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Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation - Summary and Analysis

Vroegop

Our next reading in the Gospel & Race Project is Weep with Me: How Lament Opens the Door for Racial Reconciliation, by Mark Vroegop. I’ll refer to him as Mark going forward in this post since it is hard to say or type his last name! Anyway, Mark, just like you and I, sees the problem of the segregated church in America and wonders what can bridge the canyon of misunderstanding, insensitivity, and hurt. In this book, he proposes a small but important step for the church to take toward a more united and diverse church. He suggests that we we must start on this journey by learning to practice the discipline of lament. He defines the biblical lament as, “the biblical language of empathy and exile, perseverance and protest.” Encouraging us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). I’ve excerpted portions of the book to be able to capture the highlights. I’ll end with some of the book’s recommendations for personal and corporate application for us as a church.

The Vision of Racial Harmony

“Imagine a sea of people—as far as your eyes can see—standing in front of Jesus. Everyone was clothed with white robes and holding palm branches. Their anthem rolls like a crashing wave as they shout, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” With one voice they offer a glorious tribute to their Savior. Jesus stands alone as the victor. Sin is defeated. Satan is banished, redemption accomplished. It’s a scene from the seventh chapter of Revelation.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)

But what makes this scene compelling is not only the celebration; it’s the composition of the crowd. This is an eternally assembled multitude, the saints from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” A landscape of faces with various hues, beaming as they gaze upon Jesus. Imagine the beautiful tapestry of skin color, the varying shades of ethnicity all assembled in the presence of the King of kings: African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, European, South American, and Pacific Islander. Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, white and black Americans, Brahmins and Shudras in India, and white and black South Africans all proclaiming their allegiance to the risen Christ. Imagine historical divisions and prejudices gone. The pain of partiality and injustice healed. Superiority and pride were erased. Standing before the throne of God is a global and diverse multitude rescued by a Jewish carpenter named Jesus. This was God’s plan from the beginning. It’s why Jesus died.”

The Fallen Reality

The reality of this future vision feels so far off. We have to admit that the story of the American church has a long and sad story of ethnic division that still has lasting effects today. Mark says this, “Tragically, the effects of hundreds of years of slavery and the legacy of segregation created canyons of pain and distrust. Additionally, the political, social, and media landscape fossilized our divisions, creating echo chambers of information and opinions. Instead of building bridges toward one another, it feels as if racial fissures are growing wider and deeper—even within the evangelical church.” What is worse is that that this has tremendously hurt the church’s witness in our culture today. Mark rightly recognizes that the watching world is not marveling at the church’s brotherhood across ethnic fault lines. One of the problems he highlights in the book is that “too often discussions about racial reconciliation tip toward political talking points, or arguments about statistics and history. We tend to become defensive, rehearsing all-too-common narratives from our hurt or experiences. Often the volume and vitriol are elevated.” This is abundantly clear in my own heart and in many conversations I’ve had on the topic.

A Different Starting Point

Instead of starting with talking points, statistics, and history, Mark encourages Christians to begin with the biblical concept of lament. By doing this, he hopes that Christians can “strike a different tone, a unifying language amid our differing personal histories, perceptions, and struggles.” Lament, he defines as “the biblical language of empathy and exile, perseverance and protest" which can serve as a door for reconciliation. While he does not suggest that lament is a silver bullet that will solve all our problems surrounding race in the church, he suggests that by learning to weep with those who weep, we might take a step forward in living with harmony with one another (Romans 12:15-16). Mark suggests that “prayers in pain lead to trust—together. Tears, love, and unity replace misunderstanding, distrust, and hurt. We get glimpses of a heavenly unity.”  So, let’s consider how we can take a step together in helping our church look a little more like heaven, even as we wait for that final day when all divisions across ethnic lines will cease.

Basics of Lament

According to Mark, a lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. Laments are more than merely the expression of sorrow. The goal of a lament is to recommit oneself to hoping in God, believing his promises, and responding to pain, suffering, and injustice in a godly manner. Mark offers a four-step description of biblical lament: turn, complain, ask, and trust based on the features of psalms of lament in the Bible.

