What does an Old Testament prophet have to say to the American church today?
A conversation with
Soong-Chan Rah & Cecilia Willians
Photography by Phil Ahne
Recently Cecilia Williams, executive minister of Love Mercy Do Justice, sat down with Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary and author of Prophetic Lament, to talk about the decline of Christian community in the U.S., why we need to stop fixing other people’s problems, and what we can learn from Lamentations.
Cecilia: The book of Lamentations seems to be one of the most obscure, often considered depressing, books in the Old Testament. It’s at least one of the most neglected. What drew you to prophetic exposition of Lamentations? Why do you believe it to be such a strong biblical and theological lens through which we can examine our relationship with suffering?
Soong-Chan: Why is it that we avoid Lamentations? And not just Lamentations but 40 percent of the 150 psalms are psalms of lament, about suffering, and we ignore those too. We don’t talk about them in our sermons, we don’t sing lament songs, we don’t use liturgy that reflects the lament psalms. That’s a pretty significant gap in our worship, in our preaching, and in our teaching. That’s one of the reasons that spurred me to work on this book.
When I planted a church back in 1996, one of the first sermon series I led was on the book of Lamentations. A Lamentations sermon series probably would not be what you would call a seeker-sensitive, user-friendly move. But what I found was that the young people who were coming to the church were really engaged in that narrative. They’d heard so many sermons about doing good and feeling good about themselves. Yet that didn’t reflect the reality of their existence. Lamentations tells the truth. It tells the truth about our lives.
Cecilia: One of the assertions you make is that lament provides a necessary corrective to the triumphalism and exceptionalism of the American evangelical church. You suggest that these lead to a self-centered celebration and that laments are a necessary call. In fact, the call of Lamentations to identify with suffering really can serve as a bit of an antidote.
So how do we actually do that work? How do you overcome the fear and denial and defensiveness when a system that accommodates you and actually works in your favor is called into question? Moreover, how does the church overcome this legacy, which includes a tainted history as you suggest, of complicity with systems of oppression?
Soong-Chan: There’s a long narrative within western Christianity of this kind of triumphalism and exceptionalism. You can go back to Europeans who were exploring other parts of the world, going into Africa, into North America and South America, and their assumptions of a kind of superiority led them to say that the human beings they encountered were worth less than they were. To go to North America and say all the civilizations and millions of people already on the continent were worth less than they were—that kind of exceptionalism has been a big part of the Christian narrative in the West.
If we are an exceptional people, if we are the New Israel, then we think we have the right to be victorious over others. That has meant, unfortunately, a tainted and difficult history, such as the enslavement and use of African lives as slave labor. It has meant the genocide of the Native American community and Native American cultures and civilizations.
It’s interesting that in the twenty-first century there’s a whole lot of concern about the decline of Christianity in the West. There’s concern, especially in the U.S., about this emerging group of young people who are spiritual but not religious. There’s concern about the decline of church attendance and the decline of Christian community in the United States.
That should lead us to lament, but instead I think it has led us to more triumphalism. It has led us to say, “Let’s make America great again. Let’s make America a Christian nation again.” Yet that expression was very dysfunctional in a number of places throughout its history.
Lament offers a corrective, a sense of humility that we don’t have the corner on what it means to be the people of God. There are African Christians, Native American Christians, and Asian Christians throughout the world who are living in ways that reflect a faith that is not rooted in exceptionalism and triumphalism. I think this is a very important moment in our history—where the struggle of the Christian church in the West is not to say, “Let’s fix the problem by making ourselves great again” but to say instead, “What is the hope that we get when we realize that God is in the midst of suffering?” A new way of looking at our lives and the world is to say, “Our job is not to fix everybody else’s problems. Our job is to recognize how deeply we are loved by God even in our suffering, even in our pain.” I think that’s an important narrative for us.
Cecilia: And yet the church is speaking to justice issues in certain segments, particularly among younger believers. How do we avoid a temptation to think about that in terms of “fixing”—in terms of being those who would use power over situations as though we have the right to do so?
