Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next Evangelicalism; Many Colors; co-author of Forgive Us and the recently released Prophetic Lament.
Soong-Chan received his B.A. in Political Science and History/Sociology from Columbia University; his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his Th.M. from Harvard University; his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is currently in the Th.D. program at Duke University.
Rah is formerly the founding Senior Pastor of the Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC), a multi-ethnic, urban ministry-focused church committed to living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context.
Soong-Chan, his wife, Sue, who teaches special education, and their two children, Annah and Elijah live in Chicago.
KW: When were you first drawn to the book of Lamentations?
Rah: When I planted an urban, multi-ethnic church in Cambridge, MA in 1996, the very first sermon series I preached was on the book of Lamentations. Not a conventional choice when you are trying to attract people to your church plant, but in retrospect, engaging the book of Lamentations as an urban church plant was an essential element of the type of value system needed to serve in the urban context. The themes of suffering, lament, listening and learning from the most marginalized voices are critical themes for urban ministry. We often jump to the success stories of ministry in the city without engaging the stories of suffering. As a church planter, I needed to engage the reality of a suffering narrative extant in the community before I could event pretend to have any answers. Lamentations call God’s people to pause and seek the heart of God before we jump to the easy answers.
KW: How has your upbringing and experiences shaped your interpretation of Lamentations?
Rah: I engage a lot of my personal story in applying the book of Lamentations. Lamentations engages suffering and my own personal story of pain connects to the suffering discussed in the book of Lamentations. I talk about the pain of the absence of my father in my life as well as the passing of my father. Interacting with my father on his deathbed deepened my understanding of loss and how that sense of imminent loss changes how I understand the world around me. If we don’t deal with the pain of loss and the reality of death, we fool ourselves. My reconciliation with my father on his deathbed was precipitated by his imminent death. Death changed the equation. In the same way, I believe that the reality of death in our nation’s history, particularly unjust deaths of African Americans, requires dealing with reality. We can’t fool ourselves that everything is okay when there are dead bodies in the room. Lamentations begins as a funeral dirge that requires an understanding of historical reality. Another very important personal intersection is the story of my mother. My mother who is in the early stages of dementia has been a powerful example of spiritual faithfulness. Yet as a poor, elderly, Korean immigrant woman, her voice is often marginalized. Studying the book of Lamentations reminded me of the importance of the voices of marginalized women and reminded me that my mom’s story is an important story for the Christian community to hear.
KW: Why do you think the church has forgotten about the practice of lament?
Rah: U.S. Christianity has a strong streak of exceptionalism and triumphalism. Many American Christians embrace American exceptionalism or American church exceptionalism. The assumption of the triumph and victory of an exceptional American church means that we have no room to engage in stories of suffering and pain. We want to hear about the latest exploits of the mega church pastors, the hip urban church planter, or the successful social entrepreneur. We allow no room for the practice of lament, which would challenge our assumptions of exceptionalism, that somehow the American church is uniquely blessed by God. If we were to engage the practice of lament we may be confronted with the reality of our individual and corporate sinfulness. At its root, lament is truth telling. It is an honest expression of our relationship with God and the world around us. Lament challenges our exceptionalism assumptions. So I think we’d rather speak of our successes and our triumphs rather than deal with the truth telling of lament.
KW: Why is it important that we recover the depth and power of prophetic lament?
Rah: Our current social, cultural reality in the U.S. reveals a deeply troubled racial history. We have great difficulty engaging the topic of race. We move towards intransigent positions or seek quick and easy answers. Lament calls for more. IF we believe in the necessity of prophetic lament, we wouldn’t so easily dismiss the call to understand the need for #blacklivesmatter and not so easily move to all lives matter. Lament is a necessary discipline if we are to have important, crucial conversations. We can’t talk about race relations in American without dealing with shame. Lament offers us the vocabulary of shame. Broken relationships along racial lines must understand the long, tainted, painful history of race and racism in America. Lament reminds us not to ignore our shameful racial history. The conversation on race is one of the more salient examples of the need for lament, but other important social and theological issues require the discipline of lament before we engage quick and easy answers.
KW: What hope does Lamentations provide in the midst of historic and modern injustice?
Rah: It reminds us that suffering and injustice are not new to a fallen world. We have historical antecedents as well as a biblical response to suffering and injustice. In the book of Jeremiah, we see how God’s people could potentially respond to the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile to Babylon. God’s people could decide to disavow their identity, disengage the world and go underground — which God rejects by commanding them to seek the peace of Babylon (Jer 29:4-7). They could also decide to give in to the values of the world and follow the patterns and practices of the world. God rejects that approach by condemning the false prophets and diviners (Jer 29:8-9) who would use the magic practices of the Babylonians to tell the people what they want to hear. In our engagement with modern injustice, we are faced with these two options: we could run away and hide from the injustices in our community / we can give in to the world’s methods and try to fix problems using our own strength and methods. Or, we can engage the practice of lament. The proper response to the suffering of exile initiated in Jeremiah is the book of Lamentations. Lamentations offers no easy answers. It calls us to engage a sovereign God as well as the broken world. Lament calls us to a different Biblical, historical discipline that may require a higher cost from God’s people. There are no easy answers to the reality of suffering. Lamentations reminds us of that reality and the much deeper response that is needed in the face of great injustice.
KW: What sort of responses are hoping for as folks read/engage the book?
Rah: I hope that folks will challenge their pre-existing notions about the nature of the church. The church is not simply the expression of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. I hope that the book will challenge God’s people to re-engage the practice of lament that has been lost in the context of American evangelicalism. I hope that lament will become a part of how we worship on a typical Sunday worship, how we pray together as families, and how we engage the complex issues of our society. I hope a deep dive and engagement with the book of Lamentations and engagement with a prophetic lament calls God’s people to deepen their faith beyond the superficiality of an exceptional Christianity.