Prayer in America
Subject: Albert J. Raboteau
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in Fall 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Dr. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University and one of the nation's foremost authorities on African-American religious history.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
What are the origins of African religion in America?
The origins are multiple. Clearly African religions played an important role in the development of the religious life. Slaves this was their heritage and, of course, Africa is a continent not a country. So, it would have been a variety of African cultures from which the ancestors of the slaves came, and also, a variety of religious traditions, though within certain areas there were a great deal of similarities.
And those religions particularly of West Africa and of West Center Africa stretching from the Senegambia region to the Zaire River - River Congo and on into Angola were the major areas from which the ancestors of American slaves came. And while there are a great number of peoples in those areas, there were certain doctrines that were similar across the differences. One of those being that many of the African religions were religions of the powerful dead. That is the ancestors were seen as extremely important ongoing presences within the lives of Africans and one needed to make one's way in the world propitious by honoring the memory of the ancestors.Also gods were often divinized figures of the past and one needed to pay close attention to the gods and their spheres of influences when moved through life. So if one, for example, was to use an object made of metal, perhaps an ax or a machete, one would need to pay attention to the god of iron because that was his field. Or if one was concerned about childbirth, one would need to pay attention through prayer and sacrifice to the god of fertility, because that was her area of influence.
So one of the focal points of African religion was upon paying dues, as it were, to the powerful dead because there was a reciprocal relationship between those dead and living human beings. Their power and strength derived from prayer and sacrifice. And their power and strength could assist those of us who were living and on the earth. If that reciprocal relationship was not observed, was not preserved, and kept through ritual, then one's way in the world could go awry. Things bad things could happen to one.
Another area of similarity across African religious cultures that was influential in the Americas was prayer and ritual as a communal activity that involved the social body and that involved individual bodies. The powerful dead could become manifest, could come back and take possession of their devotees in ritual acts of dance and drumming and singing. And when they would come back and take possession of their devotees, they could announce problems and announce solutions to problems. So the spirits were embodied, literally embodied in ritual and dance and song within many African cultures. And that tradition was influential upon African-American spirituality, the spirituality of slaves.
So those would be two of the primary focal points that I would point to as areas of importance and of continuity within the religious life and within the prayer life of African-Americans - one being a reciprocal relationship with the divine and the other the embodied nature of one's relationship with spirit.
One of the areas that we've been trying to explore is the Protestantization of American culture and, of course, this is particularly true of all of these rich traditions you've just described when slavery moved into the United States. So what happens to these traditions given that kind of dominant Protestant culture?
Well, one of the factors that develops within the Americas, and I keep saying the Americas because we have to remember that slavery was a hemispheric event. And it's important to remember that not only for historical accuracy, but also for comparative purposes because the religious change that came about through enslavement in the Americas was different in British North America than, say, it was in Cuba or Haiti or Brazil. One of the differences, of course, is that the colonists, the European colonists in the Caribbean and Latin American slave colonies were Catholic; and, therefore, the Catholicism of those environments entered into a relationship with African religions which was different than the relationship that developed in the North American colonies, which were Protestant.
To give two examples, in Haiti and Cuba and Brazil the African-American religions that developed there developed with a strong emphasis upon the first focal point that I talked about, the celebration of the reciprocity between the powerful dead and the relatively powerless living. Now the reason that that was an important point of confluence was because Roman Catholicism on the popular level in those colonies was also a religion of the powerful dead, that is the saints. And so Roman Catholic colonists, whether from France or from Spain or from Brazil, were very used to thinking about their relationship with the divine world, the world of the spirits, as one that was focused upon saints, upon the Virgin Mary and upon saints. And the colonists entered into reciprocal relationships with these saints. They were patrons, they had feast days, they had realms of power, so if one was concerned about childbirth, for example, one would pray perhaps to the Blessed Virgin Mary or perhaps to her mother, Saint Ann. And there were a whole range of saints through the year that would be appealed to in order to assist human beings in their states, various states of need.
So there is a coincidence of meanings here between Roman Catholicism as a religion of the powerful dead and African religions as religions of the powerful dead. So you have, based on this coincidence of meaning, new religions developing, Candomblé in Brazil, Voodoo in Haiti, Santeria and Cuba, all of which are still alive and thriving. Some of them thriving in the United States now due to migration, in which African gods are identified with Catholic saints. So the Blessed Virgin Mary would become Yemoja, the Nigerian Yoruba god of the waters and of fertility.
