Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.

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