In a recent conversation with my beloved and elder friend, Barbara, we uplifted the sorrowful condition of our hearts to one another, hearts that are rent by each new alarm and report of violence that floods our media outlets.
We are both empaths. We are both faith-filled. We both care about equity. Our hearts break easily. We are of two different generations, two different ethnic and religious backgrounds, living in two different regions of America. And yet we are both experiencing similar anxieties.
We both worry about our safety. We wonder if going to the store at the wrong time or turning in someone’s driveway can cut our lives or the lives of those we love short. She is a grandmother who wonders what the future will be like for her children and grandchildren; I wonder if I should bring children into the world at a time like this.
It is no secret that we live in a time of harrowing violence. In 2023, the United States is setting a record pace of mass shootings, and sadly, this number will probably increase today or tomorrow. But while mass shootings are happening with staggering frequency, this only represents a fraction of the bloodshed plaguing this country. According to the Gun Violence Archive, deaths by suicide have made up the vast majority of gun violence deaths this year, and there have also been hundreds of unintentional shootings.
Violence rages and barriers to change persist, with little indication that significant policy changes, both on local or national levels, are on the horizon. No matter where we stand on the issue of gun laws, this terrifying epidemic is taking its toll on our country’s and its citizens’ health.
So how do we find love amid so much hate?
The Power of Lament
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!...She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears on her cheeks. (Lamentations 1:1-2, NASB)
In the Hebraic tradition, the power of lamenting provided the human soul with an opportunity for public and private mourning and grief, remembrance, and ritual. It carves out space for contemplating the relationships between destruction and renewal, loss and redemption, and expression and the inexpressible.
In our country’s tragic climate of death and destruction, there is a visceral lament in bearing this sorrow and heartbreak. Each announcement of a mass shooting or incident of senseless crime resulting in lost lives feels like another severe blow to our individual and collective hearts and psyches. And in this, there is a natural temptation to harden our hearts and become indifferent and recalcitrant.
We do not want to feel overwhelmed by what we cannot help or change. So we resolve that it might be easier to numb ourselves or turn away. The real danger is that what occurs so often has the risk of desensitizing us to its devastating and inhumane impacts, underscoring the power of lament.
In the history of the Hebrew scriptures, there were always reasons to lament: wars and murders, exiles and captivities, betrayals and cruelties not foreign to our contemporary understanding. Both prophets and kings, priests and paupers, made use of the power of laments. They cried out and even complained to God. They tore open their robes and spread themselves with sackcloth and ashes alone and with their community as expressions of grief.
Lamenting is an honest and raw form of prayer. It gives us the space and permission to sit with the unbearable, the tragic, the absurd, the senseless, and the intolerable. It provides us with the freedom not to hold it all together and not to have the answers.
In our grief-avoidant culture, this can in itself feel foreign. We often fear the courageous vulnerability it requires to journey toward and meet up with the deep wells of our losses. We may think we are not capable or strong enough to face what ails us. We may feel we must remain optimistic, joyful, and triumphant, or else our faith may be questioned.
And yet, in the Beatitudes, Christ tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). The act of mourning carries an authenticity that can bring us closer to God, what is true in ourselves, what is true in one another, and even the world’s suffering. In the truest sense, perhaps our lament is a protest in itself. It keeps us from a lukewarm acceptance of iniquity and injustice. And because we believe in a God of love and justice, we hold out and cry out for a vision of the world where the lion will one day lay with the lamb.
Mourning and lament may keep us from coldness and complicity, which Christ also warned of in His ministry. What if we did not mourn over war, starvation, racism, and impoverishment? Who would that leave us to become?
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:17-18, BSB)
In addition to the protest of mourning, there are other ways that we can demonstrate against the ongoing rage of carnage. What if our protests were found in the small practices of how we chose to live every day? What if we could resist by doubling down on our kindness? What if we actively sought opportunities to love harder, even in the face of violence?
Recently, I had an opportunity to practice my faith in this way. There was a situation where someone I was working with disagreed with a decision that I had made. They wrote a scathing email with accusations that I felt were false. I replied to their email stating my point, but then I also had to continue working with and seeing this person.
I admit that some of me wanted to show them the cold shoulder and reciprocate the treatment I felt they had shown me. Instead, I felt something ask, “What if you can do something different? Instead of lashing out or being indifferent towards them, what if you can respond by treating them with dignity and compassion?” And so I chose to do just that. I am unsure if my intentions impacted them or even if they noticed. But I believe unexpected grace can be transformative.
In our current social and political climate, there is plenty to protest about, march about, and contact our lawmakers about. Most of us, I believe, want to do something, even if we do not know exactly what it is. But we often underestimate the impact of our simple but powerful choices in the communities we live and work in daily.
It may be as small as choosing to have mercy on someone who has responded to us with anger; it may be as close as making a phone call to someone who has been going through illness or depression, or loss.
Spiritual and Soul Healing
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalms 34:18, NIV)
If an epidemic of violence indicates disease on a spiritual and soul level within our society, then we also have to think of the remedies on both a soul and spiritual level. Sure, we can start with policy, but it can’t end there.
We have to ask hard questions about why people are in pain and what may be some of the root collective causes of ongoing anger, hostility, and fear. How do we make space for the hard questions and take time to address soul care in the communities where we work, live, and practice justice?
This is hard work because it may butt up against our cultural norms. It may force us to dig deep and examine how we have been comfortable living our lives while ignoring the uncomfortable and the uncomforted. It may force us to confront how our privilege has disadvantaged someone else. It may even hold up a mirror to our own unhealed places.
In my life, I have learned spiritual and soul care doesn’t only occur in organized assemblies, churches, spiritual institutions, or even professional therapeutic settings. I advocate for all of those but feel we have even more to offer in community with one another. Seeing opportunities to care for people in community allows us to love people who have never stepped into a church or don’t have access to mental health resources.
We must think creatively about how we practice and apply this everywhere and how our outreach can reach those who are hurting. We can think creatively about what tangible revolutions of kindness look like. I have worked in spaces where people are thinking proactively about trauma-informed care, and I am glad this concept is becoming a part of the mainstream conversation. I think this is a start. This too is spiritual and soul care.
Something as simple as starting a meeting by inviting individuals to be present in that space and take deep breaths together is the kind of small but mighty practice that can help our hurried society take a pause–and create a ripple effect. It says, “We are here together, and we are willing to make space for one another just to be. We are more than just what we produce; we have value just for being human.”
What about you? What life-giving practices sustain your spirit, provide space for release, or allow you to stay in touch with the souls of others?