Often these identifications were made based upon role; the Virgin Mary's picture carrying the child, Yemoja is god of fertility. The Virgin Mary was stressed in terms of icons and in terms of statues and clothes of white and blue. Yemoja's colors are white and blue because she is also the goddess of the sea. So this juxtaposition of the reciprocity between human beings and saints or gods or ancestors made it possible for Africans enslaved in Catholic colonies to find niche of identification with their religions, traditional religions in Catholicism. And North America, which was Protestant you didn't have the saints.
So Protestant - Protestantism had as Weber said, radically depopulated the spiritual world. And so the accommodation, acculturation that had to take place had to take place in a different environment of piety. And what Protestantism affords as coincidence of meaning was a ritual correspondence and that came about with development under the Evangelical revivalistic Protestantism, which began to sweep across the British North American colonies and some of the Caribbean colonies as well in the late 1730s and 1740s, identified with a figure like George Whitefield and a range of other revivalists.
And what Africans and their descendants found in revivalistic Evangelistic Protestantism of North America was embodied spirit, that is an openness to religious ecstasy where in revivals people would go into trance. People would act out their religious fervor through bodily exercises, as they would call it. In some cases people would dance how we dance, would laugh how we laugh, would fall out in trance, and this was a point of coincidence of practice with the African tradition of embodied spirit, of being entranced, of the divine world entering into the human through peoples' bodies and in that entering in creating a religious ecstasy.
And so for Africans and their descendents in North America this embodiment of spirit became the point of analogy with Evangelical Protestantism and this would continue in, well into the 19th Century and even into the 20th Century through Pentecostalism and other forms of ecstatic African-American religion.
So in the Catholic colonies this identification of Catholic saints and African gods made possible by the coincidence of both religions being religions of the powerful dead shaped the way in which Africans and their descendents related to Christianity, shaped the religious change that took place.
So if you look at Voodoo or Candomblé or Santeria, they're very African in ritual and the Catholic saints are present, but it's really the African gods behind the Catholic saints that are being worshiped and honored, with whom the reciprocal relationship takes place. With Protestant North America the identification of African religions and Protestantism took place in the context of the revivals. And it was a ritual identification so that the spirit that comes down to possess is not the African gods at least not by the time that we have documentation; it is rather the Holy Spirit of the Christian gospel. And yet if one looks at the choreography, at the dance steps, at the physical movements, that take place in the ritual called the shout, which we have descriptions of from the early 19th Century, the movements, the counterclockwise ring, choreography, the importance of the ring all of these are redolent of African styles of religious dance and trance.
And so there you have the ritual identification that's being made though the, in some sense, the theological presence here is the Christian God, the Christian spirit, which is as one former slave put it, accessed through ritual. The way in which the slave put it was, "it's not enough to talk about God, one must feel the spirit of God moving upon the altar of one's heart." Now, in part that's very Protestant, but in part it's also very African that God's power only becomes present when it's embodied, when it becomes manifest in the movements and gestures of human beings.
You talk about Black religion under slavery as being what you call the invisible institution. Can you discuss and explain that a little?
Black religion under slavery has sometimes been called the invisible institution because there was a dimension of African-American religion that was hidden, that was secret, that was invisible to the eyes of the master. And that is sometimes because religious services were prohibited in the quarters and the slaves would then steal away in order to obey God's command rather than the master's command.
Or there are times when it was invisible because the slaves wanted to pray with the kind of freedom that would have been dangerous if Whites were observing. That is, if they wanted to pray out loud for freedom, if they wanted to express their identification with particular sections of the Bible, such as Exodus, which would be viewed as potentially dangerous or threatening by the masters. There needed to be this hidden place often in brush arbors, which were aptly called hush harbors where the slaves would worship. There was even a custom of taking a cauldron and turning it upside down with the hope that the sound would be captured by the cauldron, a kind of a symbolic emblem to protect the secrecy of some of the services.
So, because of the situation of enslavement, the private place that was the slaves' piety, a piety that in essence was opposed to the piety of the master in terms of the issue of freedom and slavery had to remain invisible from the master.
