This week as I scrolled across my various social media feeds, I, and so many us, came across horrifying images of civilians in anguish after chemical weapons attacks in Syria. There were videos from people who had lost their entire families in the attack, images of injured and dying children, and stories that were unbearable to hear.
My initial reaction was to look away. In my head I thought, “I can’t handle seeing this right now.” It’s a strategy I’ve used before, particularly with images of violence. In some ways I do this out of a sense of self-care. I know what I can and cannot handle when it comes to images. Still, another inner voice gave me pause this week. I felt the need to witness the suffering that was unfolding.
More and more, we are living in an age where it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the injustice we see in the world. Sometimes our response is to become paralyzed by the enormity of it. We get the sense that there is nothing we can do, and our impulse is to look away.
Looking away is a thing of privilege. I don’t say this because I think it is right or sustainable to spend all of our time reading as many upsetting news articles as we can. What I am saying is that my cultural and socioeconomic status and privilege makes it easy for me to look away and disengage.
As an activist and person of faith, I believe there is a sacred rhythm in responding to injustice and suffering. For me that rhythm consists of three things: contemplative self-care and becoming grounded in the Holy, compassionate action within my community, and lamentation.
Lamentation is something new I am trying to incorporate in my life as a spiritual practice. Lamentation is about experiencing the grief and brokenness we feel when we encounter suffering. By connecting to our own grief, we are also aligning ourselves with God’s grief. It’s a way of weeping with God. Instead of pushing away the feelings of anguish, this is an intentional practice of beholding and embracing. Lamentation is a tool we can use in our own spiritual life to grow closer to God and avoid disengaging from the suffering around us.
One form of lamentation that can be quite powerful and healing is song. I’m particularly drawn to a hymn from my own tradition entitled “God Weeps,” by Shirley Erena Murray and Mark A. Miller.
The words are as follows:
God weeps at love withheld, at strength misused,
At children’s innocence abused,
And ‘till we change the way we love,
God bleeds at anger’s fist,
At trust betrayed, at women battered and afraid,
And ‘till we change the way we win,
God cries at hungry mouths, at running sores,
At creatures dying without cause,
And ’till we change the way we care,
God waits for stones to melt, for peace to seed,
For hearts to hold each other’s need,
And ‘till we understand the Christ,
May we enter into a sacred rhythm of spiritual activism that calls us to lament and witness suffering, nurture our own souls, and actively engage in justice and peacemaking.