Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, there is discussion on social media about the ‘day of rage’ and a certain Christian response to it: ‘we need a day of prayer not a day of rage’. Why should they be seen as alternatives?There is one immediate and good reason: that in contemporary culture there is an expectation that rage will express itself in action and that this action will be destructive or harmful. ‘Justice by any means’ is clearly a problematic principle from a Christian point of view. In such a context, it is a good thing to seek to refrain from anger, in terms of avoiding its damaging expression.
But here’s the problem: many people, including (I suspect) some of those who want to avoid a ‘day of rage’, are feeling angry. When we are faced with an appalling horror, it is entirely right and normal to have a huge range of emotional reactions including bewilderment, shock, grief and anger. So what can we do with that anger? How can it possibly connect with our prayers?
Perhaps to some people, it cannot. Which is why the ‘day of prayer’ is offered as an alternative to the ‘day of rage’. In fact, this is the impression I take from many of the official prayers that are offered for use after tragedies. Personally, I always find such prayers problematic and virtually unusable. Sentiments such as ‘May God be with those who are grieving’ are entirely worthy, but don’t even begin to connect with or express the mess of raw emotions and agonised chains of thought that beset me.
What I need is not to pray instead of raging, but to rage in prayer. In my previous post, I wrote about victims’ desire for vengeance being expressed in prayer, not only as an alternative to rage but as a way of dealing with the feelings of rage without actually acting on them. That was in relation to Psalm 137, and has particular relevance for the issues of ‘justice’ that are being invoked now.
I turn to the psalms of lament again, faced with the trauma of the Grenfell Tower fire. The one that comes to mind is Psalm 44 because of its expression of anger towards God. The people feel let down and abandoned. They have suffered terribly, and the goodness of God seems like a perverse fantasy in the face of traumatic loss of life.
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust;
Our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Ps 44:23-26)
This begins to express some of my own reactions to the tragedy: Where was God? Why didn’t God do something? Why wasn’t the fire prevented? I don’t actually expect answers to these questions from God, but I need to ask them, if only to connect with my own sense of distress and to give voice to it.
We all react to grief and shock in different ways: whether to ask lots of questions, to howl with pain, to detach and analyse, to withdraw in silence, or to burn with anger. We need ways to pray for all of these. We need raging prayer. So here is my poor attempt:
How can this happen Lord? How?
This just shouldn’t be.
People have been abandoned to death:
The weak and the poor have fallen.
Why did nobody see this coming
Or look away if they did?
Why did warnings go unheeded
and voices be silenced forever?
Where were you God?
How could you let this happen?
Could you not change one detail,
Stall one decision,
That might have held this back?
Where is mercy?
Where is right?
Return again, O God,
And show some pity.
Take our rage,
And restore our hope.
Reveal your goodness,
And comfort our grief.