So there's a disconnect here between this kind of public religion that you described, the kind of safe religion, and then the private practices.
There's a disconnect because it was often the case that the slaves would, at least those who were close to cities, would have access to churches with Whites, segregated in back pews or up in the galleries. And in some cases the masters would support slave preachers or White preachers to come and preach to their people, slaves on the plantations. But those public occasions would be supplemented or complemented by the invisible institution. That is, by slaves meeting to pray out from under the control of Whites that was always in the public arena.
What was the importance specifically of prayer in these circumstances? And what makes that prayerful experience really quite unique amongst spiritual expression?
For slaves the importance of prayer was crucial. And for all people, prayer, religious people, prayer is crucial. What makes it distinctive for those who are enslaved is precisely their enslavement and what that enslavement means in terms of their understanding of themselves and their understanding of God. And for the slaves prayer was a way of keeping a sense of hope that some day they would be freed, that God would free them. It was a sense of talking, dealing with the day-to-day oppression and the occasional brutality that they faced. It was an occasion for a religious ecstasy, which would take them at least for a moment of transcendence out of the often-bleak situation in which they lived. It was an occasion for them to on a very deep and basic level to reinforce their sense of value and of worth.
Now, it was very powerful for slaves in part because of their condition that they had nothing. There's often a comment that's made about prayer which is that, those who really trust in God are often those who have nothing else or no one else to trust in - the old adage from war that there are no atheists in the foxholes. Therefore, their condition was one in which trusting in humans was not something that made much sense to them. Trusting in God is what seemed to them to be the only source of hope and a sense of providence that would some day take them out of the brutal conditions in which, they - they lived.
Now, we can see this very directly in the power of the story of Exodus for slaves. And the story of Exodus I think points out the difference between the piety of slaves and the piety of the masters. Exodus, of course, was an old theme within American religious culture. The European colonists thought of themselves as having left Egypt and crossed the Atlantic Red Sea and entered into the Promised Land. For slaves that image is, of course, that narrative is reversed. For them they have been enslaved in Egypt, and so America isn't the Promised Land, but is a land of bondage and enslavement. And they found in the Exodus story, therefore, a story that had for them a huge impact and a different impact because they were located in a different part of the narrative. They were not in the Promised Land; they were in Egypt. And the story became real for them not just as something that they heard, or preached about, but as something that they enacted in ritual.
So in the ring shout that I mentioned when the slaves would move around a circle and with hand clapping and counter clapping, beat out the rhythm of forbidden drums, and with repeated snatches of singing in narrative, time and distance would collapse and they would dramatically reenact the trials and of ancient Israel. So, like the children of Israel they would stand at the Red Sea and see the waters parted. Like the children of Israel they would march dry-shod across the river, the seabed of the Red Sea. You know, like the ancient Israelites they would march with Joshua around the walls of Jericho.
So that narrative became for them embodied in the religious ecstasy of their services so that they, they literally became the children of Israel. And out of that reenactment, out of that sense of being God's darker Israel in this nation, they found a communal identity. They found a sense of worth and they found a sense of hope that God would some day free them just as he had the children of old Israel from bondage in Egypt.
I'd like to talk about the music in particular, and one of the areas I wanted to explore with you is the spirituals. Can you start with a general explanation, a description, what are spirituals?
Spirituals were the religious songs of slaves. Sometimes we think slaves only sang spirituals, but they had what some folks would call seculars as well. That is, songs that were not particularly religious. But the spirituals were the extemporized songs that the slaves communally constructed. In many cases the songs would be made up of snatches of popular hymns, choruses that from hymns, that would be taken and repeated as a particular slave or different distinct slaves would extemporize verses. And sometimes these verses would apply very directly to situations or events or occasions that happened in their day-to-day lives.
The spirituals musically were described by a few people who had musical training and tried to write them down as almost indescribable and it was very difficult to note the tones, the slides, sometimes called weird and mysterious quality of the spirituals. And I think there, some of these early attempts to describe the spirituals were striving to get at what was clearly African derived kinds of musical - musical styles.
