Death of Mike Brown: The Importance of Mourning In the Church Instead of Conducting Business as Usual

18-year-old Mike Brown was unarmed and shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri
18-year-old Mike Brown was unarmed and shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri

With the almost weekly murder of young black men, it is more important than ever to lean into lament over jumping and shouting in corporate worship.

On Sunday evening someone asked me if I got my “shout on” in church that day and I had to quickly tell them that 1) I am not the shouting type but, more importantly, 2) In the wake of the Mike Brown murder, Sunday was supposed to be day of lament, and we missed our cue. I attended two church services and neither lamented nor brought up Mike Brown. Instead they conducted business as usual, singing the same hymns that people like and preaching the homilies and sermons, preferring shouts of praise and personal affirmation to communal lament which is what, increasingly, our community needs.

On Sunday morning “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” was a hard song to sing particularly when we arrived at the refrain, “He has done great things.” It’s not that I don’t believe God has done great things but it was hard for me to belt those words out when 565 miles away from Atlanta the people of Ferguson were openly mourning and protesting the senseless death of Mike Brown. When the preacher at the second church I attended focused on Romans 8:31, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” I shuddered to think how such a text would sound to the people of Ferguson, Missouri who may be hard pressed to say or believe that given their current circumstance. Communally such a message doesn’t make sense in light of Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and the scores of other young black men who were senselessly and mercilessly killed. For this we must lament.

Lament has been conspicuously missing from our churches—and not just black churches. In a Sojourners article entitled, The American Church’s Absence of Lament,” writer Soong-Chan Rah cites Glenn Pemberton’s “Hurting with God” which states that “lament constitutes 40 percent of the Psalms, but in the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, lament makes up 13%, the Presbyterian hymnal 19%, and the Baptist hymnal 13%.” And it’s not just what we sing in church but what we hear outside of church, a glance at both the Billboard Hot Gospel and Gospel Airplay charts reveal that praise songs dominate the charts. “Every Praise,” “Amazing,” “Say Yes,” all do well to attune us to praise in our daily lives but they fail to engage us in worship on a holistic level. This continuous cycle of praise creates a vacuum in the life of the believer which is capable of hollowing out the true self and ignoring lived experiences that are anything but catalysts for praise. To be clear, praise is a good and Godly thing, but it is a part of a cycle in worship where lament should precede it.

Lament Binds the Community and the Individual
In “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explores two negative implications of the loss of lament, loss of genuine covenant interaction and stifling of the question theodicy. When we privilege praise and doxology we break down genuine covenant interaction with one another because we only give voice to celebrations of joy and well-being which doesn’t represent reality. When praise is what we do and only what we do, we implicitly silence those who may live in a continuous cycle of lament and shut them out of the space. Creating space for lament opens us up to truer dimensions of community that represent, more fully, our lived experience individually. But when we fail to detach ourselves from our habitual praise for long enough to engage in communal lament we end up in a space as problematic as the systemic oppression for which we must lament at this time. Shouting Sunday after Sunday can stifle the cries of those who are hurting and know nothing of a shout or praise and this can sever us from community. Now, more than ever, we must not mask ourselves from the harsh reality of the world but mold ourselves to it and press into the lament so that we can truly live in community and heal our land. Furthermore, our lament doesn’t just help us to connect better in covenant community but also in our covenant relationship with God. Of this Brueggemann says,

“Where there is lament, the believer is able to take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith. But where the capacity to initiate lament is absent one is left only with praise and doxology.”

Responsible faith is key. This is the faith that trusts God with not only our praise but our lament. It is the faith that forces us to be critically engaged with God and not fear repercussion because God wants us to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind. That should indicate that sometimes our communication and engagement with God will be risky, but that is what happens when you bring your whole self to the altar. Second to this commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, is the commandment that you, “shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Part of that loving is lamenting with our neighbors. Many of us are at a distance from the community of Ferguson but we are no less responsible for sharing their pain and standing in solidarity with them. From where we are we must lament and keep our eye on the tragic vision(s) that are visiting us day after day through Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner and the scores of other young black men who are being mercilessly killed on an almost weekly basis. At the rate that our community is suffering violence we can’t do drive-by prayers or quickly remove ourselves from lament but we must sit in it as long as our brothers and sisters may be in it.

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SOURCE: Urban Faith
Nicole Symmonds

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