Reclaiming Lamentations

There are forgotten books haunting the pages of your Bible, pages of passionate love songs and obscure prophecies and the poetry of people picking through the rubble. These are the books we don’t read, the suspect pages we don’t know what to do with. Lamentations is one of those books.

Around 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Jerusalem to the sword, dragging most of the population into exile and razing the city to the ground. Lamentations is the songs of those he left behind.

It’s a dark book, a poem of despair and guilt and rage sung among the ruins. If you’re a privileged reader, it may feel alien, oppressive, haunting and bleak, hardly the first place you’d turn for spiritual comfort. If, of course, you’re a privileged reader.

Others may read Lamentations and wish it had a trigger warning. This book of the Bible is a book for those who weren’t rich enough or healthy enough or fast enough to flee, it’s for those who always suffer the most when an invader marches into town and unleashes the inevitable dogs of violence and hate.

Yes, it’s about the fall of ancient Jerusalem, but maybe it’s also about Aleppo and Hiroshima, maybe it’s about London in the Blitz and New York fifteen Septembers ago. Maybe Lamentations echoes in the burning of Alexandria’s library, in the bombing of Bamiyan’s Buddhas.

Lamentations is a book of great relevance, because there are those who’ve lived it, those who’ve seen their homes reduced to dust, those who’ve had to bury their loved ones in the ruins of their city, those who had to run for the border, those who had no choice but to stay behind and try to survive both bombs and scarcity.

Some can read Lamentations and know what those words look like and sound like and smell like because they lived through them. The rest of us can read Lamentations as an act of solidarity, not just with the Jews heading into their great exile, but with the refugees resettled next door and the shell-shocked kids from Syria we see on the news.

The tragedy-stained corners of the Bible challenge us every time we try to read them from a position of power; nowadays my own country is more used to dropping or selling bombs than surviving them, after all. Sometimes we’re not the broken, weeping remnant, we’re the mighty Nebuchadnezzar and frankly we prefer it that way. But not everyone gets to read the Bible from such distance.

So it’s long past time to reclaim Lamentations as a scriptural voice of survival and shock. Maybe in its poetry of grief a measure of healing can be found, maybe understanding can emerge in songs that rise from the debris and ashes. Maybe we need to hear these words in our churches again; maybe we need to see these words in those around us who have lived their own Lamentations.

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