A Call For Justice In Troubled Times?
By Zach Nerison
Have you ever read the book of Lamentations? Better yet, have you ever even heard of the book of Lamentations? At our church, we are nearing the end of a long series on the practice of lament. One of the books that inspired me to do this series is a commentary on the book of Lamentations called Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by author Soong-Chan Rah. You might assume that since it is a commentary, this book is not for you. However, Rah’s analysis of Lamentations is for everyone. He takes the reader back to ancient Israel, yet he does not linger on the analysis of ancient facts. He brings the lessons forward and applies them to our present circumstances. Rah does this in a way that will leave any reader convicted and hungry for change.
What is in the Book?
The body of the book is broken down into five parts. Each part covers one of the five chapters of the book of lamentations. Each of the five parts has a few chapters that analyze different core ideas found within the given chapter of Lamentations. Rah’s intention in writing the book is very clear throughout: he wants the American church to embrace the practice of biblical lament.
What is Lament?
Rah first introduces the reader to lament in his introduction writing: "Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. But lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness over difficult circumstances. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.”
Why should I read this book?
You should read Prophetic Lament because in it Rah convincingly presents the practice of biblical lament as a powerful corrective for the triumphalism, exceptionalism, and racism that are often found in the American church. One striking example of this comes in chapter 2, “The Funeral Dirge.” Within this chapter, Rah explains that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations to the small remnant of Israelites who were left in Jerusalem following its fall to the Babylonians.
In the 1st chapter of Lamentations there is a specific genre of lament which Rah explains as a “funeral dirge.” Put simply, a dirge is a poem written to lament death. Rah explains why it is necessary by writing, “A funeral dirge is necessary because the dead body of the city lies before (those left in Jerusalem).” Shortly after that he writes, “The funeral dirge does not allow for the denial of death, nor does it allow for the denial of culpability in that death. The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”
Rah highlights for the reader that in Lamentations 1 there are descriptions of enslavement, violation, anguish, abandonment, exploitive labor, suffering, shame, and more. Why write with such graphic detail? Rah explains writing, “ Even if God’s people wanted to close their eyes and shut out the suffering around them, Lamentations won’t allow it…. Lament is honesty before God and each other. If something has truly been declared dead, there is no use in sugarcoating that reality. To hide from suffering and death would be an act of denial. If an individual would deny the reality of death during a funeral, friends would justifiably express concern over the mental health of that individual. In the same way, should we not be concerned over a church that lives in denial over the reality of death in our midst?”
Rah asserts that when we embrace triumphalism and exceptionalism, we often find ourselves denying the reality of suffering and pain because they threaten our belief that we are exceptional and triumphant. Rah reasons that when we spend our time denying the realities of suffering and pain, we will fail to see those who are suffering all around us. Likewise, when we spend our time denying these realities, we fail to recognize our role in the suffering that we bring to others. Thus, in Rah’s estimation it is little surprise that churches who reject lament also struggle to discuss issues like racial reconciliation. Triumphalism and exceptionalism lead us to believe that there is no problem, but the funeral dirge of lamentation models that we should acknowledge death in our midst. Rah argues that this reality check is a critical step for any church who wishes to begin the process of racial reconciliation. This is just one of the many ways Rah presents lament as a practice that helps us counter the lies we repeatedly tell ourselves.
Prophetic Lament is all about the book of Lamentations and the practice of Lament. Rah’s analysis will leave you challenged regardless of whether you have been a Christian for a week or sixty years. He will help you see the very important role that lament plays in the economy of faith.