Authority, Community & Identity article

The Many Faces of Lament

Somali women stand at Mogadishu International Airport during a ceremony held to receive the casket containing the body of former Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Photo: Stuart Price / AU-UN

Emmanuel Katongole’s recent book is a profound examination and analysis of lament as peacebuilding method, theologically-driven epistemology, and politics of renewal in several specific East African contexts. This book follows on his previous work, The Sacrifice of Africa, in exploring in an extraordinarily moving way both the problems Christianity has wrought and the unique gifts that it has to offer the continent.

My reading of Katongole’s book took the form of a particular kind of call and response to his claim that lament and hope are each other’s “spine”—that they go hand in hand. That is to say, each time he began a new theme and chapter in this gracefully crafted exposition, I began to absorb, appreciate, ponder, but also challenge and question—“but what about…?,” only to find that he had almost always already prefigured my query to address it head-on in the next section of the book. (I will come to the “almost” later.)

For example, in articulating some of the contours and experiences of lament in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as well as among his interlocutors in Africa, Katongole first compels us to examine with him the Book of Lamentations, and in so doing, he demonstrates how lament, in that Book, becomes an anguished cry from the depths of suffering, and moreover one to which God never responds. How can this have anything at all to do with hope, one might ask, as I did? Katongole moves from the acknowledgement of unbearable pain—both individual and communal—to de- and re-constructing God as suffering with the people, especially those who suffer the most.  But how can we have any confidence that a silent God suffers with us? God, in this rendering, becomes an intimate and vulnerable rather than an all-powerful and hence somewhat distant deity. But does God-as-sufferer-with-us help, politically or theologically? Yes, because the very practice of lament—including the wailing plea for help, the critique of God for forsaking the sufferer, the demand that God hear and do something—requires risk; the risk that God is not what one thought, the risk of loss and grief of all that is known. All of this brings us to the risk of being called to help in the creation of something new. The new creation brings both hope and terror of the unknown. It also may never be fully realized, or realized much at all, before new reasons for lament occur. (This last point is something that Katongole could emphasize more, although he demonstrates it through the story of Maggie Barankitse, who is currently in exile from Burundi, thus demonstrating the ups and downs of deepening one’s faith in a “new creation.”)

The suffering with on the part of God, of course, finds its ultimate expression for Christians in the crucifixion of Christ. The passages in which Katongole’s interlocutors discover Christ’s solidarity with them and “excess of love” in their depths of hopelessness are extremely moving, but Katongole does not move to anything like comfort too quickly. Instead, he lets the reader linger with his interlocutors in the anguish, anger and even despair that they experience before—and eventually in tandem with—the rays of hope and the glimpses of new possibilities.

In Katongole’s telling, the Christ who suffers with us is the incarnation of God’s unbounded love for humanity, both individually and in covenant relationship with the “people.” Christianity, therefore, has something critically important as well as unique to offer: the God who, through suffering with, loves unconditionally and to excess. This in turn is what enables hope. The emergence into hope is also an emergence into something new—new political, social, theological and ethical constructs of being in the world.

What does this profoundly theological understanding of the politics of crisis in East Africa have to do with the political? Everything, in Katongole’s telling, because the book is also political exhortation, providing an ontology, epistemology and methodology that fuses politics and faith. I should note here that Katongole draws deeply on a wide, impressive and extremely inclusive range of theological and political sources (African, Asian, Latin American and western, female and male) to develop his unsettling and necessary challenge to political and spiritual complacency. He shows that, most of the time, neither the Church or Christians themselves—either within or outside of Africa—actually enact the love and willingness to walk the way of those who suffer on the continent that fully entering into the process of lament makes possible. Quite the contrary: there are too many who preach comfort through the prosperity gospel, or are content to be self-satisfied in their claims of faith. Katongole’s examples of lament and hope thus pose a critical, political as well as theological challenge to Christians, even as he finds the central promise of hope within the Christian message. His passages on how too many Christians have created a religion of self-gratification rather than risk are all too true of those living in the global north as well as those living in Africa.

One way of understanding Katongole’s work on the critical importance of lament is through William Connolly’s concept of “visceral register.” Yet, while important in some ways, I submit that Katongole shows that it is extremely limiting in others. Connolly’s work on the constant emergence of the metaphysical is necessary to acknowledge, but we should also recognize that it primarily works vis-à-vis a particular kind of Enlightenment mind whose ontological and epistemological orientations regarding human experience have become impoverished. Indeed, as Katongole shows, the lament/hope axis is much more than visceral. The forms of knowledge that derive from the at least partially unbidden insights and experiences of Christopher Munzihirwa, Maggie Barankitse, the poets and musicians of the DRC, and David Kasali, among others, are indicative of the constitutive nature of what Connolly might include under the visceral, but what Katongole deepens as the ontological and epistemological connection between suffering, love and indeed life itself. Whereas Connolly advocates the inclusion of the visceral in a discourse that has difficulty accommodating the metaphysical, Katongole’s point of departure is a practice – and politics – of lament that is fundamentally and simultaneously visceral, metaphysical and rational. This practice is part of the political ontology that the impoverished discourse still struggles to grasp.