Turn – Lament begins with choosing to talk to God about our pain.

Turn to God - Laments moves to talking to God about the pain our confusion, exhaustion, and disappointment can cause us to retreat from the one who knows our sorrows.

Complain – Lament vocalizes circumstances that do not seem to fit with God’s character or his purposes. Instead of stuffing our struggles, lament gives us permission to verbalize the tension.

Ask - Lament seeks more than relief; it yearns for the deliverance that fits with God’s character. Godly lamenters keep asking even when the answer is delayed.

Trust - Confidence in God’s trustworthiness is the destination of all laments. Turning, complaining, and asking lead here. Laments help us through suffering by directing our hearts to make the choice—often daily—to trust in God’s purposes hidden behind the pain.

Lament And Racial Reconciliation

Mark then locates lament in a five-step process as it relates to racial reconciliation: love, listen, lament, learn, and leverage.

Love - The church should be involved in racial reconciliation because of what we believe. Our common relationship with Jesus, regardless of our ethnicity, creates a new spiritual identity. We are part of the same family.

Listen – This step relates to James 1:19: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Too often the tone of the conversation is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes. However, if we can commit to a posture of listening without speaking quickly or getting angry, irritated, or frustrated, there’s hope for progress.

Lament - Lament supplies a biblical voice that allows us to talk to God and one another about the pain we feel and see and opens a door for reconciliation.

Learn – This step is a commitment to learning from one another. Our cultural backgrounds, understandings of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. If we take the posture of learning from one another, we create a safe environment for asking questions and working through disagreements.

Leverage - The goal of racial reconciliation is not merely to pray about what’s wrong or to express our empathy. The vision for this book is for these steps, including lament, to bring change—in our hearts, our churches, and our culture.

One of his hopes is for Christians from majority and minority cultures to grieve together in lament, and thereby reaffirm as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Lament and Majority Culture Christians

In this section, Mark helps those in the majority culture to lead with empathy and encourages them to speak when tempted to be silent and express repentance when necessary.

Weep: The Healing Grace of Empathy

“Empathy means that we take the burdens, the sorrows, the concerns of our neighbors upon ourselves to the point of crying tears with them. . . . We think about their children as if they were our children. We think about their concerns as if they were our personal concerns, and we cry tears with them.” – Mika Edmondson

Mark encourages us to begin with emulating the heart of Jesus by weeping with those who weep. He rightly sees this as a helpful way to build a bridge of grace over the chasm of a division of injustice. He understands that empathy is not the only step, but he wants it to be the first one for us since it provides comfort to those who are hurting.

Speak: Ending the Painful Silence

We have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men and women willing to be co-workers with God. – MLK Jr

Mark suggests six reasons why majority culture Christians can often choose silence over speaking out.

Fear – of saying the wrong thing. Fear of hurting or being misunderstood by a minority brother or sister.

Uncertainty – over facts and feelings on the topic of race. Caution in speaking, which might be wise in one setting, can often morph into a default pattern of prolonged silence.

Wounds - from the past tempt some to be silent. Maybe a well-intentioned question only resulted in being shamed or rebuked. Maybe someone accused you of being racist. You may have experienced prejudice yourself—even as part of the majority culture. And perhaps it’s led to frustration about racial reconciliation.

Ignorance – on the layered issues of injustice and racism. Some are unintentionally blind but others choose not to learn more. Ignorance creates silence.

Selfishness - can also lead to silence. Some might arrogantly assume they see an issue correctly or perhaps make the mistake of listening only to people who agree with us. Others don’t engage in the topic of race because it’s too loaded, exhausting, and emotional.

Racism - Some people remain silent because they harbor racist ideas. They don’t speak out because they believe or feel that minorities are inferior.

These are helpful for both majority and minority brothers and sisters to understand since there is no one reason why people choose to remain silent. Mark suggests that one ought to begin with lamenting the brokenness in our hearts first and then in the world. He says, "lament keeps us talking to God and one another when pain and fear invade our lives. Instead of allowing silence to deepen the divisions, we can join together in lament.” Lament is the voice of grief when we do not know what to say or when we are tempted to remain silent.

