Not long ago, I sat in a memory-saturated room in Addis and heard the most remarkable questions from some of the people I love most in this world. We had just celebrated the wedding of a beloved friend, but these were the considerations on people’s minds:
“What if the violence escalates and we don’t have a country anymore?” “What if we can’t escape to safety?” “What if we can escape but our families can’t? If violent mobs come to our neighborhoods again, will we pick up sticks, stones, and metal pipes to defend our neighbors? If this is what we need to do to survive, is life still worth living?”
As I listened and my heart bled, I wondered if these were the questions people were asking in Rwanda before the genocide exploded in 1994. What a horrific thought. It was the kind of conversation I never want anyone to hear but consider sacred because it was the honesty of my friends in a land I love.
Last week, the humanitarian chief of the United Nations, Mark Lowcock, declared that 350,000 Ethiopians are now living in famine conditions in Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia where civil war has raged for over seven months. Around 1.7 million of our neighbors are displaced from their homes and 5.5 million neighbors are in urgent need of food assistance. Scores of massacres are reported, amid widespread rape, looting, and destruction.
As I process this catastrophe, I cling to the emotional honesty of the Bible’s spirituality. All throughout its pages, we find lamentations or uncensored outpourings of raw sorrow and pain in the face of violent atrocity, suffering, and loss. The Bible invites us into a more radical vulnerability, truth, and protest.
These words of lament are uncomfortable for me to share. But they are real, and perhaps they will give words to others who are grieving, in Ethiopia or elsewhere. The pain that my Ethiopian friends have shared with me is only mildly represented here.
Please join me in prayer and protest for what is happening to our precious neighbors in Ethiopia. May God have mercy on us all.
Yours in lament,
A Lament for a Land Beloved
There is a terrible pain inside me. It cuts like knives. It burns like fire. It crushes like stone.
This pain feels like a black hole — an infinite, violent, wounded emptiness within that threatens to consume and destroy me. It hurts my soul.
It churns and grinds and tears. It sinks deeper and rises higher within me. It is not rage; it is grief.
I look inside and there is a mourning tent. The stakes stretch wide to four corners, the canvass hangs heavy, echoing the whispered roar of wailing. The sun is hot but hidden.
Inside of me is a mass grave. It is vast, with many bodies, the ground groaning with my dead loved ones — friends, strangers, enemies. Is there any earth still unstained with neighbors’ blood?
Inside of me is an ocean of tears, swelling and crashing in silence, waves rising and crackling, like heaven falling.
In my body is an electric storm that tingles and tires me. My eyes are like a ship sinking in hot, heavy waters.
What is the source of this pain?
It is the cruelty of the human creature. It is our indifference to our neighbor’s pain. Our willingness for others to suffer. Our sense of being something more, which means others must be something less. Our lack of imagination and attention to what a life might be worth. Our carelessness with what matters and contentment with lies. Our sense of right while others are led to the slaughter, or starve.
It is also the corruption of our religion. We claim God for our cruelty. We invoke the divine to deny the atrocities that destroy our neighbors. “Peace, peace,” we say, when there is no peace. We sing and shout and write books, and then we remain silent or lie while life hangs in the balance. We bless God and curse our neighbors or simply ignore that they exist(ed).
Every justification — every “But they started it!” every “But they…” every “But…” — is hideously muffled by the weeping of mothers. By the terror of children. By the pounding memories of the raped. By the splashing bucket of trauma that soaks stony ground. By the silent groaning of millions of stomachs with souls.
The banal climax of this cruelty and corruption is the cheapness of life, the cheapness of tears, the yawning abyss inside the soul — hidden, silenced, normalized. It’s those cutting, crushing sentences we say and hear every day:
“He died in the crash.”
“She was raped.”
“They got killed.”
“Millions are hungry.”
“The war was necessary.”
The grief industrial complex functions with an exceptional efficiency. It lifts up life, then leaves it to die in the dirt, then bewails its destruction, then forgets or justifies that it happened. It paces the same circle, like a madman, while those that live die a little more inside. Never again!
History is a hard teacher. In every catastrophe, there have been government officials speaking of justice and prosperity. In every catastrophe, there have been religious leaders speaking of God’s favor and the blessing he is now pouring out. In every catastrophe, there have been citizens who insist the dream is finally becoming reality.
What does it mean to eat when so many are hungry? What does it mean to laugh when so many cry? What does it mean to live when so many die?
God of the suffering, Wailer with the mothers, Holder of the children, Rebellion against the violent, our Hope: we cry out to you.
“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised?’ … When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Paul (1 Corinthians 15:35-44)