Soong-Chan: That’s a great question. Some time ago, I was leafing through a stack of mail and stumbled across a DVD sent to me by a Christian relief organization. On the cover it said, “The poor you will not have with you,” which as far as I know is not at all what the gospel says. We know Jesus actually said, “The poor you will always have with you.”
I realized the material was an attempt to get the American church to address the issue of extreme poverty, which is great. We should be doing that. It’s part of our calling as the people of God. But the motivation was not, “Scripture calls us to address extreme poverty,” or, “It is part of our responsibility as God’s people to address extreme poverty.” The argument was, we as an American church are a special people who can address extreme poverty. That is claiming that the job of the American church is to fix other people’s problems.
Poverty in Africa is a result of years of oppression that comes from the European powers that assumed they knew better than the people of Africa how to take care of the people of Africa. Are we using that same approach to try to fix the problems now in the twenty-first century?
We don’t have the right or responsibility to fix everybody else’s problems. That’s God’s responsibility and he’s done it very well. He’s brought hope and faith through the person of Jesus Christ. So the missing piece in this is lament. To be able to say, “No, we can’t go fix everybody else’s problems. Rather, let us realize the suffering and struggle and the pain that is in the world right now.” We don’t bring a cure without really understanding what the disease is, and lament in the Bible points to the disease, the pain, the suffering. When we stay in that suffering we know what it means to truly minister, not out of exceptionalism or triumphalism, but out of a deep sense of understanding where we are before God.
Cecilia: What about those who would say, “In this read, I acknowledge our need for lament, but it has led me to something that feels like guilt, something that feels like hopelessness”? Or what of those who would critique your argument saying, “Isn’t our call to do more than just settling into lament? What substantive actual practice would come on the backside of lament?”
Soong-Chan: The reason I like Lamentations so much is that there is a movement, a trajectory that it points toward. One of the most important things that happens in the first part of Lamentations is the telling of a story of the suffering. Many say that the unnamed narrator is probably Jeremiah, who was the one and only not-guilty party in all of Israel. He was the one calling for repentance and saying, “Give in to the righteous judgment of God.” So he was the one that is without sin in that context.
Yet there he is, crying out to God in confession and prayer. So Jeremiah develops a solidarity with those who are suffering and he’s able to hear their cries and repeat them back to the people. It’s a powerful moment.
Lamentations is one of the most feminine books in the Bible. You see the personification of Jerusalem as a woman. You hear the voices of the women who have been left behind because the able-bodied men and leaders have been sent away into exile—the widows, the orphans, the elderly, the most broken and marginalized of society.
So he’s telling somebody else’s story, but then he puts himself into that story. He’s not saying, “I know better how to fix these people,” but, “I want to be in the midst of the broken and the suffering to be able to reflect their voices.”
Then in Lamentations 5 the people begin to pray for themselves. It’s an amazing moment because all throughout, Jeremiah has kind of been speaking for the people and crying out on their behalf. But chapter 5 is pivotal. Jeremiah moves toward that moment when his voice disappears and the people cry out for themselves. To me that’s justice.
That’s the challenge for us in the West. Who are the marginalized voices that we have left on the wayside? The voices of the ethnic minorities, the voices of the immigrant, the voices of the refugee, the voices of the women—these are the voices that we have neglected.
Cecilia: A very personal question for me is, what is the hope of prophetic lament for me? For a woman of African descent who grew up in the margin?
Soong-Chan: I dedicated this book to three generations of women that have shaped my life—my mom, my wife, and my daughter. As I wrote, I wondered, how can I encourage my mom, who has suffered so much as a woman of color, as an abandoned woman, as a single mom raising four kids, as someone to whom society says, “You’re not of any import”?
There was a time in our family’s life where we had to live off food stamps—we wouldn’t have survived without it. Later, I remember my seminary classmates saying, “Anybody who takes food stamps is a welfare queen.” My mom worked twenty hours a day, six days a week. She was not a welfare queen by any stretch of the imagination. Yet her voice was marginalized because she took food stamps at one point in our family’s life.
In evangelical circles, we’re always looking for the hotshot male pastor to speak the dynamic message of how their church grew from ten people to a thousand people. But the voice of someone like my mom has often been shut out. The same thing is true with my wife’s voice, and I pray that it doesn’t happen to my daughter’s voice.
