Lament in a Content Culture: a book review.

One of my dialogue partners in Advent has been Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Rah teaches at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, is a sought after speaker and the author of The Next Evangelicalism (IVP, 2009). In this earlier book, Rah explored the current ‘white captivity’ of Evangelicalism and the shift of its locus to East and to the global south. Prophetic Lament offers a similar critique. Delving into the book of Lamentations, Rah illustrates how it “provides a necessary corrective to the triumphalism and exceptionalism of the American evangelical church arising from the ignorance of its tainted history” (198).

9780830836949With astute biblical and theological insight walks readers through the genres of lament in Lamentations. There is the funeral dirge (Lam.1),  the city lament (Lam 2), the intensified acrostic and personal lament (Lam 3),  the persisting lament and continuing dirge (Lam. 4), and the communal lament where the people begin to pray for themselves (Lam. 5).

In walking through the forms and settings of each lament, Rah is building on the insights of biblical scholarship. But with eyes trained on the margins he showcases the various voices in the text and how the author  of Lamentations identifies personally with the suffering, the oppressed and the broken.  This has implications for our reading of the book today. For example, Rah notes:

The voices of suffering women in the book of Lamentations offer an important counternarrative to the triumphalistic tendencies of God’s people in the United States. We are likely to tune out the stories of suffering and struggle that undermine our success narratives, in contrast to the women’s voices in Lamentations 1 that rise up to speak truth when experiencing painful reality. Instead, our ears are tuned to hear what we want to hear, similar to the exiles who listen to the false prophets in Jeremiah 29. (60).

Lamentations call to identify with the suffering is an antidote to our self-centered celebration. Throughout this book, Rah identifies the links between the suffering in Lamentations with minority communities and marginalized voices in the United States. He also showcases how the (largely white) evangelical church in America have been complicit in systems of oppression, helping us move from our “defensive of posture of ‘I am not a racist’ to ‘I am responsible and culpable in the corporate sin of racism'” (126). Through lament,  content white evangelicals (like me) are able to see where our celebrations are inappropriate in the face of Latino, Asian, African American suffering and beyond.

Rah is not the first to identify the need for American evangelicals to make space for lament. Lament was all the rage when I was in seminary. Other evangelical scholars make similar claims, I think of  Leslie Allen’s A Liturgy of Grief (Baker Academic, 2011) ; however the way that Rah trains his eye on the margins makes vivid for me the socio-political implications of lament. Lament gives voice to the voiceless–the suffering, the victims, the failures and the broken. Rah closes his book with an epilogue about Ferguson (and similar tragedies) and how it gave rise to the cries and anger of the African-American community. He adapts Lamentations 5 as a post-Ferguson prayer of the people:

Remember Lord, what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner;

look, and see the disgraceful way  they treated their bodies.

Our inheritance of the image of God in every human being has been co-opted and denied by others.

The children of Eric Garner have become faterless, widowed mothers grieve their dead children.

WE must scrap for basic human rights; our freedom and our liberty has great price.

Corrupt officers and officals pursue us and are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.

We submitted to uncaring government agencies and to big business to get enough bread.

Our ancestors sinned the great sin of instituting slavery; they are no more–but we bear their shame.

The system of slavery and institutionalized racism ruled over us, and there is no one free from their hands.

We got our bread at the risk of our lives because of the guns on the streets.

Michael Brown’s skin is hot as an oven as his body lay out in the blazing sun.

Women have been violated throughout our nation’s history; black women raped by while slave owners on the plantations.

Noble black men have been hung, lynched and gunned down; elders and spokesmen are shown no respect.

Young men can’t find work because of unjustly applied laws; boys stagger under the expectation that their lives are destined for jail.

The elder statesman and civil rights leaders are gone from the city gate; young people who speak out in protest through music are silenced.

Trust in our ultimate triumph has diminished; our triumphant dance has turned to a funeral dirge.

Our sense of exceptionalism has been exposed. Woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim

for our cities lie desolate with predatory lenders nad real estate speculators prowling over them.

You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.

We do you always forgets us? Why do you forsake us so long?

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old

unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (210-212).

As a white evangelical, I have responded with fear and denial and defensiveness when the system I benefit from has called into question. Learning to lament and to read the Bible with those on the margins allows us to move beyond our own false narratives to the truth and justice of God. I highly recommend this book. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

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