Review: “Lamentations and the Tears of the World”

Kathleen O’Connor. Lamentations and the Tears ofthe World. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2002.

O’Connor’s purpose is to recommend Lamentations as an instrument of personal and communal healing. Lamentations’ “theology of witnessing” is for her a theological antidote to blind praise amid suffering, as well as a way of validating pain and protesting suffering in the world. Part I consists largely of commentary on the text of Lamentations, chapter by chapter and section by section (or “panel”). Part II consists of thoughtful reflections upon Lamentations’ theology, purposes, and applications for the individual and the community.

Chapter one describes the purpose of Lamentations, which is at its core the expression of suffering and pain, rather than explanation or comfort. She observes, “Lamentations is not depressing; it cannot cause sorrow, hostility, or despair; it cannot evoke emotions readers do not already know. Rather than creating pain, it reveals pain” (3). In a Western culture that tries to cover, ignore or drown out pain, Lamentations is a breath of fresh air and cool honesty. Lamentations is testimony of a bitter, wounded and unhealed people who sit amid the wreckage of society, religion and life.

One of the strengths of O’Connor’s work is her recognition of poetic form and its relevance to interpretation. The use of acrostic form, multiple perspectives/voices, the personification of Jerusalem as a woman—these are all tools used deliberately and sharply by the poet(s) to communicate pain and protest with cool, horrific calculation rather than dismissible hysteria.

In chapter two, O’Connor demonstrates the nexus between the acrostic form and the content of Lamentations 1. The narrator’s perspective (1:1-11b) is that Daughter Zion is responsible for her own fall; she has been an unfaithful wife to YHWH. Zion, by contrast, desires a hearing, any attention that could be paid to her suffering:

The deepest need of Zion is for God to see, to become aware of the way events are destroying her. She admits her sinfulness, but she knows her attacking foes are not free of sin either….If only God would look, pay attention, hear, then God might learn how much her world and her life are in chaos. God might change things, might comfort her, or at least, might stop attacking her and destroy her enemies. (28)

In Lamentations 2 the observer is drawn more to Zion’s interpretation of the situation, and the focus shifts from Zion’s suffering to YHWH’s agency. The first panel of poetry, 2:1-10, describes in great detail YHWH’s unrelenting attack. By 2:11-19, the second panel, the observer is wholly on Zion’s side, empathizing with her pain, acknowledging the role of foreigners, and giving her advice. Suffering of her children is the ultimate, indescribable, unquantifiable terror and despair. The observer despairs of “bearing witness” (`od) for her (2:13), but that is actually the very thing she wants (39). If Zion is not primarily to blame, who is? Prophets, passersby, enemies, but ultimately it is YHWH’s fault (2:16-17). The narrator successfully incites Zion to protest in the third panel (2:20-22). God does not respond, nor does Zion speak from here on in the book. But she has gained an advocate: the narrator (43).

Lamentations 3 introduces the geber, “strongman,” a protector who is unable to fulfill his role. O’Connor observes that the imbalance in length between Lamentations 1-2 and 4-5 prevents Lamentations 3 from being considered the unambiguous center of the book, “dumping cold water on optimists seeking a quick escape from the book’s painful world” (45). The geber levels two complaints against YHWH: 3:1-21 and 3:42b-66, surrounding a section concerning YHWH’s divine mercies (3:22-42a). The first complaint is that YHWH has attacked him and his people. After reflecting on YHWH’s mercies and his own culpability, the second complaint concerns YHWH’s promised forgiveness for sin. “We have done our part” in confession, but YHWH has not forgiven and restored them (53). Lamentations 3 is “theologically conflicted,” with elements of hope and despair. The “decentering of the book’s hope” in Lamentations 3 is not the absence of hope, but the recognition that “hope is one experience of survival, one interlude in coming to grips with tragedy” (57).

