & Cancerous Racism

Lament, Cancer & Cancerous Racism

In January, I participated in a conversation with Chris C. J. Kingdom Grier, Mark Charles, and Mary Hulst about lament, cancer, and cancerous racism at the Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, MI. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship collected our remarks from the panel and our written responses all in one place and I am grateful to share a part of this conversation here:

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Nobody knows but Jesus,
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Glory, hallelujah!

Like the psalmist, the singer of this African American spiritual comes before the Lord and readily names the open wound of grief. “Nobody knows” expresses the gathered people’s alienating and unspeakable grief and anger over injustice—of a husband whose wife and children were sold away in slavery, of governments that repeatedly fail in promises that guarantee the freedom of black Americans, of yet another black youth killed by police brutality.

And yet, Christ has gone before the sufferer. Christ is the one who knows unknowable trouble and sorrow. Like the psalmist, this spiritual dares hope that Christ, not violence and injustice, will have the final word. As Catholic theologian Bryan Massingale notes, “Glory, hallelujah” points to a hope essential for the whole movement of lament: “the hope in an ultimate justice serves as a catalyst for risky and defiant action.” Lament leads to compassionate action and a societal call for repentance.

In many parts of the contemporary church, we see how questions of those who suffer are raw—so we want to answer them. But we often end up with responses that don’t fit. We talk about being able to transform the world. It seems reassuring, for anything that we can “fix” is ultimately under our control. But that can end up minimizing the depth of the injustice and suffering. We need to accept the problem of suffering as a raw wound that we bring before God. We hope in God because we admit that unfixable problems are unfixable through our own power.

Lament helps a worshiping community pivot from grief to hope and trust. The vast majority of lament psalms end in hope, but there’s no indication that what the psalmist is crying out about is fixed. Even Psalm 88, which ends with “Darkness is my only companion,” means you trust God enough to bring your heart before God.” 

You can read through all of the conversation here.