Lament and Hope: Defying this Hot Mess

Emilie M. Townes

Out of my weariness with this relentless climate of hatred masquerading as patriotism, I find myself turning to the power of lament and hope to help keep my faith vibrant and to encourage others to not become hostages to despair. 

This is a tall order, as each day carries news, social media feeds, conversations, classroom discussions, sermons, and more that remind us that things are bad … very bad. However, to combat the obscene hijacking of the common good, we must embrace the challenge of lament and hope as a rallying cry for those of us who are focused on being partners with God for bringing in a more robust new heaven and new earth. 

I am often struck, as a sometimes archetypical grumpy and never quite satisfied ethicist, by the drive we have as meaning-makers and moral agents. We often stall in our attempts when we treat this climate only as a matrix of problems instead of opportunities to exercise the gift of God’s grace in our lives. We humans are a rather creative lot and we never quite know what we will do next. 

With our all-too-human unpredictability, lament can serve as an anchor to help us find our bearings on how to live as people of faith. We learn from biblical laments that it is imperative to name what is wrong with as much precision and honesty as possible, even if it hurts or causes us to wince. From the Psalms to Joel to the cross, laments tell the truth of the suffering that is smothering our worthiness, our dreams, our ability to work toward a better tomorrow. Laments mark the beginning of the healing process when we open ourselves up to look at the situations we find ourselves in and our own complicity in them as well as the ways in which we are victimized by them. And, importantly, we see and feel with clarity how this affects others who may have no direct relation to us but who are all a part of this magnificent journey of life. 

So, we name the horrors – bankrupt immigration policies, race baiting, white supremacy, biased drug policies, mass incarceration, troubled educational systems and policies, forms of violence, human trafficking, and more. This sad laundry list weighs on each of us in varying ways. However, by naming these things we can address them rather than simply survive them, and realize that we are in this life together: It is foolhardy to think we are somehow immune or unaffected by the venom being spewed as our national discourse. Naming these horrors in an unrestrained lament helps mold us into a people who respond with an emphatic “No!” to the ways our nation and our communities of faith are turned into graven images of hatred and despair. 

And this is where hope comes in for me. Naming the hot mess above is both admitting the realities – and possibilities – and confessing that we cannot right things without leaning strong and hard into our faith for the sustenance to stand up, dig in, and do the work our souls must have. Hope is not the by-product of a divine guarantee and it certainly is not a dubious promise of fire insurance or a misdirected glory train. We face the tough times of our day with fresh energy and urgency that remind us that we stand on the frontlines of hope. 

This hope is neither sentimental nor vapid. It does not give up on God or us. Hope refuses to believe that evil and suffering and sorrow and hatred are God’s final words to us in a world that is a spinning top of war and violence. This hope believes and guides us to another way in which we are all made whole – the power of the common good shaping our lives and that of countless others on the highway to salvation. 

Yes, this hope may become weary, may become disgusted, may become impatient, and may disappoint us. But hope is forged out of the biblical call to dig deep into our innards to tell the truth of what we see, feel, hear, and experience. And it reminds us that we must always show up in the face of relentless evil, particularly in such times when it appears so normal and natural in our midst. 

Emilie M. Townes is dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, where she is also the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA, she is the author of Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave, 2007) and other books. A past president of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Study of Black Religion, she was on the faculty of YDS from 2005-2013.