The Deadening of Lament: Syria, Dave Chappelle, and Church

In his new Netflix special, The Age of Spin, Dave Chappelle points out one of the greatest spiritual challenges of this generation. Speaking to a 24 year old member of the audience, Chappelle said,  "I'm from a different time, young man, a dark time to you." He goes on to tell a story about how, in the age before smart phones, he and his classmates watched in trauma as the Challenger space shuttle exploded on live TV in 1986. "My point is, a guy your age wouldn't even know the pain, because in your generation a space shuttle blows up every #*$& day. How can you care about anything, when you know every thing?" 

More than ever, it is exhausting to stay engaged in the pain of the world. Ironically, we are closer than ever to the pain. It sits in our pockets, one swipe, one tap away. As people who touch our cell phones on average 2,617 times per day, that is a lot of opportunities to engage. Chappelle cuts into a deep reality of our hearts: Our lament muscles aren't strong enough for the onslaught of global suffering that waylays us through our iPhones. The closer we get to the pain informationally, the further we distance ourselves from it emotionally and spiritually. 

It is exhausting to lament. 

This week has tested our strength to lament once again. In Syria, about 70 people, including dozens of children, were killed in a chemical attack on civilians. Human beings choked on the poisonous air they breathed. A clinic that was treating victims was reportedly hit by an airstrike a few hours later. This was a war crime--one of the most heinous global events of the past year. 

I found myself fighting to stay engaged. Exhausted, I didn't want to read the stories. I didn't want to hear the outrage. I wanted to distract myself. I wanted to check out. 

Now, more than ever, it is grueling to stay close to the pain. Now, more than ever, we need to rediscover the power of communal lament. 

In his book Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah writes:

“The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.” 

What is at stake in including lament in our church gatherings is deeper than us having a passing awareness of the latest tragedy and far more important than being visibly upset at the appropriate things. What is at stake is the very language to express the pain of our past, the memory of atrocities to be prevented in the future, and solidarity with the suffering in the present.

In the Christian season of Lent, we dedicate ourselves to the practice of communal lament. We rediscover the power, the memory, and the intimacy that arises from shared loss and collective grief. We expand the space in our spirits so that we are able to hold more there.

In this last week of Lent, I encourage you to take time to read about Syria. Take time to cry, to call out to God, to sing, to entrust your pain to him, and watch the well of your soul grow deeper. 


*Photo creative commons by Alisdare Hickson on Flickr