As I was writing, I had in mind individuals who should not be marginalized, who should not have been told, “Sit down and shut your mouth.” Yet that’s what’s happened to so many of them. As an Asian male, I couldn’t say certain things because that’s not necessarily my story. What I can say is, I wrote this book to say to someone like my mom or my wife or my daughter, “May your voices ring clear.” We need to hear those voices, we need to hear your voice. If they are not heard, we are missing something in our faith.
Cecilia: You identify the links between the suffering in Lamentations and minority communities in the United States. And you showcase some ways the largely white evangelical church of America has been complicit in unjust systems. In the book you explicitly state that we need to move from our defensive postures of, “I am not racist,” to say, “I am responsible and culpable in the corporate sin of racism.” How can we help our churches make that shift? You talk about the system being tainted by ignorance, yet I wonder if that’s always the case. There are times when we are fully aware of the history but, because of how it has benefited certain segments of the church, we are unwilling to more broadly identify with it. How do we help the church?
Soong-Chan: First, I would ask, what is the difference between guilt and shame? Guilt is an individualistic expression of something we feel bad about. Because it is individualistic, it’s easy, on some level, to deal with. You feel guilty about a bad comment you made when you were a teenager about another race, so you compensate for that with a positive action. In addition, because it’s individualistic, you can kind of say, “Well, I’m not responsible for slavery. I didn’t own a slave. I don’t feel guilty about that. I didn’t take land from a Native. I don’t feel guilty about that.”
I think lament introduces us a little bit more to the concept of shame. Shame acknowledges a corporate responsibility. That means moving out of our hyper-individualistic worldview that says, “If I myself didn’t do anything bad, then I’m not culpable for anything.” That implies that our faith is individualistic and personal and has nothing to do with the corporate and the public. Well, that’s not in the Bible. That’s a social construct of American Christianity.
Lament offers the hope to pray as a community and to deal with these issues, not as an individual but as a community. This is challenging. For one, it’s not culturally acceptable to talk about this. Right now it’s a very tense moment in American society. We have a long history of corporate racial oppression and instead of dealing with that, we want to make excuses. Actually we should be engaging that corporate shame of racism. That’s where lament offers us language.
What is the difference between guilt and shame?
Guilt is an individualistic expression of something we feel bad about. It’s easy, on some level, to deal with. Shame acknowledges a corporate responsibility.
Cecilia: Prophetic Lament seems as though it was a deeply personal exposition for you. Now that you are on the backside of this work and appreciating the fruit of it moving through the evangelical community, what is your overarching feeling? What has the response been? And what will you do next?
Soong-Chan: You’re right that this book is probably one of my more personal books, mainly because I’m telling the stories of my family and integrating that into the Lamentation narrative. When I write about my father’s passing, about my mom’s pain and struggling, about my daughter’s illness—even those areas where I’ve kind of struggled as a father and as a son and as a husband—everything feels personal. And so criticism feels personal. Part of writing for me has been trying to not to see everything in that overly personal way.
I tell my story, not for people to pick it apart but to say Lamentations has real value to express suffering and pain that I’ve experienced through that lens of lament. I hope people take the book in a very personal, internal way. I hope that I’m setting an example of being able to do that.
But I also hope that we can come together as a community. I think part of this exceptionalism and triumphalism is that none of us wants to admit that we’re broken people. None of us wants to admit that we are suffering people. Part of lament is to call together all who are suffering to say, “How can we be a common community that relies so much on God that the common lament that we offer is a cry to God together?”
I think we’re seeing examples of that more and more. We’re seeing folks who say, “I want to assert that ‘Black Lives Matter.’” We can’t just skip to “All Lives Matter” because that’s too general, it’s too vague. When we say “Black Lives Matter,” we’re identifying with a very specific story and narrative. Of course, all lives matter, but at this moment in history the ones who are hurting are African American men and women who have, over centuries, been oppressed and the culmination of that over the last few years. We must deal with those stories. I hope my personal stories can help liberate others to be able to share their stories as well.