The African American Witness to the Sacred Gift of Life

by Albert J. Raboteau

a lecture given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002

On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, the congregation of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was busy preparing for Youth Day, an annual opportunity to honor the children by giving them roles in conducting the service. 16th Street Baptist had served as the rallying point for the civil-rights demonstrations that had drawn national, indeed international, attention to Birmingham in the preceding months. Protest leaders and city officials had signed a desegregation agreement just one week earlier. After Sunday school five girls stood checking their appearance in front of a mirror in the ladies room in the basement. One girl was fixing the sash on another’s dress. At 10:22 a.m. a tremendous blast shook the entire church. The bomb was so powerful that the outside brick and stone wall collapsed into the basement. Out of the rubble staggered 12-year old Sarah Collins, calling the name of her sister Addie Mae. Partially blinded and riddled with 21 pieces of broken glass, she was the only one in the room to survive. Four other children died: Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. As news of the bombing spread across the nation, and around the world, people of all races were moved to outrage by the tragedy. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his immediate response:

I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning. I think of how a woman cried out crunching through broken glass, “My God, we’re not even safe in church!” I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained glass window. I can remember thinking, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Where was God in the midst of exploding bombs? Our tradition, our faith, our loyalty were taxed that day as we gazed upon the caskets which held the bodies of those children. Some of us could not understand why God permitted death and destruction to come to those who had done no man harm.

One week later, King attempted to articulate meaning in the deaths of the four girls as he delivered their funeral oration:

These children–unoffending, innocent and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity… They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death… They have something to say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality. So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city… So in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

In his sermon, King sounded themes that echo deeply the history of African-American Christianity born in American slavery, a system that called into question any notion of the sacredness life and indeed the very existence of a God who allowed such evil to continue generation after generation for over three hundred years. Moreover, this American form of slavery fashioned a fatal link between slave status and the black skin color of Africans, thus creating a racialized slavery that subjugated Africans and their descendants as a subordinate race. From the start the Atlantic slave trade included incidents of brutality and horror, incidents that raised time and again the issue of the value of black persons’ lives. Incidents of such brutality and horror are difficult to imagine, much less comprehend: the violent separation of African persons from family, kin, homeland, all that made life meaningful; the unmitigated misery of the slave ships, the stench, the disease, the disorientation, and the brutality of the middle passage; the shock of their arrival on these strange shores, and the numb realization of their fate — slavery for life; followed by the exhaustion of relentless toil from day clean to after dark, the violent beatings, the continual fear of separation from family and loved ones, the destruction of the most sacred and tender relationships of affection, the never knowing when the rage, indifference, or caprice of white people might strike, leaving blighted lives and broken bodies. Let us not forget that our slave ancestors had to pass through a blood red sea, an ocean of despair, of hatred, of bitterness. Yet some of them miraculously traveled dry shod, amidst the waves, walking on the solid ground of hope and faith in God, hope and faith that enabled them to reject hatred and despair as poisonous to the soul.

Time and again, white racism as institutionalized in the systems of slavery, segregation, and discrimination forced American slaves and their descendants to wrestle with profoundly troubling questions, wrenched from their broken hearts: Why, Oh Lord, Why? or How long, O Lord, How long? They learned, however, that the meaning of such suffering can’t be found in the whys that demand reasons, rational explanations for the irrationality of evil. They learned that the pain of such suffering can’t be reduced to terms of time or duration. They learned that suffering is not a problem to be solved, but a reality that transcends our limited capacities to understand. They learned that suffering is a mystery in which we find the presence of God.

