Let’s put aside, for a moment, debates about infection rates, IFRs, modeling, dying “from” v. dying “with,” death counts and juicing the numbers. Let’s take a break from shouting at each other about the wisdom of continuing lockdowns. Let’s call a time-out on our “I told you so’s,” our attacks and self-justifications. Stop looking for someone to blame—China, Trump, Fauci, Republicans, Democrats, the media, Big Pharma, the CDC, WHOmever.
Let the calamity sink in. Worldwide, a quarter of a million people are dead, each one a son or daughter, friend and colleague, thousands of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. Whether or not it’s accurate to say “COVID killed them,” they’re dead, and the toll of loss and sorrow is many times greater than the death toll. Remember that thousands have died without the comfort of family, friends, or pastor at their deathbeds. These are horrors. Think of wives and children locked indoors with their abusers, the depressed for whom isolation squeezes out the last remnants of hope, the sick who deteriorate because they’re scared to go to the hospital. Think of restaurant owners who stand to lose the clean, well-lighted place they’ve been building for decades, the retail salesclerks laid off in middle age, the nurses and doctors deceased in the line of duty. Think of millions huddled in their homes, terrified to venture out. Those too are horrors. Think—feel—the sheer wreckage of the past two months. Hold that feeling, and “sit alone in silence” (Lam. 3:28).
Silence is something we can do together. If we lose the capacity for shared silence, we’ve lost our shared humanity. We chatter on because reality is too painful. It’s easier to slip into our comfortable ideological slots. Yet we can’t be silent forever. Silence we can share, but when we break the silence, can we find a common language?
Much of the Bible’s power lies in its capacity to voice the unspeakable, and no book of the Bible does this as thoroughly and honestly as Jeremiah’s Lamentations. Jeremiah agonizes over the ruin of Jerusalem, “Daughter Zion,” overrun and demolished by Babylonian invaders. Zion is a grieving widow, a mother mourning her slaughtered children, a rape victim, a spurned lover, an impoverished princess. She’s trapped and alone: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people” (Lam. 1:1). Even Yahweh is deaf to her cries: “Yahweh! Look! I am despised” (Lam. 1:11). He’s the only one who can comfort, but he seems far away (Lam. 1:16). Zion once shared Yahweh’s heavenly glory, but now is thrown to earth; Yahweh once rested in Zion’s temple, but now he’s abandoned his footstool (Lam. 2:1). Zion’s tortured rage verges on blasphemy. Yahweh has forgotten his covenant and turned into an adversary, bending his bow and making Jerusalem his target (Lam. 2:4, 10). He swallows Zion with her palaces and strongholds (Lam. 2:2, 5, 16), indistinguishable from the yawning mouth of sheol. Zion feels Yahweh cannot be trusted and tells him so.
Jeremiah doesn’t refrain from pointing fingers, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. He accuses Zion herself. She’s unclean because she “sinned greatly” and falls because of the impurity “in her skirts” (Lam. 1:8–9). Zion concurs. “I have rebelled against His command,” she confesses; I have been “very rebellious” (Lam. 1:18, 20). Victim though she is, Zion is also perpetrator. But she’s not alone in her guilt. Prophets mislead her with “false and foolish visions” (Lam. 2:14). Passersby mock Zion instead of binding up her wounds (Lam. 2:15); there’s not a good Samaritan among them. Predatory Babylonians bare their teeth to devour her (Lam. 2:16). In, with, and behind it all is Yahweh himself, who “has done what he purposed; he has accomplished his word” (Lam. 2:17).
Remarkably, Jeremiah’s indictment modulates into lament. He begins the poem as an accusatory outsider, but as the poem progresses, he stands with Zion and takes up her lament as his own. “My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled,” the prophet says. “My heart is poured out on the earth, because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lam. 2:11; cf. 1:2). Yahweh turns his bow on Jeremiah, knocking him to the dust and breaking his teeth in the gravel (Lam. 3:10–16). Jeremiah remembers Yahweh’s favor, but the memory is “wormwood and gall” (Lam. 3:19–20). Lamentations is a polyphony of condemnation and shared lament, which echoes Yahweh’s song for Moab (Jer. 48:28–33) and prefigures Jesus’s stance toward prophet-killing Jerusalem (Matt. 23). Jeremiah enters into Yahweh’s wrath and sorrow over the rebellion and suffering of his people, which expresses shared anguish and anger while simultaneously and pointedly assigning responsibility.
Biblical lament also harmonizes sorrow and hope. Gillian Rose characterized postmodernism as perpetual lament, summed up in the late Jacques Derrida’s parody of Descartes: “I mourn, therefore I am.” But our tears must cease. Mourning, Rose writes, must end. Antigone grieves for her brother outside the gates, but she doesn’t stay outside forever. Mourners must return to the city, so the boundaries of the city can be redrawn, and the city renewed, after devastating loss. Biblical lament expresses and limits grief. At the center of Lamentations, in the depths of his despair, Jeremiah sees a glimmer of light: “Yahweh’s lovingkindnesses never cease . . . they are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22–23). As Emmanuel Katongole notes, there’s no smooth progression from mourning to dancing. Hope comes unbidden in the midst of lament. It breaks like grace in the darkness.
There will be a reckoning. We’ll have to assess whether and where we panicked and overacted, whether and where we were complacently under-prepared. Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we want to avoid repeating them. That reckoning will be contested, as it always is. It will be divisive, as all judgments must be. To be fruitful, the future battle over COVID-19 needs to be something more than a blame game. To approximate truth and reconciliation, it must be bounded by our shared vulnerability and shared sorrow. The church must lead the way, compelled as we are by apostolic mandate to “weep with those who weep.” Maybe, just maybe, if we lament together now, we can lay the foundations for a more human world where, in Auden’s haunting words, “one could weep because another wept.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.