“The American church avoids lament.” So theologian Soong-Chan Rah argues in his new book Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (InterVarsity Press, 2015). This book is a commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations, but it is a commentary like no other. Rah seeks to exposit the oft-neglected book of Lamentations, but reads it with a view towards the state of the church in America.
Rah explains that the American Christian worship tradition demonstrates a heavy emphasis on celebration, because many American Christians and churches are well-off. Put another way, Christians who are supported by the majority culture tend to interpret the Christian tradition through a lens of prosperity and praise. He writes, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place” (23). These celebrants want life to stay the way it is because they are comfortable. Lament though, Rah urges, arises from those communities experiencing suffering, and the sufferers bemoan inequity and cry out for justice.
For American evangelicals riding the fumes of a previous generation’s assumptions, a triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament (24).
Rah does not eschew praise and celebration. Obviously these expressions of worship and thankfulness have their proper place. The real question is how we can help the American church place value in, to paraphrase Cornel West, letting suffering speak. Rah notes that in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the OT used by the early church) the title of Lamentations is “Wailings.” Is there a place in our churches, in our worship services, for hearing these wailings as believers and communities give voice to anguish, anger, grief, and confusion? Rah spends part of his time raising this important question – are our churches safe spaces to wail and weep for loss and prejudice, injustice and hatred, pain and brokenness? In our churches can we own up, not only to my sin, but also corporate prejudice and abuse, our sin (see 123).
Sometimes praise and celebration are the most beautiful things in the world. But sometimes they are a veneer, a blanket hiding deeper hurt and brokenness. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to face the truth. Lamentations teaches us, so Rah reminds, that facing the truth can hurt, but through the rivers of tears can come hope and life as we submit to God and his holy and just ways.
I echo the sentiments of Eugene Cho, one of the endorsers of Prophetic Lament, who writes: “I didn’t love the book, but I confess I needed this book…” Rah is a voice calling out in the wilderness, prepare a way for lament. Let the wailings of the weak, poor, and downcast ring in our communities, and let us open our ears to the broken and recognize the brokenness within our systems and cultures.
Read this book – not as a warm and comfortable bath, but as a stinging balm that heals.
Missio Alliance Comment Policy
The Missio Alliance Writing Collectives exist as a ministry of writing to resource theological practitioners for mission. From our Leading Voices to our regular Writing Team and those invited to publish with us as Community Voices, we are creating a space for thoughtful engagement of critical issues and questions facing the North American Church in God’s mission. This sort of thoughtful engagement is something that we seek to engender not only in our publishing, but in conversations that unfold as a result in the comment section of our articles.
Unfortunately, because of the relational distance introduced by online communication, “thoughtful engagement” and “comment sections” seldom go hand in hand. At the same time, censorship of comments by those who disagree with points made by authors, whose anger or limited perspective taints their words, or who simply feel the need to express their own opinion on a topic without any meaningful engagement with the article or comment in question can mask an important window into the true state of Christian discourse. As such, Missio Alliance sets forth the following suggestions for those who wish to engage in conversation around our writing:
1. Seek to understand the author’s intent.
If you disagree with something the an author said, consider framing your response as, “I hear you as saying _________. Am I understanding you correctly? If so, here’s why I disagree. _____________.
2. Seek to make your own voice heard.
We deeply desire and value the voice and perspective of our readers. However you may react to an article we publish or a fellow commenter, we encourage you to set forth that reaction is the most constructive way possible. Use your voice and perspective to move conversation forward rather than shut it down.
3. Share your story.
One of our favorite tenants is that “an enemy is someone whose story we haven’t heard.” Very often disagreements and rants are the result of people talking past rather than to one another. Everyone’s perspective is intimately bound up with their own stories – their contexts and experiences. We encourage you to couch your comments in whatever aspect of your own story might help others understand where you are coming from.
In view of those suggestions for shaping conversation on our site and in an effort to curate a hospitable space of open conversation, Missio Alliance may delete comments and/or ban users who show no regard for constructive engagement, especially those whose comments are easily construed as trolling, threatening, or abusive.