Simply grieving

September 13, 2010

Any national leader who would willingly engage in war when other alternatives exist should read Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt.
The author was an Italian journalist assigned to cover campaigns by
Axis allies. He wrote a “secret history” of his life amid the carnage
and cruelty of war. It is a poetic, personal perspective.

One
thing that makes the book effective is Malaparte’s selection of scenes
and victims, from dead horses to individual Jews unable to escape their
doom. He is sophisticated, even debonair, but his stylish writing only
enhances the disgust and sorrow. It is as if the terrible scenes he
witnessed were given an appointed chronicler so that war’s shameful
destruction might be stripped of political cant or romantic
pretense—and so that the lost might be properly mourned.

One
problem with photos and video is that they come to the viewer
relatively undigested. Images of the Twin Towers struck by jetliners,
or of tortured and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib, haunt people
with their horror. People need guidance in how to express their
sadness, fear and anger. In our time political commentators are
supplying that guidance, and the misery of human inhumanity becomes
ammunition for argument.

It seems there is no time simply to
weep over the wrong of the world. The public’s instinct that we have a
share in victims’ suffering doesn’t find a fit way to grieve just for
them.

Jeremiah has plenty of political purpose in his
pronouncements, but he knows enough to admit his inability to mourn
adequately —“would that I could cry a river!”—and to spend time
sorrowing over those slain by war before drawing morals. He has been so
impatient of fools and bold in denunciation that it gives his deep
anguish all the more impact. Like Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus,
Jeremiah betrays a tenderheartedness and sympathy with human
vulnerability not always evident in God’s self-revelation.

Psalm
79 is another lament over slaughtered people and a defeated nation. The
psalmist asks when God’s anger will be averted—and if it can’t be
turned on those who humiliated God’s people. The extent of the judgment
is more than one generation can have deserved, so the psalmist asks
that forebears be forgiven as well as his own time and people. God’s
compassion is invoked, and God’s purpose in having a people to bear his
name is recalled, with the hope that God will rescue them for God’s
sake if not their own.

The psalm, in its tentative hints of
causes for tragedy, goes farther than Jeremiah. It remains poetry,
however, and the evocative and suggestive power of its poetry keep the
psalmist’s efforts at sense-making from seeming presumptuous. Several
things come to mind—the anger of God, the sin of the people, the
puzzling failure of the manifestly equally sinful enemy to suffer
anything comparable—but it is more like thinking aloud than building a
case.

Grieving itself, with its mixture of consternation and
indignation, puzzlement and pain, is response enough. Like Jeremiah,
the psalmist is reacting, and upholding the place of mourning by not
feeling obliged to solve problems or suggest policy. One hopes that
further developments, influenced by God, will come soon. Now is a time
to cry.

For all its religious rhetoric, our time is less
persuaded that events are in God’s hands. Suggesting that there is
merit in grieving all by itself, that there is healing in lamentation
and perspective in despair, runs counter to the grain of our culture
and our time.

Such a suggestion could, however, chase the
phantoms of our self-reliance and remind people of faith of the
obligations and opportunities that exist in calling and waiting on God.
A world impatient with recourse to prayer would have to ask itself if
our efforts—fearing, blaming, killing, torturing and intimidating
people—have really proved better solutions to the shocks and sorrows of
our time.

Additional lectionary columns by Scott
appear in the September 7
issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.