From the heartland of North American Evangelical Christianity, Soong-Chan Rah shapes exegesis of the Old Testament Book of Lamentations into a stunning and prophetic indictment of a church that “gravitates toward narratives of exceptionalism and triumphalism.” He argues passionately that we have lost our way as North American Christians because we have forgotten how to lament: “Should we not be concerned over a church that lives in denial over the reality of death in our midst?” Lament involves “necessary truth telling.” Lament confronts privilege. It calls us to question what voices are silenced and challenges us to hear voices “outside the dominant white male narrative.” Lamentation rejects our tendency to depersonalize or objectify injustice. Lament mandates that we suffer with those who suffer and weep with those who weep. There is no shortcut. There are no sidelines to stand on for people living their faith into a broken world.
“We are Quakers, not because we are so smart or have such great insights, but because we are a broken people.” These words, spoken from the silence of a Friends meeting for worship, resonate with the call of Rah for lament as “the proper response to a broken world.”
This work raises compelling questions for Friends communities. In the silence of our meeting for worship, is there a place left for the cry of anguish? Do we turn injustice into a philosophical concept or a concern that we relegate to the social justice committee? If we respond to the injustices of our times from the sidelines or answer the cry of suffering inner cities from the comfort of suburban churches, Rah challenges us to ask ourselves: “In our quest for justice, do we actually contribute to injustice?”
As I read this work, I reflect on Friends local meetings and yearly meetings that have recently been fraught with divisive conflict. Before walking away from each other over seemingly irreconcilable differences around issues of sexual identity, acceptance of alternative lifestyles, or the applicability of Scriptures, have we paused long enough to first weep together for the brokenness of our own relationships? When we avoid the process of lamentations, we miss the opportunity for great healing. Rah suggests that we must participate in narratives of suffering as well as narratives of celebration and at the intersection and integration of the two, find the rightful place to answer the biblical call to be salt and light in the world.
Do Quakers corporally practice lamentations as an aspect of worship? Perhaps Quakers have their own unique tradition of practicing lamentations. I was in a Friends meeting for business on the Sunday morning when it was announced that the United States was initiating its “shock and awe” bombing campaign against the country of Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein. It was a moment that we had prayed would never come. Our meeting fell into a stunned silence. The other business at hand became irrelevant. The shared grief among Friends was palpable. Yet it was silent. What can surely be described as a communal lamentation in this circle of Friends stood in sharp contrast to the grieving of the East African village in which I grew up. There, grief was characteristically very audible. The cry of the villagers suffering collectively the loss of a child or the experience of a disaster rose loudly to the heavens. In weeping together, the village found the place of renewed collective hope. The night of lament heralded the dawn of a new day. I wonder if we, as Friends, sometimes hide in the comfort of our shared silence because we are uncomfortable with the cry of anguished lamentations?
From his exegesis of the ancient Book of Lamentations, Rah brings forward a compelling call for a new way to respond communally and individually to injustice. It does not begin with constructing answers and solutions to injustice or the forming of a committee. Rather, it begins at the place of journeying with those who suffer, stepping fully into their grief with them, and owning how our privilege sometimes sets us apart as exceptional. It begins with the shared cry of anguish for both the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of our own relationships with each other, with creation, and with our Creator. For Rah, combating injustice simply requires lament. It is the necessary context and construct for the work of justice.
Rah offers a compelling counter-narrative to the notion of exceptionalism endemic in both Western culture and the mainstream Christian Church, which he sees as being in captivity to Western cultural values. Readers will find in this work a truly prophetic and incisive call for a new way of seeking justice in troubled times.