The spirituals were often not just song, but were sung as part of a prayer service. And, again, the singing would often involve hand clapping, drumming upon on the thighs, on parts of the body, upon, the tapping and beating of feet, sometimes on wooden floors, and would involve, again, movement. So that we often should think of the spirituals not simply as concert pieces, you know, sung spirituals which would come about later in the late 19th and early 20th Century, but as dynamic again, embodied, you know, head shaking, foot stomping kinds of music in which the entire body was involved and which did not, what was not split up into a soloist, but often was combined creation of a group of people.
And so the spirituals became what the Dubois would call it the, you know, the outpouring of the soul of Black folks. And Dubois of course in his in his great text, Souls of Black Folk would look at the spirituals as one of the primary contributions of America to world culture and in a marvelous print, on the print on the page at the beginning of each chapter he would juxtapose a text from a European American or European poet or philosopher, a piece of poetry, and then beneath that a bar of music from the spirituals indicating that this was the contribution of Black slaves to the culture of the world, which can stand any comparison with the culture Europeans.
Are there any spirituals that stand out to you in particular being in relation to the Exodus or others that you might identify as having a particular resonance?
Yes, you know, "Go Down Moses," of course, which is attached to, you know, the Exodus story is a powerful one. "Right on King Jesus," which is spiritual evidence, was sung during the Civil War and had implications for hopes in the slaves for a victory of the Union armies as another. "Steal Away to Jesus" which was, we know was used as a code for announcing secret prayer meetings among the slaves is another. There's one that I love called "Lay This Body Down. I go to the graveyard in the evening every day to lay this body down," which has a kind of a, and a statement of sorrow, of the reality of life, that we're all going die, slave or master. No one escapes, escapes death, and a calm beauty about that statement which really suggests the wisdom that the slaves were able to squeeze out of their suffering. That they not only endured suffering, but they found a deep humanity and a wisdom in that suffering. And that suggests a whole aspect of Christianity that is, Christianity is a religion, of course, born in suffering and the suffering of Christ and his death and his resurrection.
If the suffering is slighted, if one becomes too comfortable with the, if the Christianity is the Christianity of the powerful and rich, then something is being lost. And the slaves I think were well, were well aware of that. This gets back to the point that I began with that is there is something about the experience of suffering that gets at the heart of Christian prayer and the Christian gospel and without suffering there is no resurrection.
Expand on that a little bit - universality and suffering and the resonance and this kind of getting to people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Can you kind of tie in that kind of historical pattern there?
The suffering was not only noticed by Dubois as the source of the sorrow songs and, therefore, this dimension of African-American culture which speaks to the world. But it did speak to the world. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers took the spirituals to various parts of Europe and even of Asia, they were tremendously popular and there was a sense in which this music with its, got to the heart of people, many of whom didn't understand English, but who knew about slavery and who knew that these singers were, were the children and grandchildren of slaves, were conveying the music that had come out of that experience.
Gandhi got at this very well when he asked Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman to sing for him, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," which was one of his favorite spirituals. And he, they sang that and he said, that spiritual gets at the heart of human experience under the healing wings of suffering. With Martin Luther King that whole tradition of the suffering Christianity, of the slaves is alluded to in speech after speech and sermon after sermon. When he talks about the suffering being redemptive, he's talking about it not only in Gandhian terms, but he's talking about it in Christian terms that somehow suffering is, is at the, the core of Christianity and that Christians, live under the sign of the cross. That Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ and that suffering, therefore, is something that Christians and Christianity accepts as the reality of life that one must, one must go through.
To put it in a slightly different idiom, one cannot escape suffering no matter how much money or how much power one has. Suffering is part of what human life is about and to attempt to evade it would mean to lead a life that was a lie. That one would lead a life that has a certain amount of emptiness. One would lead a life; lead a life that is ultimately not mature. Baldwin talks about this quite powerfully in that the attempt to evade death and suffering by power, by wealth, is a sign of an immature society, a society has not really - is not really grown up.
Within Christianity the tradition of martyrdom has been a crucial notion. The notion that the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith. And that comes back again and again in the history of Christianity. Comes back in persecutions not just in the ancient world, but persecutions in Eastern European under ah regimes, and comes back, I would submit, in our country in slave piety. That is if one wants to look in our country, where does one find the tradition of the martyr, the confessor, the confessor being one who suffers for the faith? The, the incidence of that in our country's history is the religion of the slaves.