Repent: Remembering with Remorse

“We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.” - Resolution on Racial Reconciliation, Southern Baptist Convention

In this section, Mark helpfully delineates between the definition of repentance, remorse, and lament and how they relate to one another. He says, “repentance is the change of mind, heart, and will that involves confession of specific sin and a change in our affections. Remorse is the heartfelt response when the weight of sin is understood (2 Cor. 7:10). Lament ties repentance and remorse together. It vocalizes deep sorrow for past wrongs, especially our own.” In summary, repentance turns from sin. Remorse is the emotion. Lament is the expression. Mark suggests that all three are important ingredients for us to take inventory of and grow in.

Lament and Minority Culture Christians

In this section, Mark addresses the role of lament in racial reconciliation for minority brothers and sisters.

Protest: The Voice of Exiles

While lament is a starting point, it is helpful to consider the voice of minority Christians so that our laments can highlight specific issues. According to one black evangelical pastor, we all ought to grieve the “history behind the creation of the black church, tokenism, racial insensitivity in the academy, dismissal of the black church, evangelical perception of black preachers, and the neglect of teaching on justice.” Here, lament highlights the brokenness in specific ways and calls upon God to bring change. Lament is a form of protest that “gives voice to the gap between the sin-cursed world in which we live and our longing for the justice of Christ’s return. It expresses spiritual outrage against the effects of the fall.” This is one way in which we can turn to God in prayer about injustice keeps us on guard against personal revenge. Lament is a prayer of pain that leads us to trust and persevere in making progress in racial reconciliation.

Triumph: Redeeming the Pain

Lament helps us with perspective because it helps us see our pain in light of God’s eternal purposes which certainly end in triumph for the righteous. This is why we often see biblical lament that begins with a complaint, leads to trust and confidence in the God of justice who will make all things right in due season. In a speech titled “Where Do We Go from Here?” Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the hope-filled connection to eternal realities beyond the struggle for civil rights:

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. – MLK Jr.

Believe: Dare to Hope

I will never forget this awful time. . . . Yet I still dare to hope. (Lamentations 3:20–21)

There can be a tendency among those fighting for change to become hopeless. This lack of hope can become a roadblock for Christians to seek true change in the church and the culture. Here are five ways in which Mark encourages us to dare to hope for change in the task of racial reconciliation in the church.

God Will Help You - The first hopeful promise flows out of the third chapter of Lamentations. It reminds us that we can dare to hope by believing that God will always provide the spiritual resource of grace. Believers never exhaust the supply of God’s ability to help them.

Hardship Can Be Transformative - Paul recognized that hardships can produce life in other people. Patiently enduring inspires others. Suffering can bring conviction. (2 Cor. 4:8–12)

God Changes Hearts - While suffering and injustice hang in the air, lament is the language that appeals to God to intervene. Lament looks to God to change people’s hearts.

God Will Make It Right - Christians long for a future day when Jesus will return, the truth will be known, and perfect justice delivered. It is precisely this hope which drives the psalmist to refuse to give in to despair. The lamenter turns to God with the hope that he will make it right (Ps. 28:4)

Conclusion: An Open Door for Racial Reconciliation

Here are a few ways in which this book gives us personal and corporate ways to grow in our love for ethnic harmony.

Personal

Rehearse the biblical vision - Read the vision for unity in Revelation 7:9–12. Memorize Paul’s words about Christian identity in Colossians 3:5–11. Meditate on the unity purchased by Jesus in Ephesians 2. Regularly rehearse God’s vision for reconciliation.

Practice lament - Practice applying the language of lament in the psalms and direct it to racial reconciliation—whether in processing your hurt, communicating your care, or protesting the brokenness of the world.

Build relationships - Hospitality and friendship create the venue for Christian love to be expressed and pain to be understood.

Grow in your understanding - Consider reading books on racial reconciliation, especially from people outside your “tribe.”

