The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.
In his book Peace, Walter Brueggemann writes about this contrast between a theology of the “have-nots” versus a theology of the “haves.” The “have-nots” develop a theology of suffering and survival. The “haves” develop a theology of celebration. Those who live under suffering live “their lives aware of the acute precariousness of their situation.” Worship that arises out of suffering cries out for deliverance. “Their notion of themselves is that of a dependent people crying out for a vision of survival and salvation.” Lament is the language of suffering.
Those who live in celebration “are concerned with questions of proper management and joyous celebration.” Instead of deliverance, they seek constancy and sustainability. “The well-off do not expect their faith to begin in a cry, but rather, in a song. They do not expect or need intrusion, but they rejoice in stability [and the] durability of a world and social order that have been beneficial to them.” Praise is the language of celebration.
Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place. Tax rates should remain low. Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.
Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices. The status quo is not to be celebrated but instead must be challenged. If tax rates favor the rich, they should be challenged. Redistribution of wealth would not be a catastrophe but instead it would be a blessing in contrast to the existing state of economic inequality. The balance in Scripture between praise and lament is lost in the ethos and worldview of American evangelical Christianity with its dominant language of praise. Any theological reflection that emerges from the suffering “have nots” can be minimized in the onslaught of the triumphalism of the “haves.”
What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.
Walter Brueggemann asks the question: “What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage? What happens when the speech forms that redress power distribution have been silenced and eliminated? The answer, I believe, is that a theological monopoly is reinforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to reinforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.” For American evangelicals riding the fumes of a previous generation’s assumptions, a triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament.
The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency. This work attempts to remedy that imbalance by providing commentary on a neglected book of the Bible. The suffering endured by God’s people resulting from the fall of Jerusalem provides the backdrop for the poetic struggle offered in Lamentations. Lamentations provides the Biblical text and the theological lens through which we examine the themes of urban ministry, justice and racial reconciliation. We will seek to find contemporary application of the book of Lamentations within these current themes. . . .
Despite its age, Lamentations offers us a prophetic critique of what passes for gospel witness in our time. This critique offers fresh insight into our ecclesiology, or more precisely, how the North American Christian community should respond to a broken world. The major themes—the importance of lament, the necessity of engaging with suffering, the power of encountering the other—should lead us to a theology of lament that corrects the triumphalism of Christianity in the West. Lamentations may serve as the prophetic corrective necessary to embrace the next phase of Christianity.
—Adapted from the Introduction to Prophetic Lament
This post is part of our October theme Living Into the Shalom of God, and was sponsored by InterVarsity Press.