“It’s putting purity over progress”, one commentator wrote in response to the Congressional Freedom Caucus’ amendments to the Defense Appropriation Bill. While the legislation barely cleared the House, analysts have uniformly predicted that the add-ons have no chance of passing the Senate. The call to purity involves three resounding refusals for military personnel: no to transgender care, no to abortion access, and no to training in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
It is said that the purists want to make noise, and to gum up the works. They also want to make a point. A point of philosophy, politics or ethics – which adhere to a purity code that they want to enforce. But the point they make, and the aggressiveness with which they make it, literally stabs at the psyche – which either causes outrage (poking the bear) or exultation (the cavalry coming to the rescue); or is received as one piercing too many, resulting in discouragement, paralysis, or psychic death.
It is one thing to make a point. It is quite another thing to make a difference. Making a difference takes a lot more work – involving listening, organizing, and planning. What is particularly upsetting these days is the proliferation of point-making purists – from all sides, who seem to take delight in stabbing their opponents; and the only difference they are making is the ongoing spilling of psychic and spiritual blood. I would like to think that the profusion of bleeding is an unintended consequence, but I am not so sure.
Most of the time, the bear in me is poked by the brashness, rigidity and righteousness of the Freedom Caucus and their minions. My psyche gets outraged. And yet, there are other times when I feel overwhelmed by all the verbal and legislative assaults that I just want to hide out in a cave to nurse my psychic wounds.
Our spiritual ancestors had direct experience of this endless piercing, which resulted in horrific bloodletting – from the body and from the soul. And they devised a response: to offer lament. For the most part, we do not know lament. We do know complaint, whining, pointing fingers, and ascribing blame. We are schooled in that. And the purists among us do everything they can to help us be good at it. Lament is fundamentally different. Lament begins by acknowledging the pain of a broken and unjust world. That we are not – nor ever have been, living on a level playing field. Bad things happen. People can be insensitive, if not cruel. Our hubris and fear inevitably get in the way.
The complainers start by identifying an enemy – be it a person, a race, a religion or ideology that has caused an unwanted injury. The response to the injury is invariably an attempt to try and take the enemy down, one way or another. Stab them with accusations. Lament starts with the pain caused by the various disruptions in the world; and offers up that pain through prayerful, musical or physical expression.
I begin most days by chanting one or two psalms. Many of them are expressions of lament. There are 150 Psalm; 42 of them are individual laments, and 16 are the laments of a community. Our spiritual ancestors were poets in addressing pain. For me, the most poignant lament is the opening verse of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.”
A lament is an offering. It expresses the pain, and to the extent that it is possible, releases it. Lament doesn’t solve problems, but offers a way of coping with them. Engaging in lament is a discipline; lament is a practice that can enable us to move through the outrage, paralysis and spiritual death. So we can better make a difference.