When we spoke to Dr. Harry Stout yesterday, he spent a lot of time looking at Lincoln during the Civil War. Can you talk about Lincoln?
A colleague of mine Davis Wills once made a comment that I thought was particularly profound on these matters. He said that with Abraham Lincoln we had the first and probably the only president who actually came close to the theology of the slaves. If one reads the Second Inaugural Address in which Lincoln doesn't blame the South for the war, looks at the war as an act of divine judgment upon the nation for the sin of slavery and talks about the possibility that every drop of blood drawn by the lash may be paid for by blood shed by the sword, one comes close to, to an understanding of the slaves' notion of what the moral cost of slavery was for this nation.
And then when he ends the talk with that beautiful conclusion with, with malice towards none, charity towards all and with his notion of let us respect the decisions of God as righteous all, all together. Again, these are, these are terms, resonate deeply with the piety of African-Americans, African-American slaves. So without a doubt I think the Second Inaugural, which the first time I read it at the Lincoln Memorial I just broke down crying, is the most profound statement by any American president of the deeper meaning of American history. So however he came by it, perhaps because of his own profound sense of suffering, which can be seen in his face in those Matthew Brady photographs, and in stories of his life, he came to a realization, a profound realization about the meaning of history and the most profound understanding of the meaning of the Civil War.
It's a common observation that you've got the North and the South using religious justifications for the war. You've got slaves and slaves' owners praying to God. How do you in your mind account for that disconnect?
Lincoln in the Inaugural Address says both sides read the same Bible and both sides prayed to the same God. He could not, you know, he cuts through that notion of God being on our side and says no, we stand under the judgment of God, that we shouldn't seek to align God with our side; we should seek to align ourselves with divine providence. So that slight adjustment of attitude I think that Lincoln perceives is one that has a profundity which too often gets forgotten; that what people want to do in prayer is really to control God to do what they want rather than in prayer seeking to open themselves to what God wants and open themselves to understanding the profundity of God's ways, which are often much more rich, much more surprising, much more generous than the, that we have planned for ourselves.
Please expand upon that and the concept of the Exodus and Children of Israel.
The Exodus and Children of Israel concept had great importance, as I've suggested, for the slave sense of history, you know, for the future, and of divine providence that would someday off in that future, free them. Though the where and the when they did not know.
There's one statement by a former slave which has always moved me. He describes how he had seen slaves being driven like a, like animals by drivers off to sale. And how he had seen slaves stand up in the fields in the heat and the suffering and prayed to God that that they would be delivered. And then he says, and you see now your children are free. He says so you see that their prayers have been, have been answered.
So there's that long kind of sense of history. There also, of course, was an immediacy about this sense of Exodus. That is, about Exodus as freedom from sin and from the selfishness and difficulties of day-to-day life, as well. And so often the spirituals and the image, Biblical images are referring to the Christian's individual life journey. And in the liturgies of the Hush Harbors it's not just a matter of preaching about these but, again, returning to that notion of power by moving upon one's heart.
What's being enacted here is moving slaves towards the experience of conversion. For many slaves Evangelical Protestantism is the form of Christianity that they know, that they are meeting. And, therefore, the experience of conversion is very important to them. There's a wonderful book called God Struck Me Dead which are conversion experiences of former slaves. And they're often very visual, in which the person actually travels to heaven or travels to hell, or sees Christ, or sees God. And these conversion experiences are peak experiences in the lives of these people. Many, you know, at old age they can remember in great detail the moment and the experience of conversion that they went through as children or as young adults.
And, one of the things that's fascinating about these experiences is that, out of the experience of conversion comes this tremendous sense of value, that I am of value as a child of God, and I am of ultimate value because of my acceptance, you know, by God. So for the slaves, the conversion experience is made real for them, a sense of their own personal value as, of ultimate value in God's eyes.
And, there's also something very interesting about the conversion experiences because, of course, the conversion experience is a common grammar with white Evangelicals. And there, there's one account in God Struck Me Dead, where a slave named Mort is out in the field plowing corn and he suddenly is struck dead as he, he enters into trance, and undergoes this conversion experience. And, hours pass, and eventually he gets back to the barn with the mules, and the master is there and asks him, you know, what happened, where were you? And he tells him of his conversion experience. And he remembers that the master begins to cry. He's reduced to tears by Mort's account of his conversion experience. And the master says, "Mort, I want you to preach before my family and before the people."