Discovering the Presence of God

Christian slaves knew from experience that this is a fallen world. They knew that the first murder was the slaughter of an innocent man by his own brother. They knew from the Bible that the story of Adam and Eve led to the story of Cain and Abel, which led in turn to the Tower of Babel, and on and on through Noah and the Flood — a trajectory of stories to show the way that evil begets evil and across generations incrementally corrupts the world. They knew the personal evil within the human heart and the systemic evil within human institutions that thrive on exploitation of the weak under the cruelty of the strong. “Where is God?” in the midst of all this evil the slaves asked. “It has been a terrible mystery to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people, and keep them in bondage — to be abused, and trampled down, without any rights of their own — with no ray of light in the future. Some of my folks said there wasn’t any God, for if there was he wouldn’t let white folks do as they have done for so many years,” confessed Nellie, a free black woman from Savannah, Georgia, speaking during the Civil War. Like the martyrs of all times and places down the blood stained centuries of innocent suffering at the hands of evil, they received their answer in faith. He is here; he is here in the bruised face and bloodied body. He is here in the very midst of our suffering, because God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son into the world to submit himself to its injustice and evil. Slaves knew that when they sang “I been buked and I been scorned” they were singing about Jesus as well as themselves. They remembered in their songs and prayers that He was delivered into the hands of wicked men. He was tried and condemned. He was beaten and mocked. He was hung upon a tree. “Oh, sometimes, I tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” All the suffering, he took upon himself. He took it and he bore it, every last bit — the burden not just of our mortality, but the burden of evil. He bore it all. And so redeemed it. Their suffering derived meaning in communion with his. “He have been wid us, Jesus. He still wid us, Jesus. He will be wid us, Jesus. Be wid us to the end.” It became possible for their suffering to become meaningful when they placed it within the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

“If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross daily and follow me.” Slaves profoundly identified with the Suffering Servant, the Crucified Lord. They took to heart St. Paul’s admonition to the Christians of Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Jesus became present to them in their suffering as the model and author of their faith. As one former house slave from Beaufort, South Carolina, explained to a missionary during the Civil War:

I could not hab libbed had not been for de Lord…neber! Work so late, and so early; work so hard, when side ache so. Chil’en sold; old man gone. All visitors, and company in big house; all cooking and washing all on me, and neber done enough. Missus neber satisfied — no hope. Nothing, nothing but Jesus, I look up. O Lord! how long? Give me patience! patience! O Lord! Only Jesus know how bad I feel; darsn’t tell any body, else get flogged. Darsn’t call upon de Lord; darsn’t tell when sick. But… I said Jesus, if it your will, I will bear it.

The sorrow and pain of their lives resonated with his, imitated his, joined with his. The presence of the suffering Jesus was the source of the redemptive power of slave suffering.

Redeeming American Christianity

Years ago, the black preacher, writer, poet, and university chaplain, Howard Thurman, made a profound observation about the providential role of slave Christianity:

By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” The slaves redeemed the Christianity that the slaveholders had profaned. What does it mean to profane something sacred? To desecrate it, to treat the sacred with irreverence or contempt. How did slaveholder’s profane Christianity — by racism, which degrades the sacrality of human persons, and by materialism, which values things over people and so effaces the image of God in which they are created. Contrary to the religion of those white Americans who believed that Christianity and slavery were compatible, the slaves bore witness, sometimes with their blood, to the truth of the gospel: That God had made of one blood all the peoples of the earth and that the law of love contradicted slavery and the racism upon which it was built.

Today we fail to understand how radical this gospel was. But black Christians of the late 18th century were among the earliest to make the case that slavery and Christianity were not only contradictory but that Christianity demanded the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery. American slaves were the paradigm, the test case, the key witnesses to the truth that Christian community extends to all peoples, all races, and that it extends fully, not partially depending upon the color of a person’s skin. So segregated pews, segregated graveyards, ministers of the gospel participating in the slave trade, the refusal of churches to recognize the permanence of slave marriages, their toleration of laws that forbade slaves to learn to read the very Bible that stood at the heart of American Christianity — all these deformations of Christianity slaves challenged.

Slave Christianity also challenged the nation to live up to the religious principles upon which it was founded: principles of equality grounded in the inalienable rights bestowed by the Creator. These rights belonged to all men, not just some. The slaves pointed out the failure of Americans to fully understand the principles they claimed constituted their identity as a nation. As early as 1774 slaves in Massachusetts sent a petition to the governor of Massachusetts: “We have in common with all other men a naturel right to our freedoms without Being deprived of them by our fellow men as we are a freeborn Pepel and have never forfeited this Blessing by aney compact or agreement whatever. But we were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from our dearest frinds and sum of us stolen from the bosoms of our tender Parents… and Brought hither to be made slaves for Life in a Christian land.”

