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The absence of lament in Tanzanian Christianity as a missionary legacy

What is the Christian life about?

Is it about success, and victory? The emphasis of the Tanzanian church on prosperity often comes from a conviction that God wants wholeness for his people, and brings healing to them by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the blood of Jesus.

Or is it about service, and suffering? It’s commonplace in the Aussie evangelical church to preach that persecution should be an expectation of the Christian, and that the Christian life brings suffering with it, because we serve a crucified Messiah. (Whether we practice this is another issue.)

I suspect the answer is paradoxical: victory in suffering, success as service, or something like that. But depending on who you talk to, and what parts of the Bible they’re reading, the Christian life can be about very different things.

I read a fascinating unpublished PhD thesis from the year 2000 recently, by a Tanzanian woman who studied in Adelaide, the late Anastasia Boniface-Malle. From her context in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, she argued that one reason Tanzanian Christians have such a strong theology of victory is because they do not read the lament Psalms. This affects their view of God. He is too distant to lament to, and must be protected from complaint, so people are left with little recourse other than to turn to witchcraft, ancestors or mediums, or to imbue preachers with Godlike authority.

But here’s the kicker: Tanzanian religions prior to western missionary influence had strong traditions of lament. These frightened the early missionaries, who condemned them as signs of desperation and hopelessness inappropriate to Christians. Not only were African traditions of lament rejected, western embarrassment around lament generally meant they had nothing to put in its place, Christian or not. The Christian life was to be one of thanksgiving, and positivity, which was seen to be at odds with grief. Lament was given no place in Christianity in Africa, and people came to react strongly against it.

I questioned one of our colleagues about the lament Psalms. He agreed that thanksgiving is the appropriate attitude for the Christian, especially when before God. The lament Psalms have not been part of his church experience (in the African Inland Church), and he was very uncomfortable with the idea of bringing these kinds of emotions to God. When I suggested there may be overlap between African traditional religions, and the Bible’s laments, he said he could not comment: having been raised in the church, he was unfamiliar with these traditions, and there was little in his church experience that had given him familiarity with lament in the Bible. When pressed, he saw the issue with ignoring or overlooking (these) parts of the Bible in theory, but still suggested that we read the tone of anything that could be seen to be ‘complaining’ as instead wondering at the situation.

Boniface-Malle’s thesis examines the lament Psalms and bring them into dialogue with African lament traditions in order to enhance and illuminate reading of the Psalms of Lament. Whether the damage of the past can be undone remains to be seen, but what an important and possibly controversial work this thesis is! I don’t know what impact her recommendations have had on the ELCT but I wish it was published somewhere.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. I still find that despite the narrative of persecution in western sermons there is still a lack of lament. Dad once commented that when he was preaching lament psalms only one parishioner could name a hymn with the theme of lament … and that was an old one that was rarely if ever sung. We might talk about suffering but we never sing it. Of the psalms we mainly speak on the messianic psalms and not the laments (excepting the overlap of Psalm 22). And this besides the fact that laments comprise almost a third of the psalms and messianic psalms are only 5% or so.
    There is a part of me that thinks this adds to the difficulty some western Christians have with understanding pain, suffering and depression. If you deny pain, sadness and despair public expression then people can assume it has no place and hide it and might not learn how to deal with it theologically. This is a sad loss as we are certain to encounter such things in this broken world and it can either threaten or reinforce faith depending on how we respond to it. Laments and Job teach us to cry to the one to can and will deal with it, to ask and question our Father as a child, crying out for help amidst a situation we do not know, to seek help and hope when we have none.
    In my depression I find myself reading the laments, echoing their spirit in my own. It adds realism and need to the hope of the gospel, expresses the reality of the many trials that we must pass through before the kingdom, cries out for the hope of prophets and allows us to groan with the same voice as creation itself

  2. Great post, and wonderful comment Daniel! I remember preaching in Kampala in 2008. It seemed that in every message I brought I was speaking on their behalf in tones of lament to God. Like I was picking up their unspoken prayers and groans and voicing them….it makes me cry now to write that! The very first message I spoke there to an outdoor crowd was on Isa 61. Before the service the Holy Spirit definitely laid it on my heart to preach. I was sent at a strategic time for certain of those that were there, for 18 days. I think that the unspoken laments in the hearts of African people, unspoken because of skewed teaching, are a door that Jesus uses when He goes to them in someone who is willing to take up their lament and bring it to the Father. Many people were healed and born again during my time there and we baptised them in lake Victoria. One of the themes of the Holy Spirit was, “God has heard your cry and sent me to bring you to Him”.

    Exo 3:7 And the LORD said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows.

    God says He knows their sorrows…hears their shrieking cry for help.
    The root word for sorrows here means: to feel pain; by implication to grieve; figuratively to spoil: – grieving, mar, have pain, make sad (sore), (be) sorrowful.
    My guess is that for a long time before I went there those specific people were lamenting to God inwardly…where is the promise of your help!? Where is the strength of Y

  3. oops…Where is the strength of your love and power for me, why have you abandoned me?? Then God does send a deliverer and He does heal and save etc. The lamenting is integral part of the whole thing…and God says He knows it, the grief, the sorrow, the pain, the feelings of abandonment..He knows it because He is not far off but in each heart sustaining them in their suffering as one person with them…not afar off, but in their heart suffering with them. This is what I preached to them….I don’t think they had heard it before.

  4. Thanks for sharing! It is important for all believers to remember we need balance in our spiritual life, just like any other area of life. There is victory and lament, a season for everything, and we should follow the Spirit’s guidance to know when each is necessary – this is wisdom!

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