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Theology of Suffering and Celebration

My husband and I just attended a thought-provoking, challenging and potentially life-changing conference this weekend focused on the changing demographics and “mission field” on our very own doorstep. We heard from Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park Seminary and well-respected thinker in the world of Christian social action. Dr. Rah spoke of the theologies of suffering and celebration that mark different groups in Christendom. What I am sharing here are largely his thoughts gleaned from his study of other thinkers in this arena and their studies, but I write them because I am challenged by this and think that this idea should profoundly impact the Church.

Dr. Rah says that in the American, let’s say middle to upper class church, we see a theology of celebration while in the poor and often immigrant or non-white church, we see a theology of suffering. He makes the point that both are necessary to have a full understanding of the gospel. Christ suffered; he had to suffer. Christ also rose victoriously from the grave. One element without the other would not have been redemption.

The sector of the church that has a better grasp of the theology of celebration has something both to offer and to learn from the other sector of the church. We will not understand the sufferings of Christ as fully as those for whom suffering has been a way of life for generations. This is not to say that those of us in middle class America do not suffer–I know many, many dear people who have suffered greatly in their lives, but I would venture to say that this is largely an exception to the rule if you were to look at our suffering alongside that of the poor and oppressed. For the most part, those of us who live in the suburbs at a middle-class level have a good life, are provided for, do not face significant challenges to our safety and well-being. What is interesting that Dr. Rah points out is that there is a longing to understand suffering in this part of God’s church. You see it in our worship music–”this world has nothing for me…hungry I come to you…broken and spilled out…” As Dr. Rah says, the outsider looking in might say, “Really? This world has nothing for you? You have a nice home, a good car, stylish clothes, a job, abundant food. I would say this world has something for you.” But somewhere, there is this longing to understand. Unfortunately, I think, we do not recognize that we can begin to understand this part of Christ if we would turn to our immigrants, to our widows, to the poor and oppressed and ask them to teach us, if we would deign to believe that poverty of physical things does not mean poverty of spirit or mind or knowledge and understanding of Christ and His Way.

On the other side, in the immigrant/poor Church in the US, we see a longing to understand this theology of celebration or resurrection. Again, this becomes quite obvious when we listen to the gospels and spirituals, for example, that rose out of the time of slavery where songs spoke of “rejoicing in what the Lord has done for me.” Again, Dr. Rah points out that the outsider looking in might comment, “Really? What has the Lord done for you? You are a slave!” Yet, in the midst of a life of suffering, there is a longing to know and understand the theology of resurrection and celebration. One without the other is an incomplete gospel.

So, what do we do with this. I would suggest that we seek to learn from one another, that we recognize that we are one Church, one Body, and that as we seek to act justly and love mercy, we recognize that while we have much to give, we have much to learn and that in many ways, we have a poverty that we do not even recognize and that needs to be spoken in to.

Enough for now. More thoughts to come on the conference. I commend the works of Dr. Rah to you. I am eager to learn more from this dynamic speaker who has some difficult words for us. May we take them, test them against Scripture and then head those that align with it even when we do not like what they mean for us.

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