Herein also, however, lies a considerable challenge for a rather large component of those who should be part of Katongole’s audience: humanitarians, peacebuilders, scholars of Africa, conflict, peace, and religion, who may or may not be Christians. This challenge recurred to me frequently while reading Born from Lament. It is a work that might suggest some (understandable) impatience with those who would reject out of hand the constitutive nature of the theological and the political—in Africa as well as in many other parts of the world.  Listening to people’s stories—especially including their theological constructs—is absolutely required, Katongole seems to say, to reach depths of understanding and insight about the ways out of conflict that one could never achieve by, for example, social scientific models alone.

Here, however, questions arise regarding the vast political differences within and across the African continent, the richly multi-religious nature of African societies, and the role of Christians and Christianity amidst the wide range of sufferings and non-sufferings present in the world. First, Katongole focuses on suffering and conflict, while rightly stating at the outset that it is imperative to transcend two simplistic narratives about Africa: that it is hopeless, or that it is “rising.” The first focuses on the need for others to intervene where Africans themselves allegedly cannot; the second resorts too quickly to neoliberal fixes for deeply colonial and post-colonial structural issues. Despite this extremely important insight, Katongole himself focuses more on the first narrative in his exploration, largely because of his long-term focus on the Eastern Congo/Northern Ugandan/Rwandan nexus. There are plenty of places on the continent, however, in which struggles occur but do not fit either the hopeless or rising narratives, and the suffering with hope of Katongole’s interlocutors may also not comprehend the daily lives of millions who get by with joy as well as problems, love and family and friends as well as suffering. The question is how we can develop theopolitical expressions of lives—within as well as outside of Africa—without replicating extremes of any kind.

Second, this wide range of experiences in Africa provokes the question of how widely Katongole’s deeply Christian message can resonate across the continent and beyond. The East African nations of Congo and Uganda are, perhaps, some of the more religiously homogeneous places on the continent, compared to, for example, Ghana or South Africa or Kenya or Tanzania or Cameroon. Moreover, the role of African or “traditional” religions and beliefs is frequently an integral part of the peacebuilding work done in Katongole’s narratives, yet it becomes subsumed as background to the Christian promise rather than fully interrogated. It is not only Christians who lament and hope.

If the excess love of the suffering Christ is what Christianity uniquely has to offer, is this knowledge for Christians alone, or should it be for non-Christians as well? And if the latter, what exactly is the message for non-Christians, including African Muslims, Hindus, those rejecting any of these as religions of the colonizers, and those practicing some form of African religious tradition, either as part of Christianity or Islam, or separate from them? It is not enough, perhaps, to engage in either apologetics or (even gentle) proselytism to promote Katongole’s message: we must also draw out the ontological and epistemological contributions of these different traditions of faith, worship, and practice, precisely because of the rich, active, and dynamic religious landscape of the continent.

I make this perhaps controversial assertion not because I “blame” religious “difference” for conflict, or because I see religious traditions as hermetically-sealed and neatly divisible. Quite the contrary. Following the spirit and example of Katongole, I want to know how Christians who have experienced the indescribable love of God in and through their suffering, and from it draw out unfathomable hope, can and should relate equally deeply with those who want the same things but are not and do not want to become Christian, or those who navigate their lives through a range of syncretic (for lack of a better term) practices and commitments. I want to know what understanding their processes of lament looks like.

At the end of the book, Katongole makes the assertion that the world has much to learn from African Christianity, and I heartily agree. I would enlarge this assertion, however, with and through the exploration above, to insist on how much African Christianity as well as African religiosity—through and in spite of the experiences of colonialism and both domestic and global structural inequities—have to teach the rest of the world, about commitment, solidarity, and hope, in the midst of both crisis and daily life.

These thoughts represent my own wrestling with Katongole’s impressive and challenging work, as well as my ongoing wrestling with humanitarian, neoliberal, and Christian presumptions. Katongole has taught us a great deal in this volume and has pointed the way to our learning even more, if only we open ourselves to the risks and challenges necessary to that process.

Cecelia Lynch

Cecelia Lynch is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. She is an expert on international relations, religion and ethics, social movements, and civil society, and has researched and published extensively on topics related to peace, security, international organization, globalization, humanitarianism, and religion. She co-edits the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog, at www.cihablog.com.