I Am the One Who Has Seen Great Affliction
Bobby G. Griffith, Jr.
“I am the one who has seen great affliction“
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.“
The opening words of this poem are breath taking; it’s like a line from a Johnny Cash song, but instead of the Man in Black, it’s the Prophet in Sackcloth and Ashes. The author places himself as a member of the community. He is speaking on behalf of the city in solidarity with everyone who has been afflicted, who has been a part of Israel’s struggle.
How does he describe that struggle? He describes it with lament. A lament is a description of sorrow with deep passion. This struggle hurts the prophet just as the people are suffering. The prophet is speaking for the community. He is speaking for the city—he has walked through the boulevard of broken dreams and has taken in the pain and suffering. The city’s issues are his issues. When Jerusalem is broken, he is broken. When the people struggle, he struggles.
In 2012, the State of Oklahoma dedicated a painting to one of its sons who spent his life capturing struggle, fighting for justice, and living in hope—John Hope Franklin. I remember viewing the painting the week of its dedication and thanking him, though in the form of that portrait, for changing my life. His text From Slavery to Freedom, written in 1947, has sold over three million copies, and seen nine editions. It also set me on a path in my own work to capture an honest history.
Franklin was a man who saw great affliction. Whether it was his breathtaking academic writing on Reconstruction and African American history in general, or his partnership with Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v Board Case. He spent his life wallowing in the affliction of history many prefer to ignore for the purpose of experiencing a new day.
It is that new day that led the prophet-poet to declare great is your faithfulness in the midst of ruins. He believes God will, to use John Hope Franklin’s words, “set everything to order,” but to do that “he must begin with the past.” The past is painful; to explore it, mine it, write it, and teach it can prove controversial. As Franklin astutely noted we shy from this because “we don’t want anything that’s painful.” We want to “live in a painless society where everything is pleasant, everything is joyful.” Even his lectures on equality in 1976 wallowed in the pain of the past, challenged the deep wounds of hate, to end with a declaration that it is possible, but we need honesty.
The ones who sees great affliction abdicate honesty when they do not acknowledge it. Holy Scripture presses us to practice lament, to cry out, to care, and to press into something better. We cannot experience the joy in the morning until we pass through weeping in the night. It is through the struggle we can experience God’s faithfulness. It is through the struggle, we are able to find hope, to press into hope, and to experience hope. It is looking backward that allows us to say great is thy faithfulness.
Holy One, Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, of story and of song, of heartbeat and of tears of bodies, souls, voices and all relations: you are the God of all truth and the way of all reconciliation. Uphold with your love and compassion all who open their lives in the sacred sharing of their stories breathe in us the grace to trust in your loving forgiveness, that we may face our histories with courage; touch us through the holy gift of story that those who speak and those who listen may behold your own redeeming presence; guide us with holy wisdom to enter through the gates of remorse that our feet may walk gently and firmly on the way of justice and healing. Amen. (Anglican Church in Canada)
Bobby Griffith (Ph.D, University of Oklahoma) is the Senior Minister at Westfield Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. His academic work covers post-World War II political Fundamentalism and its reverberating influence.