Several years ago I received promotional material from a U.S.-based Christian relief agency. The nicely packaged DVD had the words, “The poor will not always be with us” emblazoned on the cover. The incongruity with the actual words of Scripture caught my attention. Further examination of the contents of the material revealed a loose interpretation of Matthew 26:11 to assert the specific role of the U.S. church in fixing the problem of extreme poverty. While confronting poverty offers a noble and worthwhile cause, the material inferred that American exceptionalism should compel the American Christian to give generously. The DVD material exemplifies the American church’s self-perception of privilege and the subsequent assertion as the saviors of the world. This type of exceptionalism and triumphalism betrays a dysfunctional spirituality. It is the type of dysfunction that leads to an “America First” and “Make America Great Again” perspective. This dysfunction leads to a deeper rift in our nation rather than bringing healing.
The assumed exceptionalism and excessive triumphalism of the American church conflicts with the biblical call for humility as evidenced by lament. The practice of lament in the Bible confronts our American Christian assumptions. Biblical lament calls for honesty and truth-telling about the broken state of society and the individual. As such, the excessive triumphalism of American society has nearly quashed a necessary countercultural practice.
The fullness of the story of God’s work requires a remembering of suffering and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the fullness of truth. The dysfunctional exceptionalism and triumphalism of American Christianity reveals the need for the reclamation of lament. An alternative narrative is required to stretch the theological imagination of a Christianity that has drunk too deeply from a cultural captivity to triumphalism.
The age of troubling exceptionalism and excessive triumphalism only brings greater pain and suffering as frail humanity battles over power and privilege. The lost spiritual practice of lament allows for the crying out against existing injustices. 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.”
In order for healing to occur, truth must be told and the complete biblical narrative must take root in our community. Lament has to become a part of our story and a part of our healing journey. Lament, therefore, becomes a necessary expression of spirituality, particularly given our tendency toward exceptionalism and triumphalism. Triumphalism seeks the quick fix and exceptionalism assumes the capacity to find the quick fix. The ultimate hope of triumph rests not on human strength to fix the problems of the world but on the power of a sovereign God. The spiritual practice of lament acknowledges the source of hope. Lament helps the people of God find hope even in the midst of suffering.
The practice of lament introduces a spirituality that is more communal in its trajectory. Individual voices are heard but they collectively offer a more fully orbed perspective on the reality of human suffering. Lament does not simply explain away suffering. Instead lament allows for the suffering to speak and contribute to the larger story. The narrative is not merely an expression of the privileged and the powerful but of the humble. Lament is not a passive act but a subversive act of protest against the status quo.
The current status quo exalts in a dysfunctional narrative of power. Power is sought at all costs even at the cost of submitting to corrupt world powers. Seeking to restore human greatness will not bring about healing. But speaking truth to power through lament can be a small step towards healing.
Adapted from “Lament as Appropriate Missional Spirituality” in Spirutality for the Sent (IVP Books, 2017).
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