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C. Christopher Smith

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Recovering a Politics of Lament in Our Faith Communities

Posted: 08/02/2012 11:34 am

One of the most disturbing things about the American public's reaction to the recent theater shooting in Aurora was the speed at which the tragedy was politicized, snapped up by partisan pundits and reduced to a debate about gun control. I know this is a presidential election year, but have we no sensitivity to the families and communities immediately impacted by this tragedy? Have we no grief that this is only the most recent in a abysmally long series of shootings that have rocked our nation over the last two decades?

To lament a situation like Aurora means to be engaged with and attentive to not only those people deeply pained by the event, but also to that which has caused the pain. Aurora, of course, is not the first time that our national politics has acted without really engaging the real issues that are inflicting pain on our populace. As the Occupy movement has been emphasizing in recent years, there's a lot of talk in Washington, but very little actually gets done to address the most pressing concerns of the middle and lower classes that daily cause significant pain and grief. Indeed, the current dissatisfaction that many people feel with both parties is rooted in the parties' lack of careful attention to the real sorts of issues that are causing pain and grief among large sectors of the American populace.

So how do we begin to imagine a politics of lament, a politics that is attentive to the deep pains that grip our populace and to the real forces that contribute to this pain? I don't pretend to know how to answer this question on a national level, but I am hopeful that in our local faith communities, we can begin to foster substantial grassroots change in this direction. Although lament has been an essential practice historically within Christianity and other faith traditions, it is one that I suspect is largely unfamiliar to most congregations in the United States today. From at least the time of Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" onward, our congregations have nurtured a culture that values put on the façade that life is working out well for us. As I have argued in my recent book "The Virtue of Dialogue," there are many reasons why our faith communities should be creating space in our life together for conversation. One of the most significant of such reasons is that we need a space in which to learn to lament together.

Recovering lament as a practice of our faith involves, I believe, creating spaces in our congregations where we can share our pains honestly, grieve and bear them together, confess and discuss our complicity in causing these pains and eventually begin to imagine and enact ways of easing the pain. Creating conversational spaces in our faith communities where we can lament together in this way not only deepens our relationships with our fellow congregants, but also draws us deeper into the political life of our neighborhoods. Many times engaging the pains that plague our members involves dealing directly with the source of the pain, whether that be an abusive landlord, an employer that is trimming hours or benefits, failures of public transportation, etc. Maybe sometimes the pains we feel are selfish ones, inflicted upon ourselves out of greed, pride or some other vice, and we need a community that will speak truthfully to us and set us on a course toward healing, even if that journey might take us through deeper pain.

For more than 15 years, we here at Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis have been experimenting with the practice of conversation. Although we do not often use the language of lament, conversation has guided us into a sort of local politics of lament. When our neighborhood felt the pressures of welfare-to-work legislation in the late 1990s, we had people who were skilled in working with children and we started a daycare and preschool. When some of our members and neighbors were in unacceptable housing situations, we leveraged the construction skills in our congregation and the local opportunity of high abandoned housing rates to provide good, affordable housing for these friends.

I am hopeful that if faith communities were to become more attentive to the pains in our midst and would begin caring for the health and flourishing of their places in similar ways, then our recovery of lament in these ways would begin to influence positively the ways in which local, state and national politics unfold in our country. Aurora has reminded us that lament is sorely lacking in our land. Our faith communities are faced with a prime opportunity to recover the practice of lament and point us toward a society that is more compassionate and humane. Will we have the courage to lead the way on this journey?

 
 
 
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