Tragic History Can Teach the Church How to Lament

by Wayne Stapleton
NAB VP of Racial Righteousness

Much of Black history is uplifting, and one of the reasons why is because so much of it is also tragic. But just like other historical events, we want to celebrate courage and bravery and the best of people while lamenting the evil that has taken place. As followers of Jesus, we know that God is a refuge, a place of safety. The term “refuge” is used forty-seven times in the Psalms to describe His protection for His people. And if He is a refuge, so too should His church be a place of safety.

This is why it was shocking and horrifying when, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a dynamite bomb exploded at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, at 10:21 a.m. on September 15, 1963. Twenty people were injured, but four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed. All were 14, except McNair, who was 11. The girls were in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church preparing for the Youth Sunday service. That day the church was not a physical refuge.

On that day, Black history and church history horrifyingly overlapped. The level of hatred displayed against Blacks in the South did not exempt a church building, or worshipers of Jesus, from domestic terrorism. Racial hatred extended from the outside into the very aisles of a church.

What can we learn from this event? Does this heinous crime still matter?

It helps us to remember just how violent things got during the Civil Rights Movement. We have a tendency to look back on difficult history without seeing the evil for all it was. We might tend to think that the hatred faced by Blacks was simply about harmless individual opinions and not organized and truly malevolent. And in the South, despite being nicknamed “the Bible Belt,” even a church could not provide protection from racial violence.

And because these four young women were part of a biblical community, serving in a church, this event should matter to all followers of Christ. This moment was significant in the history of our country. One author writes that this bombing by Klansmen did not have its intended effect. Though the plan was for African Americans to become intimidated in seeking further rights, the murders of the children while preparing for church service shamed the nation. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act less than one year later.

What can we learn from this sad story? Lament. Crying out to God. Hearing something sad and allowing ourselves to be sad. Not rising up to fix things. Not spinning the story or minimizing the pain, but listening, taking it in, and being sad. In an article on lament for the website For The City, James Hart points to Daniel Hill’s White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White to describe biblical lament as “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering” that “engages God in the context of pain and trouble” (p.107).

Our sacred Scriptures contains a whole book entitled Lamentations, giving us biblical instruction and even encouragement to the act of lament, a way of taking in suffering and taking suffering to God.

Hart writes, “By going to God in lament, we can fight the paralysis of overwhelming shame. Through lament, Christians are freed from seeing issues of race and racism as problems to be solved, but realities to be mourned.” The lessons that tragedies can teach are sometimes surprising, but they go unlearned apart from applying ourselves. Perhaps in mourning, as God’s people, we can learn grief together as a unified people of God, we can learn healing we did not know, and we can learn a deeper level of love, experienced for the first time.