For the past eight years, I have regularly taught a large, survey course on global poverty and justice at Wheaton College. In the course we learn about difficult and troubling phenomenon. About human suffering caused by greed, violence, and injustice. About the abuse of creation produced by pollution, over-consumption, and the exploitation of natural resources. But we are also inspired and deeply challenged by the creative and courageous ways that human beings have organized themselves to work for the good of neighbor and planet. We struggle with what is lamentable about our condition even as we learn to recognize and celebrate signs of kingdom come. Along the way we have discovered that we are not very well-trained in processing and responding to such dissonant and disorienting realities. Developing and sustaining a lament pedagogy has been one way that I’ve tried to help bring to speech and to God all that we encounter and learn in the course.1
This post draws on a much fuller discussion of why and how I introduced lament into this course, and of how its practice might be incorporated into the learning routines of courses from across the liberal arts curriculum.2 The following is a brief proposal for what a lament pedagogy could look like in practice.
So how have we practiced it? Lament is not an isolated element of course content that we review in a one-off lecture. Nor is it a discrete activity that we carry out at one point during the semester. Instead, I have tried to organize the practice as an iterative rhythm that unfolds over time that consists of a repertoire of habits that we exercise both in and outside of class. The rhythm has three basic components: attend, rehearse, and reflect.
First, we regularly attend to the laments articulated by the characters we encounter in course readings. Such attentive reading steadily familiarizes us with how human beings across time and space express laments to convey despair over personal loss and pain and to voice protests, often collectively, against chronic injustice. This habit of seeing and hearing, as we often read laments aloud, also involves a bit of cross-textual reading. We consider how the cries of our story characters compare and contrast with laments expressed in biblical texts (e.g., Psalm 10; Luke 18:1-8; Luke 19:41). Of course, there is never adequate time to parse out and study the particular elements and structure of the varied laments we consider. But such habits help us appreciate laments as an enabling practice. We begin to see them for what they are: creative practices used and sustained by diverse human groups to name and express – very often through bold, abrasive speech – our “life experience of disorientation.”3
A second engagement is a creative, shared, and performative practice. Over time I have come to recognize that there are moments when it simply seems right to lament. Such moments are often prompted by course readings or by the topics we cover in class. Occasionally they are provoked by events unfolding on campus or occurring in the wider world.
Our first, in-class experiment with the practice often comes at the close of a unit on the civil war in El Salvador and on the broader dynamics of conflict, forced displacement, and migration occurring across the Americas in the 21st century. Much of the history we review is disturbing. To end the unit, we set aside time in class to write out and rehearse prayers of lament. A handout provides practical guidance on how to compose a lament and includes examples of individual and communal Psalms of lament. Most of the time is spent working quietly and independently to write out our prayers. The activity offers an opportunity to express our confusion, anger, and frustration and to our articulate our confidence, trust and hope. It also allows us to rehearse the literary and oral registers of the practice. Not surprisingly, the prayers we compose are notably diverse in form and content.
A short, closing group prayer, during which I invite 4-5 students to read their laments aloud, is a richly affective experience. We hear and affirm shared frustrations, confess common shortcomings and habits of negligence, and plead with God to bring liberty to those who suffer injustice. As an oral, affective, and shared exercise, it not only reorients how we learn together. It also models habits of solidarity and of compassionate listening that are fundamental to the formation of healthy Christian community.
The third facet is embedded within a final exam essay, and it is the only activity I formally evaluate. The essay invites student to reflect on how they have learned to lament the absence of God’s shalom in the world and to describe how they intend to work practically for reconciliation, peace, and justice. One prompt for the essay directs students to reconsider a key idea presented in one of our course readings, Reconciling All Things by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, which details how lament orients us to unlearn familiar habits of speed, distance, and innocence.
Inviting students to consider what they have unlearned is a somewhat counterintuitive endeavor (should I include student unlearning outcomes on my syllabus?). What they identify as significant learning is varied: some discuss how the practice confronts their knee-jerk readiness to problem-solve, others critically reevaluate the “narratives of triumphalism” and theologies of success that have framed much of their American, evangelical church experience, and still others recount how lament cultivates habits of confession and humility.4 For me the assignment functions as an inflection point, as a kind of concluding habit of examen, which seems necessary given how unfamiliar the practice is for most of the students.
The preceding should not be read as a formulaic, one-size-fits-all proposal for a lament pedagogy. As with every learning activity I’ve tried, there’s been lots of trial-and-error. And the practice has introduced patterns of learning that are less than familiar to me as an educator. For one, I’ve come to appreciate lament as an affective, embodied engagement. As such, it takes seriously the fundamental role that emotions play in our learning. Students’ affective engagement with course content is always there, of course; I’m not bringing emotions into our learning together.5 Rather, I think that this lament rhythm has made room for the constructive interplay of emotional and intellectual processing about realities that are frankly hard for all of us to grapple with.
In the meantime, I’m still learning how to provide ongoing, pedagogical support to help students integrate the affective and cognitive engagements that lament provokes. Developing a lament practice has also prompted me to regularly seek out the pedagogical know-how of colleagues in psychology, counseling education, and pastoral theology. From them I continue to learn about how to talk responsibly about painful life realities in the classroom setting; and about how to best organize our lament practice in such a way that regards students’ varied capacities to bear dissonance and difficulty.
Along the way I have been especially encouraged by students’ willingness to engage in and share the practice of lament with others beyond the classroom. Our experimenting together has me convinced that the practice habituates a humble posture of learning relative to the complex problems we study and seek to comprehend. I am persuaded, too, that the regular practice of lament facilitates rhythms of learning that ready all of us for the ever-present, transformative work of the Spirit of God in our midst.
- Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984), 52.
- James G. Huff Jr., “Practicing Lament to Teach for Justice: Reflections from a Survey Course,” Christian Higher Education 17, no. 3 (2018):151-166.
- Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 51.
- Soong-Chan Ra, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015).
- Peter Felten, Leigh Z. Gilchrist, and Alexa Darby, “Emotion and Learning: Feeling Our Way toward a New Theory of Reflection in Service-Learning, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 12, no. 2 (2006):38-46.