Note the reference to “the cruel hand of power.” Slaves appreciated, through direct experience, the corruption of principles, of common decency, of basic humanity, that comes from wielding power, unchecked power, over other human beings. They realized the brutalizing effect of power upon those who hold it and upon those who suffer from its use. They stood as witnesses to the deep antipathy between Christianity and power. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” If the beatitudes delineate the character of the Christian community, the slaves represented so many bibles reminding a guilty nation of its failure to live up to this model. Indeed slave Christianity witnessed to the grievous sins of the nation, in the midst of the massive denial and the obstinate pride that prompted white people to think of America as the Promised Land and the Redeemer Nation despite the existence of slavery. No, the slaves said, America isn’t the New Israel; she’s the old Egypt. By witnessing to the failure of American Christianity, the slaves called Americans to conversion, to the possibility of redemption and offered a model of a different, an authentic Christian life.

In particular, slave Christianity revealed that Americans had a deeply flawed understanding of what it meant to be chosen by God. To be chosen does not bring preeminence, elevation, and glory in this world, as most 19th-century Americans expected. Indeed, as slave Christians well knew, to be chosen by God brings humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Choseness, as revealed in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen means joining company with those who suffer, the outcast, the poor, the wretched of the earth. Being chosen means entering the mystery of suffering. This was (and remains) a profoundly Christian condemnation of the nation’s dominant idea of American choseness. African-American Christians believed they were chosen because their history fit the pattern of redemption revealed in the Bible. In weakness lies strength, in loss, gain, in death, life.

“Under the Healing Wings of Suffering”

When Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman visited Gandhi in the 1930s, he asked them to sing for him the old spiritual “Where you there when they crucified my Lord,” which he felt got at “the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.” What Gandhi and many others around the world recognized in the spirituals that came out of slave suffering was the authenticity (what James Baldwin called “the matchless authority”) that comes, that can only come from suffering. Suffering stripped slaves of illusions. It revealed the bare fact of the human person’s total dependence upon God. “Trustin’ in the Lord,” not in oneself or in other men became their watchword. Life, indeed every breath, is grounded in God. Suffering led them to humility, to experience the condition of the broken heart. Poverty and poverty of spirit revealed the emptiness of human life and the emptiness at the core of the person. Out of that emptiness and poverty they turned in need to God:

Us niggers used to have a prayin’ ground down in the hollow and sometimes we come our of the field, between 11 and 12 at night, scorchin’ and burnin’ up with nothin’ to eat, and we wants to ask the good Lawd to have mercy…Some gits so joyous they starts to holler loud… I see niggers git so full of the Lawd and so happy they draps unconscious.

So remembered Richard Carruthers about the slave Christians, whose emptiness (down in “the hollow”) left room for them to be filled with God’s presence.

Suffering slave Christianity stood as a profoundly prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions, with getting and spending, and owning, of material prosperity and lording it over others. The slaves were rich; they were rich in spirit, not in possessions or status, and so they were inwardly free, while their owners were enslaved to the soul-killing pursuit of “earning their bread by the sweat of another man’s brow.” (Lincoln) The slave Christians, then, constituted a “spiritual aristocracy,” the only true aristocracy this nation has known, as Baldwin remarked. Where should one look for the authentic gospel in the history of this nation? In the suffering Christianity of American slaves.

There was no gap between what they preached and what they lived; compared to the hypocrisy required of slaveholding Christians, the evasions, the bad faith, the dishonesty that at least a few of them recognized. As John Brown, an escaped slave, noted: “It is a common belief amongst us that all the masters die in an awful fright, for it is usual for the slaves to be called up on such occasions to say they forgive them for what they have done. So we come to think their minds must be dreadfully uneasy about holding slaves.”

Slaves knew that at the end death equalizes all. Suffering and death await every person, master as well as slave, the rich, no less than the poor. Suffering and death can’t be avoided by any of the spurious means of escape that people devise to distract themselves from real life, from the fact of our radical contingency as creatures. Illusions of power, of wealth, of race, are blown away by the inevitable wind of death. This is the human condition. With what disposition did slaves meet it?

I know moon-rise, I know star-rise

Lay dis body down.

I walk in de moonlight; I walk in de starlight,

To lay dis body down

I’ll walk in de graveyard;

I’ll walk through de graveyard

To lay dis body down

I’ll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms;

Lay dis body down.