Engage where you are - Determine what steps you can take to be an advocate for ethnic harmony. Perhaps it’s as simple as speaking up when someone says something inappropriate or prejudiced.

Corporate

Teach biblical unity in diversity - If you have a teaching role—in your family, or church—consider how you can invite people to embrace the biblical goal of a unified church. We’ve tried to do this from time to time and will continue to do so.

Model lament – Lament is not just a personal practice, it is also a language of corporate grief. We want to be able to grow in modeling lament in our corporate service as particular events cause us to mourn the brokenness in this world.

Mourn together at critical moments -  When a racially charged incident breaks on the news, take time in your family or small group to lament over an event—even as it continues to unfold and the truth comes to light—communicates your awareness, sensitivity, and concern.

Create venues for dialogue - Start a discussion group that explores the issues and barriers in this conversation. We’ve had a few of these this past year, and will likely have them in the future as well.

Intentionally celebrate and create diversity - Take the opportunity to pray or partner with churches whose ethnic demographic is different from yours. Consider a joint prayer meeting, or swapping preachers or music teams for a Sunday. For those in your church from minority ethnicities, take the time to learn about their background, culture, and ask questions about their experience in the church

This book has sought to demonstrate how lament has the potential to move Christians of different ethnicities toward harmony. One of the most challenging aspects of this book for me has been to consider how quick my mind rushes toward political talking points and arguments about history, while the biblical category of lament is pretty absent from my thinking. I do believe in the vision that this book lays out in the beginning – the reality that Christianity looks most compelling to the world when our identity and unity in the gospel is more foundational than any other identity—including our ethnicity. There were aspects of Mark’s book that I disagreed with and found myself arguing about it in my mind, yet that is precisely what Mark wants us to do – to use the language of lament to move past disagreement and debate towards sympathy and understanding. Our broken world needs to see this vision lived out in our relationships in the church. May the Lord help us grow in this in the months and years together.

Reflect

  • What were some helpful insights for you from this book?
  • How can we grow in lamenting as our first response when the next news story breaks on the racial issues of our day?

Pray

Dear heavenly Father, when I think of the oppression of the past, humans you made owned by other humans you made, my soul cries out. It is deeply distressing. The anguish of my ancestors, the pain and sorrow that still lingers, it’s all too deep for words. O Lord, I am perplexed. I don’t understand our history. Why must people be in shackles? Why the separation of brown and white people? How could your name and your word be used against those who love you, Lord? Lord, deliver us from our sorrows, and comfort us in our affliction. Forgive those who sinned against your people. Bring about redemption and reconciliation—let your glory shine in our broken places. Answer us when we call, O Lord. Hear our cries for unity and peace. Accomplish what only you can by your power. Even in my distress and confusion I know you are God—almighty, glorious, wonderful, trustworthy, righteous, everlasting, sovereign, and good. You are more than words can express. I will put my trust in you, O Lord. You are our Rock and our Redeemer. I rest my heart in you—the one who can carry all our burdens.

  • Trillia Newbell, director of community outreach for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tennessee

Father in heaven, we know you are good in all you do and wise in all your ways. We dare not presume upon your providential purposes, and you do not owe us any answers or explanations. And yet we do not understand why you have allowed your church to fall into such sin and division. How could the same churches that preached your love have turned around and hated their brothers? Why can we never seem to escape from the shadow of this evil? Are we doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers? We who are one spiritual family, speaking the same language of salvation, still struggle to relate as children of the same Father. Sometimes we wonder if anything can be done, if the final sentence has already been rendered. But we ask that you would do more than we could ever ask or imagine, that you would work a miracle that can only be explained by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble. In a church that has often contented itself with worldly comfort, we ask that you would once again equip your servants with spiritual power to turn the world upside down. We—especially those of us who continue to perpetuate prejudice, knowingly or unknowingly—do not deserve your grace. Still, we plead upon the blood of Christ that your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

  • Collin Hansen, editorial director of the Gospel Coalition, Birmingham, Alabama