This Wednesday night, the night of Tisha B’Av, we will read the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), with its vivid images of a destroyed Jerusalem and the suffering of her inhabitants (the city is personified as female). But what relevance does this text have in an age when the city buzzes with the sound of unprecedented construction and renewal?
I maintain that what the verses of Eichah truly explore is what stands behind the destruction, and that is delusion.
Question: What does the ancient biblical work have in common with climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, Holocaust denial, and claims of election fraud in the US?
The answer is the phenomenon that social psychologists call “belief persistence.” Namely, when a group holds fast to certain claims, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that those claims are not correct. No amount of evidence will budge those with belief persistence from their stance, because to accept what is empirically true would undercut some deep-seated element of their collective identity.
The Book of Jeremiah – chronicling the events in Jerusalem just before and just after the destruction of the Temple – attests to the fact that the masses were infected with this phenomenon. Their identity was tied up with what some call “Zion theology”: God loves the people in Zion, the city of Zion, the Temple of Zion, and the Davidic king in Zion. They cannot conceive of any element of that belief going awry. Even after the Temple is destroyed, even after all the destruction, shockingly, nothing changes. Rather than acknowledging to Jeremiah that he had been right in his prognostications, the people scorn him. Moreover, Gedaliah, the installed governor, is assassinated by loyalists to the exiled king. He did not fit their Zion theology.
Enter the Book of Lamentations. By my reading, this book is a series of discussions between two characters: the narrator – Jeremiah according to tradition – and the Daughter Zion, the remnant community, that remains ensconced in its belief in Zion theology. Their dialogues resemble therapy sessions. Jeremiah the mentor seeks to get Daughter Zion to see the world for what it really is – a world where the Almighty does not love Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Davidic King, and has caused her downfall. But to bring Daughter Zion to this realization is utterly shattering for her, and much of the dialogue is Jeremiah’s attempt to help her pick up the pieces. Like all therapy, it is messy, painful, and uneven.
I was once at a dinner table conversation at a conference of Bible scholars that gave me insight in Lamentations, chapter 2. One scholar confided to the colleague opposite him, “To tell you the truth, I don’t believe in God.” The second quickly concurred, “Me either.” The first continued, “But if I did believe in God, I would be very angry with Him!” “Me, too!” replied the second. Their conversation bears out what several psychologists of religion noticed a few years ago, as they surveyed the religious attitudes of patients in a hospital ward for chronic pain: those who were the angriest with God were those who said they did not believe in Him. That may sound illogical, but logic ends where pain begins. Accustomed to thinking of God as benevolent and loving, we find hard times challenging. They can leave us teetering between anger with God on the one hand, and disbelief altogether on the other.
In the first half of Eichah’s chapter 2, Jeremiah punctures Daughter Zion’s delusion that God loves her by detailing no fewer than 27 acts of destruction and obliteration that God perpetrated against her. Yet Jeremiah steers clear of ascribing any blame to her. Though he believes that she is ultimately responsible for her downfall, he does not want to lose her. And when we are hurting, we are in no place to hear reproach.
Instead, Jeremiah sits down next to her and cries with her. He implores her to turn to God, concerning her starving children, but it is not clear whether he means for her to do so in prayer or in protest. She takes up his challenge and utters the sharpest rebuke of God anywhere in the Hebrew Bible: “You killed them on the day of your anger! You slaughtered them without mercy!” And that’s how the chapter ends. No closure. No censure. No repentance. But why?
The author of Lamentations knows that responding to protest is not simply a behavioral expression of anger toward God. Rather, protest entails assertiveness, autonomy, engagement, and an ongoing attempt to process feelings. Protest is an active coping style. Jeremiah knows that he has shattered Daughter Zion’s delusive, or misleading, conception of God. Daughter Zion’s anger could all too easily give way to repression and emotional distancing from God. Instead, Jeremiah encourages her to embark on a constructive path of expressing her vexation and anger with the LORD.
Lamentations is the story of Daughter Zion and her assumptive world, the world as she had accepted it to be, independent of proof, where she had it all figured out. Nothing could shake her of the belief that God loved her, for example, not even the destruction itself, because to allow herself to move beyond that belief would mean moving outside of her comfort zone and necessarily seeing her own faults.
We too have our assumptive worlds – as Republicans, as Democrats, as favoring judicial reform, as opposing judicial reform. And we are so certain that we have justice and even God on our side, and that the other side is inhabited solely by the sons of darkness. Eichah is a reminder to us that when our politics become collective groupspeak, clothed and cloaked in piety and entirely beyond reproach, we become like Daughter Zion. We become susceptible to belief persistence and incapable of training a critical eye on our own assumptions. And that, Eichah’s author teaches us, is what led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
For more on Eichah, please see my newly published commentary on the Book of Lamentations.