In late 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, a small group of us at Elm City Vineyard hosted a night of lament open to all. We read from the Psalms, prayed traditional collects, devoted time to silence.
The language of mourning is severely underdeveloped in our broader cultures. Faced with loss or wrong, we tend to fall mute or reach for inarticulate platitudes. But our congregational experience reminded me that the church’s scriptures (especially those inherited from the Hebrew Bible) and liturgies offer a rich language of mourning, lamentation, and repentance that could be adapted to the public pain of racial injustice.
Christian liturgy gives us words so we can walk alongside those who grieve, even if we ourselves are not yet grieving. In our service of lament, the liturgy urged us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). For white Americans like me who might tend (often unconsciously and without malice) to dominate conversation, assume that our speech is always and everywhere relevant, or interpret events into a self-excusing narrative, yielding expressive autonomy to others is a salutary, if sometimes uncomfortable, balm.
These practices of mourning join us in compassion. But compassion is not just feeling others’ pain. It is an impetus to action. Whenever the Gospels say Jesus has compassion for someone, the next thing they record is what he does for them, how he cares for them in their need.
Our church is experiencing this turn toward action. Our eyes are open, but what do we do now that we see? We are convinced that part of our work is to mobilize the broader church to mourn and mourn well. We pray that holy discontent with the status quo will continue to reverberate and lead to change that “does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with our God” (Mic. 6:8). If churches could help society learn to mourn – to lament injustice and the taking of life and repent of our part in them – they could shape us into compassionate people prepared to act for interracial healing and justice.
As those who believe in a God who turns mourning into dancing, we witness to a hope that gives grief its proper time yet transfigures the difficult path we face. Mourning, repentance, and compassion offer a realistic way for people to flourish again in the wake of wrongs both suffered and committed.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz ’10 M.A.R., ’16 Ph.D. is co-author, with Miroslav Volf, of Public Faith in Action: How to Think Critically, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity (Brazos, 2016) and associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. He is an elder at Elm City Vineyard.