Violence, the paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous. That is the complaint of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at the start of his book. And - immeasurably worse - God isn’t listening (or so he thinks):
How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? (1:2)
Every single person of faith utters that cry sooner or later in our lives. Everything seems bleak, meaningless and terribly frightening and God seems to do nothing about it. Indeed many have argued from the apparent implacable cruelty of the universe and human nature to the non-existence of God. Worse by far is the notion that God does exist but his lack of help in the face of evil indicates that while he may be powerful he is not good. If ever there is a reason why the believer might catastrophize, that is it.
I have watched the American election with a mixture of fascination and repulsion only possible from a reasonably detached distance. Distance, I am aware, that almost removes any right to comment. Yes, along with many around the world I am rightly (very) worried about demagogues with access to nuclear launch codes but external pontificators don't have the same insight or personal stake that our friends in the US do. How easy would I have found it to choose between an attractive abortionist who might just shoot down Russian war planes and a repulsive, racist misogynist? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (On the issues of supporting Clinton over Trump's racism, this is an excellent read by Thabiti Anyabwile).
I was interested just as much at the whole tone of the political campaign as the outcome, as the discourse was ratcheted up to apocalyptic levels of rhetoric. Or maybe not rhetoric, I don’t know. On the one hand “a vote for Trump means certain nuclear apocalypse”, on the other “a vote for Clinton means tens of millions of child murders and the end of Western civilization”. How on earth is anyone meant to have a sane, nuanced public discourse or serious policy discussion - let alone ethics discussion - when it comes to that? It is impossible and unthinkable - and deliberately so. It was meant to make it impossible to even think that the other candidate had any redeeming features whatsoever, and that neither therefore did their policy platforms. It is an extreme example of mutual demonisation. Both sides claimed divine prerogative and threatened that violence, paralysis of law, the perversion of justice and the victory of the wicked over the righteous were the inevitable consequences of the other lot winning.
Therefore it is no surprise to wake up in the aftermath and find that there are a lot of very, very scared people in America. After all they were told incessantly that they should be afraid. Whoever won, half the country was going to anticipate the apocalypse, and now they do. Perhaps more so in the case of a Trump win because the liberal media were so hysterically worried about the protection of their own value systems. And so today we have the remarkable spectacle of liberal riots and Americans - yes Americans! - burning the American flag. And, perhaps worse, damning the democratic process and contemptuously declaring that all those people who are on the wrong side of history (you know, the ones who won) shouldn’t really be enfranchised to vote anyway. Oh the irony.
Is it not right to critique winners? Of course it is. Is it unacceptable to express your fears? Of course not, especially when they have been intensified to fever pitch. There was always going to be an venting. Perhaps there is something positive. Pressure cookers without escape valves explode.
But what of the nature of the escape valve? Liberal riots are surely a disproportionate response to the mere fact of losing. Which shows that it is not just losing that is the issue. You didn’t see conservative riots after Obama was swept in with his messianic mandate regardless of how disappointed and worried people were. No, the issue is bigger than losing. It is that people are now so divided that both sides think a victory for the other is the demolition of their way of life, hope and worldview. And maybe a real global apocalypse as well as a personal and political one. Rioting externally manifests the disorientation of a riotous mind. It realizes what a friend of mine refers to as a "howling tempest in the brain". Feeling oneself caught up in a storm we become stormy.
A public protest at democratic result, in some cases leading to riot, is what you do when you believe all other options are denied you. Let’s be honest there aren’t very many riots so I don’t want to overstate the case but the fact that there are any shows to what extent the system has got overheated and people feel there is no other option. It is almost impossible to have imagined it in a previous generation.
David, King of ancient Israel faced his own personal catastrophe. In the agonising aftermath of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah his infant son was taken from him by God (2 Samuel 12). David spent days pleading with God for the child but he died and David was devastated. That was that, the worst outcome he could imagine. His life was in tatters and his son dead. Personal apocalypse with no way to reverse it and God didn’t answer his prayer (at least the way he wanted).
David’s immediate response was staggering. He cleaned himself up, changed his clothes, went into the temple of God and worshipped. It is inconceivable that this was happy worship. No, this was the worship of a broken man with a troubled soul, the worship of grief and tears and repentance and lament. It is striking how many of the Psalms are laments - far more than any other type - often with God feeling far away.
Previous generations of Christians were much better at lament. I wonder how much contemporary worship has been affected by a relentless drive for personal happiness and fulfillment from the non-Christian world because it seems our current worship songs have little room for it (Blessed be your name by Matt Redman being a stunning exception). We’d rather be happy in church on Sunday. In the process we have lost the emotional vocabulary to express the whole range of our human experience back to God with authenticity. We don’t know how to say what we need to say, the language has gone - despite there being myriad biblical exhortations to do so and examples of how to do it. And so our emotion and grief all stays pent up inside.
And if we Christians have lost the means to lament (as our Jewish friends have not), how much more the unbelieving world? Perhaps protest and riot is what you do with your grief and fear when reflective lament is no longer a mode that is open to you. The grief has to get out somehow.
To return to Habakkuk, his disaster wasn’t personal like David’s. It was political (and personal in as much as he was a member of a nation about to get obliterated). He watched and foresaw the approaching Babylonian apocalypse heading inexorably towards Jerusalem. He brought the word of God in devastating times to a people who could not escape. His own fear is palpable. At the sound of the enemy:
My heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled (3:16)
Yet how different is the response of the prophet to that of people with no hope in God. If you have no hope then fear of calamity overwhelms and produces some of the reaction we are witnessing this week. If you have hope then in the face of calamity you worship. You don’t know why the events are coming on you, you don’t know how God is acting, you don’t even know if you will survive. You just don’t know. Questions aren’t answered. They weren’t for David and they weren’t for Habakkuk. Here is Habakkuk’s response:
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. (3:16-19)
Calamitous times are opportunities for Christians to live for the hope of the glory of God and to show what it looks like to trust when there are no obvious signs of blessing and prayers seem unanswered. And to worship, particularly through recovering lament. Perhaps one contribution we have to make at a time like this is helping people express their grief and fear to God by providing a profound and cathartic language of emotion and worship that the Western world has all but forgotten.