“Prophetic Lament: A Call For Justice In Troubled Times,” by Soong-Chan Rah. Published 2015 by IVP Books. This review refers to the paperback edition.
I want to begin this post by acknowledging that it’s been FOREVER since I posted. There’s a good reason for that. Since the first of the year I’ve started a new position at work that pretty much doubled my hours. Great for the checkbook, great since I’m finally getting some benefits, not so great for creative time, reading time, and devotional time! I’m getting some things worked out though, so I hope to soon be posting again on at least a semi-regular basis.
I’ve been on a book buying binge with some of my new found cash on hand, and this book was one of the first ones I picked up. Doctor Soong-Chan Rah is a professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He has a heart for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the minorities, and the inner city. He has a lot to say about the way the church in the USA practices “urban ministry,” and a lot of it is difficult to hear, yet pretty much all of it rings true.
The backdrop for his insights into this subject and others is the Old Testament book of Lamentations, in fact this book itself is a fairly extensive look at Lamentations, which let’s face it, hardly anybody ever looks at. It’s pessimistic, brooding, sorrowful, dark, and in some places VERY graphic. I mentioned this book and the Book of Lamentations recently in a sermon I preached right before the start of Lent this year, when I was filling in for Pastor Gary. I suggested that a good “perspective gathering” practice for Lent would be to read through Lamentations. Somehow I doubt anyone took me up on that.
However, if you ever get a desire to check out one of the Bible’s least read, yet most moving books, then “Prophetic Lament” is a great guide to have along with you. Doctor Rah goes through the entire book of Lamentations and gives very insightful commentary on the structure of the book, the genre of lament, the usage of different words and terms from the original Hebrew, and the original context of the book: the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.
Some of you might be thinking “No way, man. The last thing I want to read is some stodgy academic work about a moldy old book in the Old Testament that my pastor never even mentions!” Well, first it’s a pity if your pastor never mentions it. The story told in the book of Lamentations is essential to understanding not only the Jewish people of the Old Testament, but even the Jewish faith today, and of course we all *should* know by now that our Christianity is a development on that Jewish faith. Lamentations is still used today during the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which according to Rah recalls not only the first fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but the second fall of the city in 70 CE (that’s BC and AD for you non history types), and even the Holocaust during World War II. Lament in general and Lamentations in specific are part of the way Jewish people deal with the trauma of their history.
In that same vein, Rah suggests that lament would be a good way to help cope with the trauma of our current age. Look around at the last few years. So many young black men have been killed or left to die and rarely is anyone held accountable. Systemic racism is alive and well in the United States, and since the last election some of the people who claim that horrible ideology have stopped bothering to hide in the shadows. They’re now emboldened by a new nationalism that has been forged in the fires of the fears inherent to the post 9/11 world. Whether you believe that certain politicians purposefully tried to harness those sentiments or not, what is not up for debate is the fact that those voices are now louder and more strident than they have been probably in the last 50 years.
So what is our response as the Church, the Body of Christ? Here is where the rubber meets the road in this book. Rah believes, and I agree, that by and large American Christianity (particularly but not limited to the evangelical flavor) has discarded the practice of lament and closed it’s ears to the voices of people who are suffering from things like racism, poverty, systemic injustice, and an economic/justice system is seemingly rigged against them from day one. We’ve replaced that with the theology of celebration, where we sit back and marvel at how successful our most recent church plant is, about how many people flock to the local mega church and it’s many “campuses” every Sunday, about how many books the charismatic white male preacher with the perfect teeth can sell to the masses, about our many kids in our perfect little Sunday School programs….and on and on.
Then to add insult to injury we wealthy suburbanites decide we’ve been “called” to the inner city, to take our oh so wonderful and oh so white church models into the inner city and “save people.”
But who do we save, and what do people really need saving from? Rah points out that the density of churches in our urban areas is already quite large. The problem isn’t that we need to make more churches or take what we see as our “successful church model” into the city. The problem is that our white, suburban, Christian culture is so wrapped up in patting itself on the back that we’ve left out a huge chunk of Christ’s message: We need to stand for and stand WITH the suffering. What better function could the church serve than to give a voice and a venue to the voiceless and suffering? Lament allows us to do just that, but we have to be ready to get down in the dirt with the suffering, not just magnify their cries from an ivory tower high above.
I could have spent most of this post talking about Rah’s excellent commentary on Lamentations. It IS excellent and you should check it out. It’s not stodgy either, it’s very accessible, though certainly an interest in history, theology, and the Old Testament help. However, I really wanted to talk about what he spends most of the book talking about: the way we as the Church apply lament today to our culture. Rah talks a lot about how to incorporate lament and Lamentations into worship, and it’s certainly something I’m looking forward to looking into when I get a chance.
All in all this is a great, challenging, thought provoking, and much needed book. If you’re especially interested in a multi-cultural view on American Christianity then you really NEED to pick this one up.