Prophetic Lament: An Interview with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah
Cry aloud to the Lord!
O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night!
Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!
Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger at the head of every street.
Lamentations 2:18-19, NRSV
The lost art of lament: popular are the songs of hope from the book of Psalms and the triumphant, feel-good sermons from the pulpit, but the funeral dirges of Lamentations rarely receive as much attention. “The American church avoids lament,” Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes in his 2015 book, Prophetic Lament. “The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost.” For over a decade, Dr. Rah—author, minister, and professor at North Park University in Chicago—has advocated for spaces that give voice to the suffering. Grief and lament, much like the reform to which we are called to pursue as followers of Jesus, is a long road. Suffering is not a passing condition that can be remedied with a pat on the back and a pithy prayer. “We must plumb its depths,” says Dr. Rah. By offering spaces for lament in our communities and churches, we offer the gift of validation and solidarity to the grieving. “The legitimation of the voice of the suffering offers the very real possibility of justice being called out,” writes Dr. Rah.
In his work in urban ministry and education, Dr. Rah challenges the relationship between the church and the city and advocates for a more robust theology that is truly good news for all. For a tumultuous cultural time in which the news cycle hardly pauses for a breath, much less for grief, we spoke with Dr. Rah about how lament can serve to shape us into better Christ-followers, advocates, reformers, and friends.
“The tendency to view the holistic work of the church as the action of the privileged toward the marginalized often derails the work of true community healing. Ministry in the urban context, acts of justice and racial reconciliation require a deeper engagement with the other—an engagement that acknowledges suffering rather than glossing over it.”
– Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament
How does the church practically make space for suffering? Where do we even begin?
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write a book on lament. I begin by identifying that there are very few places where the church engages lament and suffering. I point out that in our liturgy, in our worship songs, even in our preaching and study of Scripture, we tend to gravitate toward songs that make us feel good, songs that are celebratory and triumphant. We read psalms that tell us about victory or preach sermons about victorious lives or becoming better individuals or having more purpose in our lives. It could be as simple as reintroducing the biblical practices you see throughout Scripture and church history, where we see songs of lament rather than just songs of triumph. Songs that talk about human suffering, rather than songs that say that everything is going to be okay. Teachings from more obscure books in the bible, like Lamentations and Ecclesiastes. Sharing testimonies of suffering.
How do we give a face to suffering without exploiting those who suffer?
“Emotional voyeurism gives a semblance or allusion that we are really dealing with suffering versus actually dealing with suffering.”
Part of it is making sure that it’s connected to everybody’s life in some way, but also that there is a sense that this is the story of our congregation. And that’s tough, because say for instance there’s a news item that requires lament around suffering of a different community than your own. Let’s say, the suffering of the refugee population in Lebanon, or the suffering of the [immigrants] at the U.S. border who are running away from destruction and crime and violence to seek a better life. The temptation would be to see it from the outside and say, “Look at those people over there…” In which case you would be a sort of emotional voyeur, rather than actually saying, “Can I see myself in that place? What does it mean to be a mom at the border being told that you’re considered an enemy worth tear gassing?” To disconnect suffering from our reality or to engage in this kind of “othering” of somebody else’s suffering can actually do more harm than good.
In Prophetic Lament, you advocate for an acknowledgment of corporate sin. What does our individual mandate look like in the realm of corporate sin?
“In a hyper-individualist society like ours, we tend to focus on individual sin rather than corporate sin.”
Or, if we focus on corporate sin, we disconnect ourselves and say, “Well that’s something the government did,” and we don’t take any individual responsibility for a corporate sin. And this is where the book of Lamentations is so powerful. The author of Lamentations is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. But the reason why people question Jeremiah’s authorship is because his voice is not quite clear. It’s not clear that he’s speaking in his own voice or speaking his own thoughts, because most of what Lamentations offers is not Jeremiah’s voice, but the voice of the suffering. And yet here is the one person who is probably the least guilty in the city of Jerusalem, crying out, “I have sinned, oh God; we have sinned, oh God.”
That, to me, is a powerful example, especially for our leaders, for Christians who would see themselves as positive spiritual influences in society. We can shift the blame on the government, on national or international policy, but in the same way that Jeremiah took on the personal responsibility for a corporate sin, that’s something we need to start moving toward as well. To be blunt, in America we have a fairly shallow theology of sin; it gets reduced down to individual actions like, “Don’t smoke, don’t chew tobacco, don’t drink, and you’re a good Christian.” How am I as an individual part of a sinful structure, society, and nation that has created and contributed to a lot of the problems of the world? How have I been a part of that and what does it mean to confess that? Both on an individual [level] and on behalf of the nation that is part of this oppression.
How would you define healthy advocacy? What are some ways we can empower the suffering to speak for themselves?
