Brueggemann on the Loss of Lament

Michelangelo - Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel
In an article, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament’ [JSOT (1986) 57-71], Walter Brueggemann address the manner in which lament seems to have dropped out of the ‘functioning canon’, identifying some of the unfortunate results of this.

One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always ‘yes men and women’ form whom ‘never is heard a discouraging word’. Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.

Brueggemann goes on to argue that lament allows for healthy forms of personality development that are largely precluded in its absence. He explores the analogy of a mother’s relationship with her child. For her child to develop ego-strength the mother must not take excessive initiative, but must be open to and encourage the initiative of the child and be responsive to it. He goes on to observe:

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. God then is omnipotent, always to be praised. The believer is nothing, and can uncritically praise or accept guilt where life with God does not function properly. The outcome is a ‘False Self’, bad faith which is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness. The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility.

I do not suggest that biblical faith be reduced to psychological categories, but I find this parallel suggestive. It suggests that the God who evokes and responds to lament is not omnipotent in any conventional sense or surrounded by docile reactors. Rather, this God is like a mother who dreams with this infant, that the infant may sone day grow into a responsible, mature covenant partner who can enter into serious communion and conversation. In such a serious communion and conversation, there comes genuine obedience, which is not a contrived need to please, but a genuine, yielding commitment.

Where there is no lament through which the believer takes the initiative, God is experienced like an omnipotent mother. What is left for the believer then is a false narcissism which keeps hoping for a centred self, but which lacks the ego strength for a real self to emerge. What is at issue here, as Calvin understood so well, is a true understanding of the human self, but at the same time, a radical discernment of this God who is capable of and willing to be respondent and not only initiator.

This may not be the most helpful way of expressing the point, but the point is important nonetheless. It resonates with my concern to articulate a synergistic doctrine of providence. God wants us as His children to become His co-workers and vicegerents in His creation. For this reason God creates space in which we can seek, question and even challenge his providential dealings with us and the world. God wants us to be active participants in His providential rule, not merely passive sufferers of it. I do not want to suggest for a moment that God is anything less than omnipotent. However, His omnipotence is not an omnipotence held over against us. Rather, God’s omnipotence is a gracious omnipotence that encourages and facilitates our growth into responsible and mature rule in His creation and is not merely acted out upon us.

Brueggemann proceeds to observe that the absence of lament leads to the ‘stifling of the question of theodicy,’ by which he refers to the ‘capacity to raise and legitimate questions of justice in terms of social goods, social access, and social power.’ The lament is not merely a ‘religious gesture’ seeking ‘simple religious succor,’ but seeks to ‘mobilize God in the arena of public life.’ But using the lament form regularly, ‘Israel kept the justice question visible and legitimate.’ Brueggemann claims:

Where the lament is absent, the normal mode of the theodicy question is forfeited. When the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate. Instead we learn to settle for questions of ‘meaning’, and we reduce the issues to resolutions of love. But the categories of meaning and love do not touch the public systemic questions about which biblical faith is relentlessly concerned. A community of faith which negates lament soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne (which is a conclusion drawn through liturgic use), they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually even in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility. The order of the day comes to seem absolute, beyond question, and we are left with only grim obedience and eventually despair. The point of access for serious change has been forfeited when the propriety of this speech form is denied.

Preserving lament in the Church (and other neglected forms, like the imprecatory psalm) is of great importance if we are to have the maturity to act as God’s representatives in the world. The loss of lament has often been accompanied by a philosophical and theological process of truce-making with the presence of evil in the world. Evil is there simply to be suffered and lived with; the idea of evil and injustice as enemies to be attacked and to challenge God about is lost. The result is the legitimization of the status quo.

Lament is a way of approaching theodicy that has largely been abandoned for philosophical explanations that seek to dissolve a theoretical perplexity and leave our existential crises unaddressed. The ‘resolution’ that is offered is an abstract theological excuse, rather than an answer that takes the form of divine action in history. We tend to read back our questions of theodicy into the biblical text. However, if we follow our definition of the term, the theodicy offered by the book of Job, for instance, is quite limited and unsatisfactory. The ‘theodicy’ that seems to be given is that of divine action of deliverance and vindication in history, rather than theoretical explanation. The questions of Job are not silenced by compelling theological answers (such answers are noticeably absent), so much as by the reality of YHWH’s personal presence and action in his plight.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to Brueggemann on the Loss of Lament

  1. Pingback: Beyond Praise and Celebration « Uber Goober

  2. UberGoober says:

    (name spelling corrected…sorry, Al)

  3. Pingback: Lamentations 2 « Reading with M’Cheyne

  4. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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