In chapters five and six, O’Connor once again reflects upon the effect of the poetic form on the meaning of the book: “I assume Lamentations to be a carefully crafted work of art and that the variations in form and length express meanings” (71). Everything about this Lamentations 4 is abbreviated: the acrostic is only 44 lines, the lines themselves are shorter, the narrative voice is less personal, and the tone is somewhat diminished—yet the content is still horrifying. Lamentations 5 is yet shorter than Lamentations 4, and abandons the acrostic form—an abandonment which “signifies an abandonment of efforts to contain suffering within a recognizable alphabetical order” (71). “The refusal of resolution enables the book in its turbulence, conflict, and confusion to portray pain without compromise” (71). Terseness and bluntness characterize these two chapters. The community together describes the hopelessness of the attack (4:17-20), and lashes out in anger against its enemies (4:21-22). The passing of the cup to Edom implies that YHWH’s judgment will soon pass not only to Edom but away from Judah: “Amelioration of pain must surely follow….In the future, things will get better, but that future may be distant indeed” (69). The two sections of Lamentations 5 describe “What God should see” (5:1-18) and “What God should do” (5:19-22). After focusing YHWH’s attention on all that has befallen them, the people hope for “a double-edged movement”: YHWH will return to them, and they will return to him. Yet the book concludes without hope—hope that is present in Lamentations 3 but that the book “cannot sustain” (79). “To do so would be to lie, to cover over, to deny the reality of the survivor’s longing for God’s missing voice” (79).

In chapter seven O’Connor addresses the silence of God in Lamentations. If a hypothetical “Lamentations 6” had been composed with an answer, “no matter what God said, Lamentations would come to premature resolution, and the book’s capacity to house sorrow would dissipate” (85). Lamentations in this way “honors truth-telling and denies ‘denial’” (86)—denial that most of the world lives in relative poverty and insecurity, denial of family tragedies, and denial of pain. Lamentations mirrors human sorrow and permits it to stand unmitigated and unanswered—“It calls us to see” (94-95).

Chapter eight builds a theology of witness from the transformation of the narrator in Lamentations, who “is changed by seeing and hearing and attending to the pain of Zion” (109). What a sufferer requires, more than anything else, is for someone to see his/her pain and empathize. Efforts to comfort by finding “a silver lining in a cloud,” or by comparing suffering, trivialize suffering. Lamentations is able to “summon us to our despair, personal and cultural” (109). It is only when we fully acknowledge our suffering and the suffering of others that healing can begin. But O’Connor does not paint a clear picture of what healing looks like in practice; she alludes to “victims regaining power” (102), but does not sufficiently address the danger of abused becoming abuser, or the possibility of forgiveness.

Chapter nine reflects on the many ways that interpreters have dealt with Lamentations’ apparent portrayal of God as an abuser. Rather than ignoring or justifying divine abuse, or rejecting an abusing divinity altogether, O’Connor proposes that Lamentations needs to be set within its historical and cultural context and acculturated to modern understanding of God’s causal role in the world. In her view it is “obscene” to hold that God caused the Holocaust, 9-11, etc. (120). Rather, she clings to “hope” that God is powerless amidst evil, rather than its author (122). She is more comfortable emotionally with a non-omnipotent deity (and the consequent philosophical difficulties) than with the idea that an omnipotent deity could allow or cause evil.

In the concluding chapter, O’Connor reflects on the value of laments for our prayers on behalf of ourselves and the world. Such prayers staunchly call God to action, and also drive us to yearn for God. Yet one wonders how O’Connor conceives of the efficacy of prayer to the non-omnipotent deity for which she hoped in chapter nine. In her epilogue, O’Connor attempts to resolve the question raised in chapter seven by expounding Second Isaiah’s response to Lamentations—a response she likens to an apology from an abusive husband (146).

O’Connor’s book is borne out of careful study of the text, but also personal testimony to pain and suffering (xiii). Careful observations on form and content (and the nexus thereof) yield valuable applications for the faithful reader. Yet in attempting to tie the themes together in a coherent interpretation, O’Connor fails philosophically to account for the true depth of the problem of suffering in Lamentations. For faithful readers through the centuries, Lamentations has been simultaneously the unmitigated human protest against God, and the inspired word of God himself—an implicit tension which O’Connor barely considers.

As a Christian interpreter, O’Connor could have found in the doctrine of the incarnation—in which God condescends to enter and experience the worst of human suffering—a deep and profound answer to the proclamation of suffering in Lamentations. Were this merely a commentary on Lamentations, this could be overlooked, but a Christian theological, philosophical or pastoral treatment of suffering needs to include the cross.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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2 Responses to Review: “Lamentations and the Tears of the World”

  1. Susan Soesbe says:

    I agree with your conclusion.

    One thing I got out of this book, however, was a reflection that YHWH, in recording the prophet’s words, seems to indicate that He is always paying attention, in both the heights of human experience and the depths.

  2. Pingback: Best of 2012 | think hard, think well

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