That’s one of the best things God’s people can do, especially those of us who are privileged and advantaged and have a degree of wealth and agency and political power: to raise up the voice of the suffering.
Because we live in relative comfort and relative political and economic stability, our tendency [is] to maintain that stability and security at all costs. When you have that kind of power and privilege, the goal is to give that up. Is this not the example of Jesus, who gave up power in the spiritual, heavenly places and emptied himself so that he could make his dwelling among us? He put down his privilege and power in order to advocate [for] and to stand with and alongside the poor, the suffering, the widows, and the orphans. If Jesus were here on earth in a physical body—what would he be doing? Well, the church IS the physical body of Jesus. And so we should be doing what Jesus would be doing here on earth. In terms of the theological framing of our advocacy, it comes down to [this]: we don’t get privilege and power for the sake of getting more privilege and power, but [we] use that privilege and power or lay [it] down so that others might be able to have what many of us enjoy.
In Prophetic Lament, you state that “lament calls us to examine the work of reconciliation between those who live under suffering with those who live in celebration.” What should we be looking for when examining our reconciliation work?
There are many right now who are calling into question the language of reconciliation for a couple of reasons. One, the idea of RE-conciliation implies within its word structure that you’re going back to something that pre-existed, the idea of being reconciled to a preexisting condition. And that’s problematic, especially for people of color and those who have a history of oppression. What are whites and blacks being reconciled back to? What previous relationship in history are we being reconciled back to? Well, it’s master/slave. That’s the history of the previous relationship between blacks and whites. What previous relationship between natives and whites are we going back to? Well, it was genocide and broken treaties. Is that what we’re going back to? Even in the language itself, you’re privileging those who experience a better setting 150 years ago. I think the challenge is, how does reconciliation or racial justice or racial healing occur with all of the voices being heard equally, with all of the narratives being expressed fully?
We’ve got to do a better job—and this is where Lamentations comes in—of hearing the stories of suffering from these communities. And what I sometimes hear within the more affluent communities is, “We don’t need to talk about the past anymore…we’re in a different era, we’re in post-racial America, we got past that, we don’t need to hear those kinds of stories.” Well, that is very, very offensive to those who lived through those stories, who are still having to live with the fallout of those stories. To see racial justice and racial healing in a vacuum—to say either we’re going to go back to a time when things were “good,” which meant slave master/treaty breaker, or we’re going to pretend like none of that happened—neither of those are very appealing to those who have been marginalized by that history.
So that’s why I’m not a fan of the “color-blind language” that we sometimes use within Christian circles. I don’t think color-blindness is helpful, because what it implies is, “You check your history, your identity at the door, and we’ll just go past color, we don’t see it.” That’s absolutely not true. If you don’t take history into account, if you don’t take the realities of that historical narrative into account, then you’re privileging those for whom that history is uncomfortable. That’s why lament is so critical: [it] is the truth-telling that we need that allows and in fact, demands the voice of the suffering be brought front and center.
Reform is a long road, and it is rare to find folks willing to stay in it for the long haul, especially in an age of fast fixes. How do we not grow weary and let our love grow cold?
That is the challenge for those who are seeking God’s voice and advocating for God’s truth in a very “fast-food society,” in an Instagram and immediate-gratification environment.
“Asking for justice, caring for the poor, speaking on behalf of the marginalized, is a lifelong pursuit as well as a long-term pursuit.”
In fact, there are many unintended negative consequences when our efforts are short-term. We create more problems by engaging on a short term basis than actually helping. What we do end up getting is feeling good about ourselves while not actually helping in the long term.
We have to think about what it means to have a long-term view about how healing and restoration and hope is going to come to pass. Again, Lamentations gives us that example. Because the book does not end on a happy note, and the answers to the book of Lamentations don’t occur until hundreds of years later. The answer actually comes in the person of Jesus. And Jesus’ answer is not restoring the kingdom of Israel, but inaugurating the kingdom of God. So what we’re getting in the Lamentations story is not a quick answer to the questions and the pursuit of justice that start the book of Lamentations—but it is a long term plan that God has to bring about his justice.
At that point, my role as a follower of Jesus and as part of the Christian community is not to just fix things, but to sustain and persist in calling out God’s justice. To not waver in my commitment to His mission and His heart and His truth and His promises. That feels like a little less of a pressure to me, that I don’t have to fix this because I am going to single-handedly solve the problems that are around me. But I can be faithful in pointing people toward God’s promises, God’s heart, God’s truth. That feels like less of a burden to me and more of a joy, that I get to speak truth and live out truth and enact truth and pursue truth, but it’s not on me to make up that truth or to make that truth happen; I’m just called to be a faithful witness to that truth.
Photos by Alicia Kiewitt.
Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media.