I go to de judgement in de evenin’ of de day,

When I lay dis body down;

And my soul and your soul will meet in de day

When I lay dis body down.

Redemptive Compassion: Reconciliation

The slaves felt that they belonged to the long line of prophets, martyrs, apostles, saints, and martyrs made up of those who did not simply talk about God, but performed his word. We might expect that their identification with the biblical children of Israel, with Jesus, and with the saints and martyrs of Christian tradition might have pushed them toward self-righteousness and racial chauvinism. Instead, it inspired compassion, for all who suffer, even upon occasion, for their white oppressors. Listen to William Grimes, for example, a slave who was unjustly punished by his master for something he hadn’t done: “I forgave my master in my own heart for all this, and prayed to God to forgive him and turn his heart.” Mary Younger, a fugitive slave, who escaped to Canada, remarked: “if those slaveholders were to come here, I would treat them well, just to shame them by showing that I had humanity.” Solomon Bayley, a slave, belonged to the same Methodist class meeting as the man who was attempting to sell Bayley’s wife and infant daughter. The slave admitted that it was extremely difficult “to keep up true love and unity between him and me, in the sight of God: this was a cause of wrestling in my mind; but that scripture abode with me, ‘He that loveth father or mother, wife or children, more than me, is not worthy of me’; then I saw it became me to hate the sin with all my heart, but still the sinner love; but I should have fainted, if I had not looked to Jesus, the author of my faith…” Former slave Laura Smiley remembered the response of a fellow slave to a beating by their master:

An’ old master come along, one of them [slaves] was there, having church ‘roun’ the tub, an’ he was down praying. An’ ol’ master come in, he jus’ a-praying, he come in, he did, an’ tol’ him get up from there. He didn’ get up, he jus’ a-praying. An’ the ol’ master commence to whipping him. He quit praying an’ then ask the Lord have mercy on ol’ master. Say ol’ master sure would hit him with a bullwhip. He’s holler have mercy on ol’ master. Until ol’ master whipped him an’ he kep’ — wouldn’ get up, you know, when a person hit you, you flinch. He just praying for ol’ master. Ol’ master step back and said, ‘I’m a good min’ to kick you naked.’ The nigger never did stop praying. He had to go off an’ leave him praying, ’cause he wouldn’ stop. Well that was through the Lord, you know. That cause that… Yes… the Lord suffered him to stay down there an’ get that whippping an’ pray. You know, jus’ keep a praying.

Where did this kind of compassion come from? Laura Smalley, William Grimes, Mary Younger, and Solomon Bayley give us a glimpse of the answer. They lived the incredibly hard lesson of compassion for all, as Jesus commanded it in the gospels:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And a little later in the same Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew’s gospel: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Forgive, love, impossible indeed for human personality unaided, only possible when we, as the slaves, allow God to suffer in and through us, so that our suffering is redeemed, transformed into compassion. Here is the core of African-American witness to the sacredness of the person: God preserves us from the brutalizing effects of suffering — anger, bitterness, hatred, and retaliation, so that we might show forth his love even to those who cause our suffering — an amazing grace indeed!

Trusting to the power of God, slave Christians rejected the vicious circle of returning hate for hate and refused to let evil efface within them the image and likeness of God. Suffering did not brutalize them. Moreover, they resisted the power of slavery to force them to internalize racism. Against the dominant racism that depicted them at best as members of an inferior race and at worst as animals, the slaves defended their humanity by stressing their divinely given dignity. “Dey would sing songs ’bout bein’ God’s children,” as one freed woman recalled. They believed God made them with a value that no slaveholder could erase.

Early in this century, a former slave, Nancy Ambrose, Howard Thurman’s grandmother, used to gather the black children of the neighborhood whenever she felt that their self-esteem had been damaged by the corrosive power of the racism that circumscribed their lives in segregated Florida. Drawing upon her own slave past, she told the children the story of a slave preacher who used to minister to the people on her plantation. He would preach a sermon that began with Genesis and ended with a vivid description of the agony of Jesus in the Garden, the pain of His Passion, and the glory of His Resurrection. By the close of his sermon, the slaves felt refreshed and exalted and the preacher felt exhausted. But before concluding, he always paused and carefully gazed into the face of each member of the congregation, as he declared as forcefully as he could: “Remember, you aren’t niggers, you aren’t slaves, you are children of God.”