So, the following Sunday Mort stands up in front of the white folks house on a plank that's stretched between two chairs and he preaches. And he says, "I reduced them to tears by telling them of their being chained to sin." And we don't have any further reflections on that, but one wonders what the slaves watching this must have thought, seeing a fellow slave of, a member of their community reducing the master and his family to tears by talking to them about their enslavement to sin. So, the common grammar of faith here could have some amazing dimensions in terms of this conversion oriented Evangelical Protestantism.
Do we see any manifestations of this today?
I think one sees the ongoing legacy of the power of common texts such as Exodus, or the common civic religion grounded in the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's Second Inaugural. Or in the common sense of morality stretching across a number of religions. Or in the very specific conversion experience of Evangelical Protestantism.
One can find that in one example, of course, the Civil Rights Movement which was represented at least by one wing of the movement, SCLC, as a revival to save the soul of the nation. That terminology is Evangelical and Protestant, you know, code language that sees the Civil, saw the Civil Rights Movement as not simply a political movement, but as a moral movement, indeed, the moral movement of the, of that era, of that period. And, therefore, all of these old texts had in, when King talked at the March in Washington about, standing in this here, you know, assembled, here in the shadow of, of Lincoln, or, you know, concludes within the, the words of the old slave spiritual, you know, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last. That's a conflation of an amazing set of allusions to the civil religion, to Evangelical Protestantism, to the tradition of African American suffering, slave spirituality, to the kind of, of goodwill and benevolence of people, good people everywhere.
All of that is being, was being wrapped up in the oratory of King and others in the Civil Rights Movement. Where one finds that today I think is more problematic. There is a sense, of course, of religious rhetoric being used by many on the political scene. And it's often problematic because many people see it as being used in a divisive and in a partisan way, rather than, than in a way that appeals to some transcendent, kind of, kind of moral cause.
There's a sense I think of many, that many people have that religious symbols and language are dangerous because they can be misused for partisan, partisan causes. One does see, though, movements where prayer, spirituality, religion remains a powerful source of meaning and of motivation for social justice issues some of which go back into the 19th Century, the 20th Century, excuse me, into the 1900s.
One looks at a movement, for example, like the Catholic Worker Movement that has more houses now functioning than they did at the height of Dorothy Day's life, to see an example of the people who were working for peace, and for justice, and working among the poor for religious reasons. One can look at a number of communities across the country that have intentionally formed interracial communities for religious reasons. Harkening back to groups like Koinonia and in the 20th Century, back in the 1930s that were, that were doing this.
One can look at organizations such as Industrial Areas Foundations which in the southwest in particular have assembled people of religious faith to work on very local organizing to create better schools, to create job training opportunities, to deal with very basic issues that people are struggling with. And some of that background goes back to Cesar Chavez and the Farm workers Movement with its religious base.
So there are strands that come out of the 20th Century that have moved into the 21st Century that are I think preserving and continuing, revitalizing ought to be a better word, the idea of religion in prayer and liturgy as a source of moving people towards working for social justice. But there's also I think a suspicion of what's sometimes perceived as a cheapening of religious rhetoric for partisan political purposes on the national level.
How is prayer in particular linked to social justice issues throughout American history?
Prayer as tied to social justice activism has a strong tradition within America. I teach a course regularly here at Princeton called Religious Radicals which attempts to look at figures like Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, A. J. Muste and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thomas Merton, Cesar Chavez, John Perkins and the Voice of Calvary Missions, the Sojourners Movement particularly in its early days as a community, and a number of other figures.
Ultimately that tradition goes back to interpretations of Biblical texts. Usually I begin the course with having students read excerpts from Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos in which the prophets stand, to some extent, over opposition to the priests in terms of sacrifices. I, you know, speaking in, thou sayeth the Lord, I don't delight in your sacrifices when you are oppressing the widow and the orphan, when you are not taking care of the poor. So, the intuition that comes out of the prophetic books, of what Heschel calls a divine pathos, that is that God, that the prophet, his bones are on fire with the divine pathos. God cares for those who are oppressed, those who are unprotected. And a critique of a piety that can ignore that, that can go hand in hand even with the, with the oppression.
