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The greatest commandment God has given us is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. And the second is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christian education, therefore, should help students and teachers alike become people who love God and love their neighbors more through the life of the mind.

Lament can help us in this endeavor as we study sinful people made in God’s image who create cultures and institutions that both reflect God’s glory and are broken. Several years ago, I started using lament as a practice in my classes. Much of my own teaching is on race in American history. When we try to understand what happened in the past, we discover that too often Christians failed to love their neighbors as themselves, including those neighbors who were Christian. If I really sit with these truths, and help my students do the same, we need to lament, because the pain in the past is so deep.

But lament can also be a useful framework for my teaching.  That is, lament offers a set of dispositions and habits of mind I try to practice and to teach my students to practice throughout our study, even if we are not specifically lamenting.

Lament, put simply, is talking to God about suffering. Soong Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament on the book of Lamentations and Mark Vroegop’s Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy have helped me understand and practice lament. The Psalms and the book of Lamentations are helpful starting points for lament, and many of the Psalms are prayers we can use in our own contexts. Psalms of lament gave me words when I was grieving a miscarriage, and they give me words to pray when I teach about Emmett Till’s murder and I think of his mother’s loss. Lament also helps me to enter the places of pain, to the extent that I am able, both in the past and in the present.

Many of us, myself included, must learn to lament. For much of my life, lament was a foreign land, a practice missing from the mostly white American evangelicalism that has nurtured me. But through lament, as we talk to God about suffering, we ultimately place our hope in God’s redeeming work and love. Lament, as the Hebrew Scriptures teach us, probes the depths of suffering that is always inside God’s love. Yes, inside God’s love there is a place for suffering.

Practicing lament has helped me grow in habits of mind I want to pass on to my students, habits that can help us love our neighbors who have died and to love the sinners of great beauty sitting next to us in the classroom.  These dispositions include hope and humility, which includes a willingness to be identified with people whose actions I see as sinful.

February is the anniversary of the Dawes Act in the late nineteenth century that intended to remake Indian ways of life, disassembling tribal community and “giving” Indians inarable land to farm. Wheaton, IL, where I live, used to be land to which the Potawatomi belonged.  Today I lamented the reality that the authors and supporters of the Dawes  Act hurt Native people, both those who were Christian and those who were not.  I also talked to God about how many of those supporting the Dawes Act were Christians.

Lamenting the 1830s exodus of many Potawatomi from this land and late 19th-century civilization program of the Dawes Act requires humility.  I must not place myself above those who wanted to push Native Americans out of physical and cultural landscapes. As I tell my students, were I in the past as a white woman farming in Illinois or reading about the Dawes Act, it is unlikely I would have done differently than my peers. Our contexts are too strong, and human sin—both within and externalized in our systems—is too great. Like the prophet Jeremiah lamenting Israel’s destruction, I see the depths of sin. We, God’s church, have fallen short.  Because I am part of Christ’s body, I grieve our sin.

But, I place my hope in God, who works to redeem despite our sin and within our suffering. Despite the spotty witness of white Christians, God brought Native people to faith, and their testimonies and wisdom have enriched the church greatly. God is at work in the world, despite the sin that characterizes us all.

Humility and hope, fundamental to lament, when woven into the warp and woof of classroom life, can transform students, helping them to love more deeply. As Parker Palmer argued in To Know as We Are Known, our teaching should not be a process that teaches students to dominate their subjects, keeping a distance from them. Instead, our teaching should be an act of love that draws us close to our subjects, weaving a web of connection not only between us and those we study, but also between those in the classroom.  When, in humility, my students and I see connections between ourselves and those in the past, and when we marvel at the work God has done, we are weaving the web.  And we are in a position to listen to and learn from those in the past.

As we become people characterized by love, we will also develop the dispositions that enable us to join God in the work of restoring the perfect relationships that sin broke, relationships across time and space that exist between people and God, people and one another, people and themselves, and people and all of creation.

Karen J. Johnson

Wheaton College
Karen J. Johnson is an assistant professor of history at Wheaton College (IL). Trained in urban history, she works on the intersection of religion and race in the history of the United States. Her book One in Christ: Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice in Chicago is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2018. She teaches classes on the Civil Rights Movement, race and ethnicity in U.S. history, urban and suburban history, and methods of social studies instruction. She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a M.A. in Christian Thought from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.