Redeeming History

The faith of slaves in the sacrality of their persons and of their lives was not easy. By all accounts, the temptation to despair was strong. Yet they found grounds for hope in the Bible’s stories of God’s mighty deeds to save His suffering people, stories they then applied to their own history. The biblical stories became their story. Why trust that God would deliver them? Because he had, as the spirituals recounted, fit Joshua for the battle of Jericho, rescued Daniel from the lion’s den, saaved the three Hebrew children, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, kept doubting Peter from sinking beneath the waves, comforted weeping Mary in the garden, and freed Paul and Silas from jail. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Why not every man?” And, of course, the story of Exodus seemed to mirror their situation and their expectations exactly. As a slave named Polly explained to her mistress, who asked why she didn’t despair, “we poor creatures have need to believe in God, for if God Almighty will not be good to us some day, why were we born? When I heard of his delivering his people from bondage I know it means the poor Africans.” Addressing an audience of free and slave blacks in Philadelphia, some of whom had been born in Africa, the Reverend Absalom Jones, applied Exodus to the abolition of the slave trade to the U.S. on January 1, 1808:

The history of the world shows us that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage is not the only instance in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name. … He has seen the affliction of our countrymen, with an eye of pity… He has heard the prayers that have ascended from the hearts of his people; and he has, as in the case of his ancient and chosen people the Jews, come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.

The Exodus story took on the force of prophecy for American slaves who knew that God would deliver them though when and how remained hidden as yet from their sight. And so they prayed, trusting in the God who casts down the mighty and uplifts the lowly in His own time and miraculous manner. In the midst of suffering so bleak it seemed like despair was the only appropriate response, slaves kept hoping and kept praying for the day of deliverance to come. Clayborn Gantling, a slave from Georgia, recalled the sight of slaves “sold in droves like cows…white men wuz drivin’ ‘em like hogs and cows for sale. Mothers and fathers were sold and parted from their chillun; they wuz sold to white people in diffunt states. I tell you chile, it was pitiful, but God did not let it last always. I have heard slaves morning and night pray for deliverance. Some of ‘em would stand up in de fields or bend over cotton and corn and pray out loud for God to help ‘em and in time you see He did.” To twentieth century interviewers elderly former slaves insisted that prayer had set them free. Candace Richardson, a slave from Mississippi contended, “beatings didn’t stop my husband from praying. He just kept on praying and it was his prayers and those of a whole lot of other slaves that cause you young folks to be free today.”

Perceiving in their own lives the image of Christ’s suffering, Christian slaves believed that the victory of evil over good is only apparent. They believed that for those who bear the cross sadness yields to joy, despair to hope, and death to life. They believed and so entered into the mystery of their suffering to discover God. Their faith, proclaimed in song, sermon, prayer, was authenticated in the blood, sweat, and tears that served as the seed of the church for succeeding generations, as racism found new and more subtle ways to deny the full humanity of black people. And down the generations since emancipation, during the failure of Reconstruction, the creation of Jim Crow segregation, epidemics of lynching, race riots, intractable poverty and unemployment, the growth of urban ghettoes, the dismantling of social programs for the poor, the intransigence of institutionalized racism, African-American Christians have returned to the tradition born out of slavery for strength and guidance, as did King on that dark day of the church bombing.

On June 6, 1965 a new stained glass window was unveiled in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the worldwide outpouring of grief and sympathy that followed the deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the people of Wales had donated a new window to replace one of those shattered by the bomb blast. In the new window, the crucified figure of a black Christ was depicted, his left hand raised in protest and his right hand extended in reconciliation. The inscription beneath the figure read “You Do It to Me,” reflecting in light and color the meaning of the death of these four children and the meaning of the suffering of their ancestors: in their suffering Christ suffers. For in Jesus’ own words, “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Albert Raboteau teaches in the Religion Department at Princeton University. He has written several books including Slave Religion; A Fire in the Bones; Canaan Land ; and A Sad Joyfulness (forthcoming in the Fall). He serves as lay coordinator of Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Mission in Rocky Hill, New Jersey.