Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,
The book of Psalms has nourished the spirituality of Jews and Christians alike throughout the ages. As a collection of honest and poignant prayers, the psalms probe the innermost parts of human experience. From the heights of joy and thanksgiving to the depths of pain and grief, these prayers reflect, as John Calvin once put it, the full anatomy of the soul.
Of particular importance are the psalms of lament. Comprising over 40 percent of the Psalter, these prayers offer heartrending expressions of protest in the face of injustice and tragedy. They begin with piercing interrogatives that underscore that things are not as they should be, such as: “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:2). Pain pours forth. Shifting from complaint to petition, the psalmist seeks an accounting from the Almighty: “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). Only after sitting with agony and despair for some time—weeks, months, or even years—does the psalmist eventually arrive at words of hope and restoration (Psalm 13:5-6).
“…I hope the psalms of lament will inspire you to allow space for Americans to give expression to the real pain and grief they are facing.”
As your term begins, there is much to lament in our world: the devastating effects of an ongoing pandemic, families facing unprecedented financial hardships, communities fractured by racial injustice, a nation torn asunder by political strife, natural disasters spurred on by unchecked global warming. At a time like this, I hope the psalms of lament will inspire you to allow space for Americans to give expression to the real pain and grief they are facing. Listen carefully to our laments. Do not respond with superficial optimism that denies the hard realities many are facing. Do not yearn with misdirected nostalgia for a time when things were perceived to be better. Rather, nourish the sort of hope and compassion that can guide us in our present pain.
And finally, when you hear words of lament directed at you (and surely you will), do not respond defensively or hostilely. Remember that words of lament are, at their core, utterances that arise from our common humanity and reflect a type of grief that transcends political boundaries.
Ryan P. Bonfiglio
Ryan P. Bonfiglio, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in the Practice of Old Testament
Emory University, Candler School of Theology