Recovering Justice through the Gospel

Prophetic Lament and Cultural Trauma post #2

The fallout from trauma and abuse is never clean. The initial impact is followed by aftershocks, as shame reverberates into the multiple layers of personal and collective reality. Soong-Chan Rah tells us that “suffering is endured by the entire community. It is a communal experience.”¹ Our reading of Rah’s Prophetic Lament, coupled with the examples of cultural and systematic abuses found in Grace M. Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow caused us to encounter the failures of our culture.² As we engage the trauma perpetuated by our society — be it through ideologies, politics, the justice system, or the church — we have witnessed how the white American mentality of superiority and exceptionalism has contributed to oppressive racial systems domestically and abroad, and we have begun to craft an understanding of the Gospel that hopes to defy the status quo.

On the domestic front, the belief in the superiority of whites is woven into the fabric of our country and causes widespread trauma among people of color. Alexander explains how the American justice system was designed and established to suppress the African American population.³ For example, illegal drug activity is equal across racial lines, yet studies reveal that African Americans and Latinos are arrested for drug crimes at rates astronomically higher than whites because it is assumed they are the source of our nation’s drug problem.⁴ Once in the system, they are relegated to a status of second class citizenship, struggling to obtain housing, employment, education, and voting rights.⁵ Decades of political propaganda citing a need for law and order has worked to erase any evidence of this reality, protecting whites and perpetuating the myth that as long as people work hard and remain upright and good citizens, they will succeed.

Cho powerfully describes the implications of American exceptionalism abroad through an examination of the Korean diaspora. The current American foreign policy displays the same arrogance and notions of imperialistic dominion as previous Korean occupations by Imperial Japan and the United States, and is characterized by ongoing abuse, control, and trauma. Today, 27,000 women suffer the consequences of sexual exploitation by “U.S. military personnel in the bars and brothels surrounding the ninety-five installments and bases in the southern half of the Korean peninsula.”⁶ In fact, American occupation “generates more money than the state’s annual budget,” and continues to propel a system which embraces “deeply seated linkages between prostitution, patriarchy, and militarism as an aspect of state violence.”⁷ These wounds, justified by American elitism, run deep into the collective body of the Korean people.

Ideally the American Church would be a prophetic voice and provide support for those oppressed by the devastating effects of white American imperialism and exceptionalism. But, on the contrary, the church has been a major player in establishing and perpetuating our current narratives and systems that lead to the horrific discrimination and violence against people of color.⁸ Rah describes how the white evangelical church in America embraces a triumphalistic theology that refuses to engage suffering and keeps them from lamenting over racial injustice.⁹ In fact, as American cities grew in racial diversity, white evangelicals intentionally fled the city in order to feel safe and comfortable, riding a narrative of fear to the suburbs.¹⁰ White evangelicals also joined the chorus demanding law and order rather than seeking support for the flourishing of every member of society. As a result, the grace of the Gospel is undermined and marginalized by those who confess it as their central tenant.

Rah, Cho, and Alexander call us to face the systemic racial injustices grounded in American exceptionalism, which springs from a belief that our country was established on Christian principles.¹¹ But the gospel contradicts exceptionalism and superiority and rather invites us to daily realize our common brokenness and receive forgiveness. Dividing society into the deserving and undeserving so as to reward the former and punish the latter will always lead to injustice. We are all undeserving from the perspective of true goodness, and we are all deserving from the perspective of our eternal worth before God.¹² Sin and grace level us all. Our common brokenness calls us to lament for our individual and communal failings, and the Gospel empowers us with unstinting, sacrificial compassion that heals us together.¹³ To restore justice we must shift our center from legalism to grace, from punishment to support. We need the Gospel to once again emerge as the life force of our communal dynamics.

  1. Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 101.
  2. Rah, Prophetic Lament; Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New, 2012).
  3. Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 40.
  4. Ibid., 126–127.
  5. Ibid., 158.
  6. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 34.
  7. Ibid., 106–107.
  8. Rah, Prophetic Lament, 48, 51.
  9. Ibid., 24.
  10. Ibid., 38–41.
  11. Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 12–13.
  12. Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 198–199.
  13. Rah, Prophetic Lament, 198–199.


Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New, 2012.

Boyd, Gregory. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Rah, Soong-Chan. Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.




"may the chiaroscuro … this mixture of sanctity and stupidity, of wisdom and vulgarity, which characterizes much of our existence … May this chiaroscuro not last forever; may we cease misunderstanding, thwarting thy intentions…" Barth, *Prayer*

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Chelle Stearns

Chelle Stearns

Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology

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