Earth on our heads
Twin calamities present an opportunity for deep lament and mighty pardon
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Nehemiah on the 24th day of the month gathered the people of Israel “with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.” Eight Levites—each of them named twice in the space of two verses (Nehemiah 9:4-5)—stand on a scaffold before them, crying in loud voices, recounting their story, confessing their sins.
We call these “specific details” in journalism. They suggest the importance of an event and its context. They help verify that the reporter did his homework, perhaps was an eyewitness. The Bible is full of good journalism to remind us that worship and God’s acts aren’t disembodied from His people.
Lament has accompanied God’s people from the time of Moses. It’s a systemic requirement for the systemic injustices residing first within God’s people, then throughout the fallen world.
“Earth on their heads” is a powerful outward mark of sorrow, a commentator writes, afflicting people grieved over “any great calamity, or commission of any extraordinary crime.” It takes place outside the sanctuary, where God’s people feel the absence of His covering and the full brunt of their sin.
Lament has accompanied God’s people from the time of Moses.
Memorial Day 2020 did not arrive as others have, ushering in the summer and our season of relaxation. It arrived with the United States approaching two million COVID-19 cases and 100,000 deaths. The country the world has looked to for vanquishing diseases instead was spreading one, forcing other countries to ban U.S. travel and institute safeguards against us. Yet as a country we didn’t mourn the turnabout. We divided over it.
My inbox filled with recriminations, with blame for mainstream media and political bias, with statements minimizing our high death toll. In 30 years of journalism I’ve seen nothing like it, growing these months while all around me people are hanging by their fingernails to family cohesion and economic stability.
The reality, for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, is that we probably have more cases and more deaths than we know. For now we are recovering better than we hoped. But we have cut our elderly from their loved ones, institutionalized them in incubators of contagion to die, left families to mourn alone under trying stay-at-home orders. We’ve divided even over how to count deaths, as though the lives of the aged are more expendable, somehow less worth protecting.
And into this moment, on the 25th day of May, streetgoers outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis watched policeman Derek Chauvin place his white left knee into the black neck of George Floyd, who lay prostrate, expiring, by the grimy wheel of a police car. “No one trains that way,” a police captain in New Jersey told one of our reporters, which is to say: The root here is deeper than one policeman’s misconduct.
Those eight minutes watching Floyd die, and all that have come after, have again overflowed to the world our country’s anguishes and failures. The diseases from within and from without can’t be untwined, challenging us to be humble, to repent, to listen, and to pray.
It’s not time to be trite: The justifiable anger of protesters, the violence in our streets, and the possible use of military force against our own people will drive us to greater calamities. Heed the caution of the nation’s top generals and the war correspondents who know.
We who worship God in Christ have another way. The people of Nehemiah 9 bowed so deeply to the ground they came up with earth on their heads. Try it. They listened to the roster of sins past and present. Then they worshipped, because the most powerful tool we have is to ascribe to God the honor due His name. It wins over dwelling on our sin and the sins of others. It’s a way back and down that leads us forward.
Matthew Henry, commenting on the scene, writes: “It is often as hard to persuade the broken-hearted to hope, as formerly it was to bring them to fear. Is this thy case? Behold this sweet promise, A God ready to pardon!”
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