For the past few years I have been examining the necessity of lament in American society — particularly given our tendency toward triumphalism and exceptionalism. Triumphalism means that when we are confronted with suffering, we opt for quick fix-it solutions. Triumphalism means that we avoid the topic of race because it makes us uncomfortable and we want to resume our pursuit of the American dream uninterrupted by an awareness of systemic injustice that allows for the perpetuation of that dream. Exceptionalism allows us to claim that there is no such thing as implicit bias. After all, in an exceptional nation, we are all equal and we all have equal opportunity in an exceptional economic and political system. Exceptionalism claims that we don’t need any form of gun control because exceptional whites do not need to have any restrictions on their rights. Exceptional people always make the right choices, and the crazy actions of a lone gunman should not deter the rights of the rest of us exceptional Americans. Under the narrative of triumphalism and exceptionalism, we continue to weave a web of lies that creates a society where a terrorist act in Charleston, S.C. ,can be just another news item. Lament interrupts the narrative of triumphalism and exceptionalism.
In the Old Testament book of Lamentations, chapters 1 and 2 offer a funeral dirge in response to an unspeakable tragedy. The chosen people of God have experienced the shame of having their Promised Land invaded with their people taken away into exile. The remnant in Jerusalem comprising women, children, elderly, sick, and lame – the most oppressed and marginalized of society. The funeral dirge of Lamentations contrasts to a “typical” lament found in the psalms. Hope in a typical lament arises from the possibility of a sick body getting well. In a funeral dirge, we deal with a body that is already dead. There has to be an acknowledgement of reality not a yearning for what is next or how to fix the problem. There is a dead body in the room, and it has to be dealt with. When we lament alongside the grieving in South Carolina, we have to acknowledge that our nation’s history is littered with dead bodies. Dead bodies on slave ships of the TransAtlantic slave trade. Dead bodies on the Trail of Tears as civilizations and people were wiped out. Dead bodies of four little girls and young black men. And now nine dead bodies in a church. We must deal with the dead bodies in the room with a funeral dirge.
Lament, however, is not a passive act. Many Christians may hear the word lament and assume that feeling bad about suffering is the purpose of lament. How sad that people died. How sad that the shooter had a mental illness. But lament moves beyond bad feelings for the privileged. Lament is subversive and an act of protest. The powerful and the privileged have no problem being heard. It is the marginalized that need to be heard. The voiceless speak through lament. They cry out that things aren’t right. They are not the way things are supposed to be. Lament voices the prayers of the suffering and therefore serves as an act of protest against the powers.
In light of this national tragedy, the church must enter a time of lament that acknowledges the history of racial oppression. The narrative of racism that undergirds the American story must be brought to light. Lament makes room for the voice of the voiceless. Once lament occurs, hope emerges as a community can no longer sit by silently in the face of injustice.
Soong-Chan Rah is author of The Next Evangelicalism and a forthcoming commentary on the Book of Lamentations. He is also a member of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.