• Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Impreccatory Psalms and the need for Lament

Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Impreccatory Psalms and the need for Lament

Yesterday after an amazing few days of birthday celebration (both mine and America’s), I saw a video pop up on my Facebook feed…and I wish I could unsee it.

It was the video over the shoulder of the police officer in Baton Rouge who shot a man named Alton Sterling multiple times in the chest at point blank range while the latter was face up on the ground with two police officers holding him down.

I can’t put words to what it felt like to watch the man with his chest ripped open by bullet wounds laying on the concrete waiving his hands in the air as the life literally fled from his body.

Immediately, people online started in on both sides, predictably pointing out the man’s past crimes and tarnished background. The post became politicized just as fast as it spread. Memes about gun-control, police brutality, all lives matter, black lives matter, blue lives matter… Yet however much truth may be found in the various responses, the most undeniable truth was brought home in the next video I saw. The video of Alton Sterling’s oldest son breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably because his father was now dead.

You can see that video (which is far less graphic…but no easier to watch than the video of the shooting) here: https://youtu.be/lw-oXAwIeW8 

My heart broke for this kid. Perhaps because I teach Jiujitsu to kids his age. Perhaps because I can’t imagine how I would be able to function if I’d watched my own father shot multiple times in the chest at point blank range while lying face up on the concrete. Perhaps because I know that in a nation where so many young men grow up without ever knowing their fathers, those who do–even if they do not live with them–have something that is cherished regardless. Perhaps because I know this will only serve to inflame the fires of anger that so many of my black friends in particular feel at this moment in our nation’s history, and which corrupt politicians feed off of like maggots on decaying flesh in order to acquire more power and further their own deplorable agendas. Perhaps because I know many good and righteous police officers who will once again bear the brunt of people’s anger at the actions of their incompetent and/or evil colleagues…and may be at a loss for how to properly respond (as pointed out by this radio host in the third video I saw on it that my friend Speech of the band Arrested Development shared today).

Then, as I was processing all this…I saw another story from across the country and it just seemed surreal. Another man, Philando Castile, was shot to death at point blank range during a traffic stop for a busted tail light…in front of his 4-year-old daugther, while his girlfriend pleaded to God and asked her Facebook friends to pray. The video does not show the events leading up to the shooting, but unlike Alton Sterling, Philando Castile had a legal gun permit and, according to his girlfriend, told the officer he was not reaching for when he went to produce his identification.

Whatever the facts turn out to be, the timing is absolutely devastating and only raises the very same cries that are echoing loudly over Alton Sterling.

Those cries should NOT go unheard or dismissed…no matter how much you love and respect law enforcement officers.

The cries are real.

The anger is deep.

The fear is 100% understandable.

And the desire for justice is ENTIRELY biblical.

I have been spending the past few weeks reading through the Psalms, about 10 per day. One thing that you cannot help but notice if you read the Psalms is that the songwriters cried out loudly and in unfiltered anger and brokenness to God on a regular basis. There are Psalms of utter grief and emotional despair, known as Psalms of Lament. There are Psalms of unadulterated hatred, rage, and cries for vengeance upon evildoers, known as Impreccatory Psalms. And for most Christians (and non-Christian readers alike), these Psalms seem entirely out of place in a Holy book…much less in actual PRAYER to the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet there they are, right in the literal center of the Bible.

What do these Psalms have to do with Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the #BlackLivesMatter vs. #BlueLivesMatter reality in which we live? My friend Esau McCaulley, who I lived down the hall from in seminary at Gordon-Conwell and who has since gone on to become one of the handful of people whose blog, Thicket of the Jordan, I consistently find myself sharing and recommending, put it far better than I could ever hope to [go read his full post, seriously. It’s called “Alton Sterling, a Son’s Tears, and Psalm 37: A Lament” and is the best thing you will read on the event. Read it in full and share it on your own social media channels so that voices like Esau’s are heard more in our world at a time like this!]

I take from this that God’s people have the God given and bible sanctioned right to feel deep anger in the midst of a prolonged experience of injustice.  So yes black people are in a mood, and we have been in one for quite some time.  We are in a mood because folks demand eloquence, patience, and perspective in the face of calamity.  We are allowed some anger, but only if we bracket that anger with explanations and qualifications lest we be misunderstood.  But Psalm 137 is not bracketed anger. It is the cry of the broken. The pain evident in that Psalm flows forth in a manner that is unrelenting and without qualification.  Of course, God’s people had no desire to bash the heads of babies, but when emotions ran high, the responses did not always sound like what was acceptable to the powerful. For God’s sake let us weep for a while before being assaulted with calls for perspective and theological sophistication.

And as Jemar Tisby pointed out back in January in the pages of Christianity Today, drawing from the work of my friend Dr. Soong-Chan Rah on the subject, Psalms of Lament are in Scripture for a reason. There is a deep spiritual need for public Lament–something that most of us have either overlooked, forgotten, or never been in a position as a culture/group to have a communal need for.

The public nature of lament allows an opportunity for Christians to bear one another’s burdens. Anyone who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death knows it is much easier to keep plodding with a friend nearby. Sometimes the greatest comfort in times of disaster is another person or a chorus of people who weep with you.

And that’s exactly what those who dismiss or rebuke the outcry from our black brothers and sisters over the killings of Alton Sterling, Philano Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and literally hundreds of other black men and women at the hands of law enforcement MUST realize…and respect.

However, as my friend Esau goes on to point out:

Nonetheless, the bible does not end with Psalm 137.  The people of God’s cry for vengeance was  answered, but it was not answered with bloodshed and hate. God, in his love, called us back from our brokenness and our anger. He is our healer. The answer that God gives (yes we go there even now) is nothing less that the cross.  The death of his Son for the reconciliation of the world is not less important today. It is vital.  So Christians, we either pick up our crosses, eventually if not today, or we burn the thing to the ground.  Either God has a word of hope for his people or we are doomed.

This is not escapism.  This is not heaven as a hustle. This is an active engagement for justice borne up by the blood of Jesus. It is our heritage despite those who would pretend otherwise. We have risen to the occasion before and must do so again. This heritage and his faithfulness unto death for his enemies allows us to avoid the chasm of despair on our right and the burden of hatred on our left.  It is the narrow path.  It is the path that disappoints just about everyone.  It disappoints our “woke” friends who want only Psalm 137 but not Mark 16:6 (“And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.”) It disappoints our Christian brothers and sisters who are deeply asleep and only want us to speak about the saving of souls, not the rescue of black bodies.

This hope of the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to the grief, fear, hatred, despair, pain, confusion, anger, frustration, and brokenness of this world…of which the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, or those killed similarly by the Occupation authorities in Palestine on a weekly basis are just a few of the symptoms. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be. The entire cosmos “groans” in pain and longing for Resurrection and renewal (cf. Romans 8). We all–in some way–long for God to, as N.T. Wright frequently says, to “put the world back to rights.”

But until that day, there will be a deep and universal need to Lament. There will be cries of Impreccation lifted up to God in the midst of pain like that on the face of a sobbing 15-year-old grieving uncontrollably over the murder of his father. There will be temporal justice to be pursued and temporal reforms to be fought for.

But there will also be…hope. Because as the Psalmist declares of God in Psalm 56:8:

You yourself have kept track of my misery.
    Put my tears into your bottle—
    aren’t they on your scroll already?

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