Prophetic Lament

Image Michelangelo Prophet Jeremiah detail - Daughter Zion lamenting
“How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!”

This month’s belated study of Lamentations continues with Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015). The book is a volume in the “Resonate” series of commentaries, which addresses itself explicitly to readers who are more familiar with popular culture than scripture. This shows up in Rah’s treatment, which highlights inter-textual connections and devotes lots of space to connecting scripture to the contemporary cultural moment.

Rah emphasizes the inevitability of death and suffering, the need for lament, and the pernicious consequences of denial and refusal, in his discussion of Lamentations 1. Unfortunately, a refusal of lament characterizes American Protestantism in general – Rah points to a study that contrasted the large fraction of Psalms devoted to lament, 40%, with the small fraction of church hymns devoted to the same theme (13-19%). According to Rah, the denial of suffering and death, and the suppression of lament, support “a triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative [that] is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament” (24).

For Rah, this suppression of narratives of suffering particularly affects the narratives of oppressed and marginalized “others.” In his treatment of the form of Lamentations 1, the “funeral dirge,” Rah focuses on the treatment of race and the history of racial relations in the US. “The funeral dirge opening of Lamentations and the first three verses of Lamentations 1 remind us that grief that emerges from a very real and painful history must be acknowledged” (47). Unfortunately, Rah points out, the church is quick to suppress the honest, anguished narratives of slavery, and Christians’ complicity in it, so that stories “remain untold or ignored in our quest to ‘get over’ it. … We have yet to engage in a proper funeral dirge for our tainted racial history and continue to deny the deep spiritual stronghold of a nation that sought to justify slavery” (51). Rah’s commentary sheds an uncomfortable light on the recent election statistics that showed a majority of white Christians voted for the candidate endorsed by organized white supremacists, and content to accept that endorsement.

His analysis of the voices present in Lamentations 1 identifies the voice of the narrator – traditionally, Jeremiah – which observes at some distance, and the voice of personified Jerusalem. The personified voice of the city, a feminine voice, expresses a deep sense of shame. Rah’s commentary here notes the need to make a place for expressions of shame – both the shame of victimizers and the shame of victims – in the church, as an indispensable component of healing. He also stresses the church’s need to hear women’s voices – exemplified by the feminine voice in Lamentations 1 – as authentic voices of engagement with God, and questions churches that prefer to silence those voices in favor of “success formulas derived from masculine triumphalism” (64). He challenges a church culture that encourages its members to substitute praise in a spirit of the power of positive thinking for praise that concludes the scriptural pattern that begins with lament and moves through petition that “acknowledges the need for God’s justice and mercy that does not arise out of one’s own strength and ability” (68).

Quoting Emmanuel Katongole, Rah reminds his readers that “any resurrection of the church as the body of Christ must begin with lament, which is an honest look at the brokenness of the church. Without lament, we move on too quickly to reconstruction.” Such a reconstruction, he suggests, will be that of a house built on the sand of denial and defensive self-securing, rather than the rock of reliance on the God of justice and love.

Prophetic Lament challenges its readers, but more than repays that challenge.

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