In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, author Rachel Held Evans describes a ceremony she created to lament and honor the often nameless women of the Bible who were abused and killed: women like Jephthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine, and Tamar the daughter of David.1 And I didn’t really get it at the time. These women were long dead; no one I knew condoned the way they were treated. What was the point of lament?
But the idea of lamenting for these biblical women stuck with me over the years. Two years ago, when my church focused on lament for the season of Lent, the power of lament finally clicked for me. Lament creates space for honesty: the world is sometimes a terrible place. We suffer, our loved ones suffer, our communities suffer, because sin and death still hold power in this world.
In its honest acknowledgment of suffering, lament can also free us from the twin burdens of control and maintaining appearances. In lament, we can acknowledge our powerlessness and admit our imperfections. American culture encourages us to present narratives of improvement, of triumph over illness, of the restoration of things lost. And the American church all too often baptizes this cultural pressure by adding the idea that we lack faith if we cannot maintain the narratives of healing and success.
Learning to Lament
Lament stands in opposition to the tendency to hide or deny the parts of life that are difficult, painful, or messy. In his recent book Prophetic Lament, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes:
Lament recognizes our frailty as created beings and the need to acknowledge this shortcoming before God. Lament demands that we are willing to dwell in the space of our humanity without quickly resorting to our triumphalistic narrative to justify our worth.2
The practice of lament, then, invites us to identify the brokenness and evil in the world around us. Sometimes this is personal: we lament chronic illness, damaged relationships, the losses we’ve experienced in the last year. We see examples of this type of lament in the Psalms—see, for example, Psalm 13, 42, or 69. We also see in the Psalms laments for the evils we see around us, whether or not we experience them personally, as in Psalm 10:10–11:
[The evil man’s] victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
He says to himself, “God will never notice;
he covers his face and never sees.”
And so, when Rachel Held Evans created a liturgy of lament for abused women in the Bible, she participated in an ancient biblical practice: an acknowledgement of the sin in the world, of the people who use their power to harm the vulnerable, of the pain and suffering that these women endured. We may not be able to change what happened in the past, but this isn’t what lament leads us to do.
Instead, lament calls us to name painful realities and to sit with them, without attempting to escape them or jump to quick fixes. Lament does not deny the presence of God in the midst of suffering; it is not an expression of hopelessness. But it does create a space where we can hold the tension of the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God: Jesus has conquered sin and death and evil, but we are still longing for their full defeat, for the full reconciliation of all things in Christ.
I’ve spent time exploring the concept of lament in general because it is still a practice neglected by much of the American church (although several recent books on lament, such as Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah and The Louder Song by Aubrey Sampson, point to a growing interest). But in the remainder of this article, I want to specifically invite my egalitarian sisters and brothers into lament for the ways in which the sin of racism has hindered our support of women in the church.
Why Should We Lament?
Sometimes, as Christians who support the full equality of women and men in the church, it’s easy to assume that we must be above or beyond the sin of racism. But since the nineteenth century, the fight for women’s rights has been plagued by the idea that rights are a zero-sum game: women can have them, or Americans of color can have them, but not both at the same time. We are more than a century removed from activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who made this point explicitly.3 But womanist, mujerista, and other BIPOC thinkers have long pointed out that feminism, including feminist and egalitarian theology, all too often excludes women of color.4
My own experience in majority-white churches confirms this tendency to separate issues of gender from issues of race. My current church, where I serve on staff, is actively egalitarian. Church leadership seeks out and supports women using their gifts in every area of the church, even when that stance comes at a cost. But only in the last year have we begun to talk seriously as a church about racial justice. I suspect that, despite the best intentions of all involved, our lack of attention to race and racism would have hindered our support of a woman of color and might have even caused harm.
Acknowledging complicity in racism is difficult. I’ve certainly experienced the urge to avoid this truth. All too often I distance myself instead, thinking that this simply isn’t my problem. My ancestors didn’t own slaves. I’ve never used a racial slur. It all happened so long ago. It’s too big of a problem for me to fix. Dwelling on past wrongs doesn’t do anyone any good.
But we have inherited this history in our cities and neighborhoods and churches, even our egalitarian churches. Racism is real, and if we white egalitarian Christians cannot fully acknowledge that it exists, that it causes significant suffering, and that it hinders our support of all women in the church, how can we begin to address this sin? How can we be fully egalitarian?
This is where we come back to the practice of lament. As we take up the posture of lament, we learn about the impact of racism in our communities. We listen to the stories of those harmed by racism. We practice releasing our defense mechanisms and the desire to swoop in and fix what we perceive to be the problem. We open ourselves to the struggles and pain of others.
In lament, we allow ourselves to sit with our sisters in the reality of sin, the destructive presence of racism and sexism in our communities, churches, even our hearts. And we mourn because God also mourns over the suffering in the world.
I want to do something a bit unconventional for this type of article: I invite you to spend a few minutes in lament. This may feel uncomfortable or awkward. You may feel defensiveness or guilt as you spend time acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by white supremacy. (You may already feel these emotions at the mention of white supremacy.) I encourage you to see those feelings and then let them go as you allow yourself to weep with those who have wept because of the compounding impact of racism and sexism on their lives.
You might begin by reading a psalm of lament, like Psalm 10, as a model for how to bring our sorrow over the state of the world to God. I’ve written a few laments below, but I encourage you to add your own:
We lament for the ways that women of color have been overlooked and harmed in our churches.
We lament the impoverishment of our theology and worship by the exclusion of women’s voices, especially the voices of women of color.
We who are white Christians lament that our unconscious biases too often make our brothers and sisters of color feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in churches and ministries.
Lament is not the only thing that Christians can do in order to rectify the past and ongoing damage caused by racism and sexism. But lament does ground us in the reality that the suffering experienced by women of color is not good, is not what God desires for God’s beloved children. Racism, like sexism, is a sin that arises from our human frailty and brokenness. Lament can lead us, especially as white Christians, to recognize the pain caused by both and the ways that we have been complicit in this sin and suffering.
Ultimately, lament turns us toward the heart of God, who hears the cries of those who suffer and who promises to be with them. White egalitarians have heard and stood alongside women who suffer under patriarchal and sexist practices in churches; we have the tools to hear and stand alongside our sisters of color in their specific experience. As those striving to become like Christ, how can we do any less than this?
This article appears in “Learning Lament, Building Empathy, and Joining our Sisters at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” the Summer 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
1. Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 64–66.
2. Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 139.
3. There are many resources on Elizabeth Cady Stanton; here I list three articles overviewing her advocacy of women’s rights over the rights of Black Americans: Marion Taylor, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Taking a Stand against Slavery and against Racial Equality,” Wycliffe College, Feb. 16 2021; “For Stanton, All Women Were Not Created Equal,” NPR.org, July 13 2011; and Brent Staples, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women,” New York Times, July 28 2018.
4. For a brief overview of the development of womanist thought and its critiques of feminism, see chapter 1 of Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, (New York: Rutledge, 2009), 3–23. For the way that theologians and Christian leaders overlook the voices of women of color even in discussion of racial reconciliation, see Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019). And to read about what it is like to experience majority-white church spaces as a black woman, see Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, (New York: Convergent Books, 2018).