Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: A commentary and exposition of the book of Lamentations that advocates for the restoration of the practice of lament as part of the worship of American churches, particularly majority culture evangelical churches.
Have you every experienced terrible suffering, or terrible loss, or have witnessed horrible events such as have dominated our news of late and been deeply moved to turmoil and grief that cries out to God, or even the four walls around you, “how long?” Now, when was the last time that you did this as part of a service of worship in your church, if you regularly attend one?
Soong-Chan Rah contends that this was an important part of the worship life of ancient Israel that has been lost in many of our churches in North America. We focus on triumph and victory and success. We see problems and we go around the world to solve them. And we begin to believe we are the answers to the world’s problems–whether they be the problems of the inner city or the problems of the countries in the majority world.
Rah contends that our celebration and praise must be balanced with lament. He writes:
“What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of a theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”
Rah seeks to redress this imbalance by an exposition (part of InterVarsity Press’s Resonate series) of the book of Lamentations, a book attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Rah contends that in addition to Jeremiah, the book incorporates the voices of the sufferers left behind in Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the city walls and took into exile the best and the brightest and the wealthiest of the city. What were left were women, children, the elderly and other marginalized people to mourn over the death of their city and the loss of loved ones as they struggle to survive.
The book is organized according to the five chapters, or “laments” of the book, with several chapters devoted to each lament. Chapter 1 mourns the death of the city. Chapter 2 struggles with what it means that all of this has come about by the providence of God. Chapter 3 which is three times as long as the other chapters forms a climax to the lament and calls us into deep identification with the suffering. Chapter 4 reminds us of the hollowness of all human achievements in the eyes of God. Chapter 5 concludes with a corporate lament that looks to God for answers even when their don’t seem to be any answers.
Along the way Rah provides textual and historical insight into the book, discussing the “dirge-like” character of these laments, appropriate at the funeral for a city, the death of a vision of national greatness. He helps us understand the acrostic structure of the first four chapters, including the threefold intensification of this pattern in the climatic chapter 3. Perhaps of greatest value is that Rah helps us identify some of the voices of the marginalized, particularly the women who have lost husbands, perhaps children–who often are the voices of suffering.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the book is Rah’s pointed applications of the book to the American church, particularly dominant culture, white evangelicalism. We have failed to listen to the voices of lament around us, from the native peoples robbed and subjugated and exterminated and marginalized, from African Americans forcibly enslaved, raped, lynched, and then “freed” to live in a racialized society, and other poor and marginalized in our society. Instead of taking their laments to heart and understanding our own complicity and our own paradoxical enslavement to hate and privilege, we deny the problem, or plant our own urban churches or give “handups” which assumes a certain superiority. What we do here, we do around the world, instead of acknowledging the riches of every culture and our partnership with other believers. We make enterprises out of even our justice ministries while failing to face either our cultural or political captivities.
Lament is the place we come to, according to Rah, when we realize that none of that is really working, when even our well-intended efforts contribute to the inequities of the world and that we are deeply impoverished in the midst of our affluence. It is a place of both repentance and the grace of God.
This is an uncomfortable book, and like Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism (reviewed here), an incisive critique of American evangelicalism. Don’t read this if you are looking for a “feel good” book! But if your heart aches because of the predominance of violence and hatred despite so much “progress,” if the glitzy celebrations of your church life don’t seem in touch with the ragged realities of our land, and if your stomach turns with the pronouncements and alliances of some of our religious “leaders,” then a book on lamenting and making the prayers of Lamentations our own might be timely. It was for me.