As I have noted before, I have a special love for the work of Professor Albert Raboteau. Today I would like to share with you a quote from one of his writings that deeply struck me when I first read it, and it came back into mind after I went with my wife to see that exceptional, awful and Oscar winning movie, Twelve Years a Slave. I thought I would share it with you today for your reflection during this season when we especially reflect on our call to co-suffer with Christ.
“James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, in a passage redolent with allusions to scripture, the spirituals and gospel music, eloquently captures the paradoxical history of suffering and triumph of slaves and their descendants. The novel focuses on one day in the life of John Grimes, a black adolescent in Harlem, who seeks to escape the squalid tenements, the racial oppression and desperate poverty of his people. On his 14th birthday John is cast down upon the dusty floor of a storefront sanctified church, “astonished under the power of God.” There he experiences the rebirth of a conversion experience. In his trance he confronts an army of people and is engulfed by a company of the suffering. Struggling to flee, he realizes there is no escape. And suddenly their suffering becomes a sound, a sound John not only recognizes but internalizes:
And now in his moaning … he heard it in himself — it rose from his … cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave … rage that had no language, weeping with no voice — which yet spoke now to John’s startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash … and most bloody, unspeakable sudden death. Yes the body in the fire, the body on the tree.
He struggles to flee, but there is no escape. He must go through this suffering of his people’s past to viscerally experience the paradox that it is precisely these wretched who are the chosen ones of God.
No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward, and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where the blood ran down … No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lion’s jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness and Abraham was their father. Moses had elected to suffer with them … Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness of time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses … And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.”