In his seminal work Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Soong-Chan Rah writes about Jeremiah’s identification with the people of Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations. While Lamentations 1&2 describe the destruction of Jerusalem from a fairly dispassionate angle, the lament becomes deeply personal in Lam. 3. Jeremiah identifies with the suffering of the people — no doubt because of his personal experience of suffering along with the rest of Jerusalem’s inhabitants.
But what’s even more striking is the prophet’s communal identification with Israel’s sin and need for repentance. If anyone could claim innocence during this period of exile, it’s Jeremiah. He remained faithful to both YHWH and the covenant. And yet, the prophet maintains an empathetic identification with the people:
Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven: “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” (Lam. 3:40-42)
Jeremiah could claim innocence, but he sets an example of the prophetic call to empathize with the people. He goes so far as to express individual culpability in the form of individual lament in Lamentations 3.
This prompts Rah to reflect:
Recently, I attended a conference on Native American theology. One of the white participants at the conference suggested that we do away with words like “Christian” and “evangelical” because they have too strong of a negative connotation. He claimed that we needed to reject the words and the baggage that comes with those words. A Native American theologian responded that doing away with those words would prove to be convenient for the majority culture. Not only would the words be wiped away, but the responsibility for the negative history of those communities could also be wiped away. Sin would not be accounted for.
Some want to do away with cultural differences and wipe away the long historical problem of race. With the election of Obama, America has supposedly moved toward a postracial world. But a robust dialogue on race requires a sense of personal culpability. There needs to be a personal connection to the corporate sin that has entered our culture. Our claims must first shift from the defensive posture of “I am not a racist” to “I am responsible and culpable in the corporate sin of racism.” We must move from “let’s just get over it” to “how do I personally continue to perpetuate systems of privilege?” Justice must move from the third person to the first person, from the abstract to the personal.