How is lamenting alongside people with different cultural backgrounds than our own transformative? What are the consequences of avoiding lament in our culture and in our churches? How might communal lament draw us toward a truer understanding of the kingdom of God? In episode 11 of text.soul.culture, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah joins Dr. J. Derek McNeil to discuss these questions and more. Dr. Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary and the author of several books. His life work has revolved around theology, lament, and racial reconciliation.
What were a few of your early influences in life?
Dr. Rah: I have seen how the gospel can connect across cultures, and that comes from my experience of growing up in Seoul until six years old and then moving to the United States. There was privilege in that original cultural context; then we moved to a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. It was third black, a third white, and a third recent immigrants. We were all common in that we were poor, but we divided along racial lines. There was a question of why we couldn’t get along. Part of my desire to see different cultures live together came from early on. I later realized I wouldn’t find the answer in the Church either.
How did you experience other culture groups growing up?
Dr. Rah: As recent immigrants, we don’t have a long history with African Americans or whites. Even when we said “American churches,” we meant “white churches.” We had a hard time seeing value in our own culture and therefore couldn’t see it in others. I later realized parallels and a similar sense of culture in African American churches.
How have we missed the opportunity to share oppressive stories?
Dr. Rah: Lament provides a positive mediating narrative. It brings us together across the boundaries. If I can enter into lament alongside someone with a different background, we find a sense of equality. My own journey has been about sitting at the feet of African American, Latino, and Native American mentors, to see how our narratives overlap. When I write about lament, I write about Han theology, which is very similar to the spirituality of the blues. The inability to share narratives is to our detriment.
What’s the consequence of the absence of lament?
Dr. Rah: I remember learning three chords and being limited by them. I think we don’t sing enough in the minor key and too often end on a happy progression of chords. In the absence of lament, we lose our understanding of justice. Three fifths of Lamentations deals with a funeral. We don’t know how to deal with real tragedy and look for quick solutions.
How are we depriving ourselves by always trying to end on a happy note?
Dr. Rah: Things can be better that way, but not transformed, because there was no death for transformation. Most of us don’t know how to end on the minor key of Lamentations. Even for our villains, we want a happy ending.
How do you see this happening in our culture?
Dr. Rah: For years, we’ve said the American dream is to work your way up and then help others repeat the process. In doing so, we’ve created a mythology that is not attainable for everybody. The racialized piece is that we had a president who did that, and there was a vitriolic response. Many had unfulfilled dreams and saw a non-white achieving the American dream. So now there’s the idea that we need to go back to a time when “I had better access to that dream.”
How do you turn loss into something for the future?
Dr. Rah: In Lamentations, the exiles are thinking they’ll go back to Jerusalem. They actually had to look towards a new reality. The people needed a reality check. It’s a tough sell to tell the majority population that things will never be the same again. Maybe the missing step has been that we’re missing lament — acknowledging the reality.
How do we let white supremacy die in all of us?
Dr. Rah: Lament offers the possibility that we might not get the exact resolution hoped for. What makes Lamentations redemptive is Jesus, not because Jerusalem is restored to its once great status, but Jesus shows up in that temple, which does outshine Solomon’s temple.
So this is really about a love story?
Dr. Rah: As a Christian, I still believe it’s the Church that holds hope. It won’t be success as defined by the American empire, but we’ll have places where the kingdom narrative will win. The American Church has prostituted itself so much to the American empire that we don’t recognize success outside of that, and we have to lament that. We have to recognize the narrative is that the kingdom of God means a romantic ending for all.
What hope can you offer in this conversation?
Dr. Rah: If we can get there, there can be a communal element to lament, which can be unifying. The problem is that most of our western narrative is around triumph. We also have to understand suffering and death. If we can return to communal lament, we’ll get a richer theology that has been long neglected.
Highlights and Takeaways
- What the perception of Korean-Americans has often been by African Americans
- How people of color understand other cultures through the eyes of white Americans
- Why, with quick and easy answers, we don’t know how to deal with tragedy
- How happy endings have been fed to millennials, who now want to save the world, but quickly
- Why we bond more intimately in our weakness than around the victory
About Dr. Soong-Chan Rah
Reverend Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. He has authored several books, including The Next Evangelicalism, Many Colors, and Prophetic Lament.
Prior to joining North Park, Dr. Rah was the founding Senior Pastor of Cambridge Community Fellowship Church (CCFC), a multi-ethnic church living out the values of racial reconciliation and social justice in the urban context. He has served on the board of Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association and currently serves on the board of World Vision and Evangelicals 4 Justice.
With extensive experience in cross-cultural speaking, Dr. Rah has been a main stage speaker at many events, including the Congress on Urban Ministry, the CCDA National Conference, the Justice Conference, Verge, and Catalyst.
A lover of learning, he received his B.A. 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 his Th.D. from Duke University.
He lives with his wife, Sue, and their two children, Annah and Elijah, in Chicago.
Hosted and curated by Dr. J. Derek McNeil, Academic Dean, text.soul.culture is guided by a commitment to understanding narrative, wrestling with intersections, resisting reactivity, and fostering radical hospitality. Every other week, Derek is joined by faculty members, alumni, visiting thought leaders, and other conversation partners to explore what it means to foster wisdom and imagination for a world in need of complex thinkers and healers.