Journey Towards Healing: Should Northern Ireland Recover the Biblical Practice of Lament?

image Last week’s conference at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Journey Towards Healing: Trauma and Spirituality – an International Dialogue, has stimulated debate about a variety of issues that faith leaders and health professionals might fruitfully address together in post-conflict transitions.

I’ve written two posts about different conference presentations on the Slugger O’Toole blog.

Do Acknowledgement and Apology Have a Role to Play in Northern Ireland?

The Churches in Northern Ireland are Uninterested in Post-Violence Reconstruction – Prof John Brewer

These posts provide only a glimpse of the range of topics up for discussion, so I plan to feature several more of the lectures and presentations on this blog.

Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, a colleague of mine at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, led a session on ‘Recovering the Practice of Lament: Resources in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.’

McMaster – like Prof. John Brewer, whose provocative lecture claimed that the churches in Northern Ireland were uninterested in post-violence reconstruction – seems to be starting from the assumption that Christians should seek to play a healing, reconciling role in Northern Ireland.

This assumption is grounded in a theological conviction that the gospel requires us to love god and our neighbour – and that our neighbour is the person who we would be expected to consider our enemy.

This assumption is also grounded in a conviction that the institutional churches in Northern Ireland played a significant role in upholding a divisive and sectarian social and political order – and that the churches should acknowledge their role in that and ask for forgiveness.

McMaster said that Northern Ireland’s faith communities have struggled to know how to respond to violence, whether that was during the Troubles or now in our post-violence phase. He said that the most common responses have been escapism, or denial that the churches could or should respond.

In contrast to these responses, McMaster made a case for recovering the biblical practice of lament. He noted that lament was deeply rooted in ancient Israel’s prayer and liturgy. He said that there are more psalms of lament than there are psalms of praise. Many of these psalms of lament end only with hopelessness and despair.

Yet the hopelessness and despair of lament is a prayer, which allows people to express to their pain, trauma, and even longing for vengeance.

For instance, McMaster provided the example of Psalm 137, with the familiar opening of ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.’

McMaster said that when this psalm is read aloud today in churches, the last verses are often left out. They read:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

McMaster obviously does not advocate dashing infants against rocks, nor does he believe this psalm should be taken literally. But he said that ignoring or passing over uncomfortable verses like this is problematic.

Rather, we should allow the words to be spoken in a way that is therapeutic, as a sort of venting of frustration and a crying out for justice from a people who have been traumatised.

McMaster added that examples of lament could also be gleaned from books of the bible such as Job, Lamentations, and Revelation. And he posed two pointed questions:

  • How might faith communities, together or separately, publicly lament the devastation that resulted from sectarian hatred?
  • What language, symbols, and rituals might be used to give voice to people’s experience of trauma, suffering and anger?

Image: ‘Reconciliation’ (sourced on flickr photosharing, by Garrettc)

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