Advocates In Lament
A city destroyed. A faith shaken. Neighbors killed. Long-held beliefs questioned. People exiled in a foreign land.
And anger. At God. At the world. At ourselves to failing to be God’s people.
In the third chapter of lamentations, we can feel all of this, and we continue to join with a community grieving the horrific loss of their city and way of life. And as this lament progresses we see the pain accompanied by the realization that the people are culpable in the events that transpired. The question that sits at the heart of their lament — why — was partially answered: It was us. We failed to live out the love and justice of God.
And in this part of Lamentations we see another vital part of lament: To lament together means we need all the voices at the table. Because not everyone experiences tragedy in the same way. If we step away from our collective lament about COVID-19 we can see that not all lament the same reality. Large scale tragedies have a way to highlight the inequalities and oppression that already exists, and when it comes to how one responds to tragedy, it has a great deal to do with how much power and privilege one has.
Jeremiah was likely not as culpable as others in this tragedy. From all we know, Jeremiah was a prophetic voice calling to people back to the way of God during this whole period of time. Yet after the dust had settled and grief had taken hold, Jeremiah didn’t say: I told you so. No, he got down into the aftermath of the tragedy and joined the people in lament.
Jeremiah here not only gives us a glimpse of a collective lament where all have a place at the table, but at one of the key roles of the prophet, and indeed us as the church: To be an advocate.
Soong-Chan Rah, in his book Prophetic Lament, says that part of our call as the church is to be an advocate for those who are more affected by tragedy and injustice than we ourselves are. To be an advocate means setting aside our own culpability in order to walk alongside someone else.
But, Rah says, we have to be careful, because “The advocate must never replace the voice of the suffering, especially when the suffering people seek to speak for themselves. Part of the role of the advocate in American society is to help the voiceless gain their own voice.”
As many of you know, alongside my work here as a pastor, I also work at an amazing organization called Aurora Commons, where my job title is Community Advocate. And you learn quickly in this work that to be a good advocate is to lay down your own ideas and presumptions in order to truly listen. To hear about a horrible experience, and don’t think about what you would have done, but listen with care to what the other person did, and grieve with them. Advocacy is about listening. Listening deeply to another human being and ask, not what can I do to help them, or how can I fix this, but asking how I can be present in a way that helps them heal, progress, learn, grow, connect, and have their own agency in the world.
To model lament to our world means that as the church we are called to be advocates. And like Jeremiah, that means walking alongside those who have experienced oppression regardless of our feelings of culpability. When the questions of systemic racism and the history of slavery and white supremacy in our country come up, you will often hear the response, “Well, I am not a racist and I didn’t own slaves, so why do I need to repent?”
But to be an advocate means laying down your own personal intentions, and recognizing that whether or not you owned slaves, you still benefit from systemic racism that still continues in our country even after slavery was abolished if you are white in America. It means joining in lament with black people and other people of color in America and coming alongside them in the fight for justice. It means saying, “I may not think of myself as a bad person, but I benefit from systems that harm others, and I will advocate for my neighbors and for changes to these unjust systems.”
As we continue our journey of learning to lament, let us find ways to be advocates for those who are hurting, for those experiencing oppression, and for anyone that finds themselves suffering alone.