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Why there is no healing without grief

Accepting grief is important for moving toward hope. Shanon Wise, CC BY-ND

Why there is no healing without grief

Accepting grief is important for moving toward hope. Shanon Wise, CC BY-ND

For many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims and immigrants, the victory of Donald Trump seems to have endorsed discrimination against them. Acts of hatred against minorities are surfacing even more brazenly.

College campuses are reporting increasing numbers of incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation. Three days after the election, I saw a “Black Lives Matter” banner on a church wall in Denver splattered with bright red paint.

Many of us feel tremendous grief over what appears to be the end of a certain idea of American democracy. Amidst such pain and loss, many are also desperate for healing. Politicians on all sides are declaring, as Trump himself did on Nov. 9, that “it is time for America to bind the wounds of division.”

The desire to begin healing is certainly understandable. But before we can even begin to hope for healing, we need to grieve. As a scholar and teacher, I explore the many fascinating ways in which biblical images, words and even the idea of the Bible help people make meaning in their lives.

To be sure, there is a lot in the Bible about healing. But there is at least as much about grieving. The biblical tradition emphasizes the importance of grieving before moving toward healing.

To grieve is to embrace the reality of pain and loss.

The wounds are real

For many, following the elections, faith in the idea of American democracy has died. Cultural historian Neil Gabler’s “Farewell, America,” published two days after the election, expresses powerfully this sense of the end of faith in America:

“America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide…Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.”

Indeed, irrespective of who got elected, the presidential race itself exposed mortal wounds on our body politic. We are not who we thought we were.

As the way to healing, pastors and religious leaders, including Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelists Billy and Ruth Graham, are calling for prayer and repentance:

“When God’s people will pray with a humble heart, repenting of our sins, then God promises He will hear our prayer; He will forgive our sin and the third element is that He will heal our land.”

What do our traditions tell us?

Healing is not possible without grieving. The biblical tradition offers an invitation to sit with sadness before reaching for hope and healing. It does not simply allow for grief – it privileges it.

It dwells uncomfortably long in the valleys of loss and despair, refusing to ascend too quickly onto horizons of hope.

The Hebrew Scriptures, in fact, possess a rich vocabulary of grief. Behind the words “grief” and “grieve,” as I found in my research, there are 13 different Hebrew words with connotations ranging from physical injury, to sickness, to mourning, to rage, to agitation, to sighing, to tottering unsteadily to and fro. The most common expressions involve a mix of emotional and physical pain in the face of loss.

Angel of Grief monument in the Hill family plot in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, Texas. Mike Schaffner, CC BY-NC-ND

This privileging of grief over and before any hope of healing is powerfully expressed in the words of the Hebrew biblical prophets. As theologian Walter Brueggemann shows in his book “Reality, Grief, Hope,” the biblical prophets were not, as we often assume, predictors of the future.

Rather they were poets who, like poets today, offered alternative ways of seeing things – that is, to the way the empire (in their case ancient Israel or Judah) wanted people to see things. The prophet confronted ancient Israel’s imperial ideology of special blessing and national exceptionalism with the realities of exploitation and violence upon which its prosperity was gotten.

Addressing an audience that was in total denial that there were any serious problems in their society, the prophet gave voice to the realities of injustice, and grieved the pain and loss that was the result. They confronted the people’s denial with grief.

The prophetic imagination

Consider these words from the prophet Amos, who addressed the prosperous of northern Israel during the eighth century B.C.:

   Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, 
   and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, 
   the notables of the first of the nations ...
   Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
   and lounge on their couches ...
   but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
   Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
   and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Simultaneously pronouncing judgment for their exploitation of the poor and grief over their imminent downfall, the prophet cries out in horror for those who recline in denial of their ill-gotten prosperity and “are not grieved” (from the Hebrew word “chalah,” “made sick”) at the ruin all around.

Though they are guilty, Amos nonetheless laments that they “shall now be the first to go into exile” as a result. The prophet pronounces judgment from the inside, inviting “us” to look at ourselves, to stare at the wounds, to live into the pain, not as a path to healing but as reality in and of itself.

The crux of this “prophetic imagination” is grief. Then, and only then, is it even possible for the prophet to confront the despair of the empire in ruins with hope for the possibility of healing and restoration.

Grief as activism

I am sympathetic with those who feel driven to do something, indeed to resist despair and renew the struggle for justice. As the black feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy famously said,

“Don’t agonize. Organize.”

A ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner on a church wall in Denver splattered with bright red paint. Timothy Beal, CC BY

But what if grief is a kind of activism? What if one of the most subversive acts right now is to give voice to our grief? To refuse to “move on”? Such grief denies denial its power to look away in desperate pursuit of healing. Just as there is no peace without justice, there is no healing without grief.

The day of Donald Trump’s election was also the anniversary of both Kristallnacht – the pogrom in 1938, when Nazi soldiers and German citizens attacked and killed many Jews and destroyed Jewish businesses, schools, and hospitals – and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

This coincidence reminds us that we together have the capacity for both atrocious horror and miraculous liberation. Even now. The difference may lie as much in how we grieve as in how we heal.

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