I found myself screaming obscenities at the TV screen last week as I viewed footage of Syrian children killed by a chemical weapons attack. Just as the body of a Syrian child washed up on Europe’s shores fixed the world’s attention on the desperate plight of Syrian refugees, so this footage concentrated our attention on the violent abuse of power by the Syrian Government against its citizens. The final verse of Bob Dylan’s bitter deconstruction of the military-industrial complex that profited from manufacturing weapons, Masters of War, replayed over and over in my heart and my head.
“I hope that you die
and I hope that it’s soon,
I’ll follow your casket
the pale afternoon,
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
To your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
Til I’m sure you are dead.”
Dylan penned those words in 1962. They’re filled with rage and bitterness, and they captured exactly my sense of outrage at what is happening in Syria today.
But I did not feel vindicated when President Trump launched his much lauded retaliatory strike. It let me even more numb, for though it’s target was the airbase from which the chemical weapons attacks had been launched, this also meant accepting the “collateral damage” of the death of Syrian men, women and children who had nothing to do with those chemical weapons. Is it not both absurd and obscene that we sent a message that chemical attacks against children would not be tolerated by launching tomahawk missiles against children? Western civilization is built on the notion that the powerful do not get to bypass the law but must be subject to it and that the instruments of the State must be used to protect the life and liberty of even the lowliest member of humankind from the power games of the elite. Both these core values were betrayed the moment those tomahawk missiles were launched. How is it we so quickly suspended the very things that make Western civilisation civil? How is it we so meekly surrendered our conscience to pragmatism, to the calculus of expediency?
Which brings me back to Dylan’s song. It is part of a genre of writing that goes back at least as far as the psalms of the Old Testament. “Lament” allows us to express the depth of emotion we feel when injustices occur and things go badly awry in our world. It is not careful speech. In lament I give full expression to my rage, anger, and confusion. Lament does not suggest that my murderous feelings, my lust for revenge and my desire to retaliate by inflicting pain are good. They are not, and if ever enacted would be worthy of fierce condemnation. Lament does however provide a legitimate space for us to give voice to the dark feelings within, so that our sense that words must be said, that the outrages committed demand the strongest condemnation, is met. Having vented we can then turn our hearts and minds to what is a just and good response.
In the biblical tradition the venting takes place when the people gather for worship. They pour it all out before God, even their doubts about God’s goodness and greatness. But they do not remain in this space. They return to their past, both personal and collective, remember those occasions in which God was clearer to them and God’s love, justice and goodness were established. This causes them to move on, to trust again that God will bring justice, and to remember their calling is to love, grace and faithfulness to the way of God.
Could it be that we have lost our capacity for lament? That we no longer have the collective spaces in which to vent our grief and rage without harming others, and so are losing the capacity to return to our core convictions, to reclaim those grand moments in our history when we grasped a larger vision of ourselves, our civilisation and our way in the world? Does the absence of a publicly shared liturgy of lament mean we have lost the artform required to navigate a way from the raw viscerality of our darker selves to the humanising nobility of our better selves? And if so, how do we get it back?