Thoughts on Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s The Necessity of Lament for Ministry in the Urban Context
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.” –Lamentations 1:1
The aftermath of destruction nearly escapes words. This poet can only use metaphor to capture the horror of destruction that has befallen the city of Jerusalem. For centuries she has been a city of hope, of kings, and a sign of God’s promises to his people. Now, however, the city has been razed, and its inhabitants scattered, or carried off to captivity in Babylon.
So begins the book of Lamentations. This is not the whole of the story, because this story goes back much further. It is a story about a God that chose a people to represent him. These people were to be faithful to their God, shunning evil and caring for the widows, orphans, and the oppressed. Their call was to be a city on a hill. Lofty aspirations and miraculous encounters with the divine quickly gave way to violence, corruption, and a military industrial complex bent only on its own security and conquest. Bricks that had been laid with hopes and promises, eventually came to symbolized a city rotting from the inside out. Corrupt kings killed the prophets of Israel, and made deals with corrupt governments.
And when this nation could no longer win in the game of military might, its enemies rose up against it and crushed it, laying the foundations of the city bare.
The destruction of Jerusalem, while tragic, exposed what had been percolating beneath the surface for generations. What had begun as a city became a prison of injustice. When the walls came down, so did the system that had perpetuated it. No longer would citizens have to live as if nothing was wrong, while the stench of oppression rose around them. The city had been found out, and though it would take time, the destruction gave way to freedom and a chance to rebuild.
In contemporary North American Christianity, narratives of triumph, conquest, and victory have become slogans and mission statements reflecting the church’s view of its own self importance. Yet, in the church’s midst, suffering, corruption, racism, sexism and more can be found on every urban block, and in every rural town. There is a treacherous mingling of cross and flag, that has confused party politics and national propaganda for the gospel.
If this church does not learn to lament, and admit that its members, privately and corporately, have missed God’s call and veered off course, then this church will not be free. It will be bound up in the same schemes and abuse that reinforced the walls of ancient Jerusalem. If there is no honesty, and no lament, there will be little room for redemption, because too much time and energy will be spent propping up the myths of success, triumph, and victory.
These narratives are deeply troubling. A movement founded by an ancient Jewish rabbi that embodied strength in weakness, leadership through being a servant, and offered hope in his broken body and shed blood, has been co-opted. At some point being “perfect” or “right” became more important than testifying to humanities equal status before the cross of Christ: broken and in need of grace and healing. Not only did Jesus upset the power dynamics of his day, and continues to do so in our day, he also showed that God stands in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. God has little use for triumph. He has great use, however, for lament, repentance, and commitment to loving the perpetual “other.”
Urban centers are already, and will continue to be the home of the majority of humanity. Increased population density, and inadequate infrastructure present new challenges. The gospel, which has previously been interpreted by rural western thinkers, is being reinterpreted by non-western, non-male, urban dwellers. The implications of this are profound, and the innovations and fresh insights are bound to be exhilarating.
The hindrance to this new phase of human history is the cultural captivity of Christianity, embodied in the narrative of victory, triumph and success. If churches do not learn to acknowledge and lament that they are complicit not only in the problems of the world, but also the cultural captivity of the ever expansive gospel of Jesus Christ, then they may find themselves bound in circular culture wars that will be to everyone’s detriment, and get in the way of broken people testifying to their own brokenness and their deep need for the healing that only God can provide, and the kind of liberation that can only be found in lament.