We then in the course look at some precedence in 19th Century America including Lincoln's Second Inaugural, but also including figures like Benjamin Woolman Quaker Anti-Slavery figure, figures like Thoreau and Gandhi's correspondence with Tolstoy. And these are figures that keep recurring in, on the American scene as precedence as well as the Biblical verses.
So there is a, there is a stream within prayer that goes all the way back, at least in the Jewish and Christian traditions, to the Biblical texts with this strong theme. You can see it in the Christian gospels and the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 25, as long as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. This theme that prayer and worship cannot be divorced from a concern for those who are impoverished and those who are suffering. The early bishops in the, in the Christian, Christianity by the 4th Century had received the title or were being referred to by the title as Lovers of the Poor. Their tradition of social justice and of relating prayer to the poor is there in the ancient church. You find some saying what good is it to have gold on the altars and expensive vestments if your brother is impoverished and without food and shelter. I believe that Saint Basil the Great who even talks about if you want to see the, if you want to see the altar, if you want to see the altar of Christ, look at your brother who is lying, you know, in the alley, you know, hungry and without, without decent clothing.
So the sense of a connection between worship and awareness of those who are suffering, the liturgy after, the liturgy being social action is an ongoing theme within Jewish and Christian history.
What is the Gospel of Wealth? Has it changed over time?
The gospel of wealth which, which goes back certainly into the 19th Century in this country, with people defending wealth in part because it enables them to be charitable towards the poor, has found, you know, ongoing reincarnations. The most current of which, are a number of televangelists. And seemingly has a large-scale appeal, at least, in terms of the folks that seem to be flocking to some of the mega churches that a number of these televangelists pastor.
For me this gospel of wealth really is an abandonment of what I spoke of earlier as the suffering dimension that Christianity. It's to, to look at suffering as strictly an evil or a sickness, that one avoids by prayer. And that if one does suffer impoverishment, or illness, or some other deprivation, it's a sign of lack of faith on the part of the person who was suffering it because obviously God wants to draw us out of any of this and to have us prosper. To me that's a distortion of a major aspect of Christianity and of a tradition of understanding what Christian prayer is. And it's in many ways, I think, a way of ensuring people that the gospel of consumption, consumerism is not only okay but is the true gospel. And for me that ultimately is a recipe for despair because it's a gospel that says that we have no needs that cannot be fulfilled. And that those needs, unfortunately, are going to lead to a new set of needs which can be fulfilled, and then a new set of needs which can be fulfilled. And, which is a spiral of need and gratification, need, gratification, which ultimately leads nowhere.
Can you describe the way the theme of suffering moves across other dimensions of African American culture?
The theme of suffering moves across other dimensions of African American culture into gospel, into blues, into jazz. One short way of seeing this movement is to read James Baldwin's, Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, autobiographical novel. And the concluding section of that novel, which is called The Threshing Floor in which the protagonist, this 14-year-old boy, John Grimes, on his 14th birthday undergoes a rebirth and a conversion experience on the, on the threshing floor. And to compare the passages in that chapter with, the closing pages of Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and you'll see the theme of suffering, first in the Christian idiom, actually using allusions to Biblical verses, gospel songs, spirituals in Go Tell It on the Mountain, and then in a secular idiom in Fire, A Fire in the Bones.
It's striking to see the differences and the similarities. It's like a transposition from one, from one, tone into another by Baldwin. I think Baldwin was very, was, you know, while he had left the church, you know, by the time he wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain he understood the beauty and the power of the religious culture of African Americans to get at something very basic in the human experience, which he then talks about in secular mode in his essays, including, the essays in The Fire Next Time.
One way of thinking about it in, in terms of blues is that the blues idiom in tonal ways expresses a certain esthetic, what they call the blues esthetic. And life as it is, life in a minor key. That's the blues esthetic. That life as it is, is life in a minor key, life occurs in a minor key, occurs in a, under the blues tonality. And that's the transposition, I think, that gets made into secular literature and into, into blues music and to some extent into, into jazz. If one listens to John Coltrane's, Love Supreme, for example, that's, that's profoundly religious music. Though, without any, you know, religious ostensibly religious reference to it in terms of suffering and the love and transformation that can come out of suffering.
If one listens to, to the blues tonalities, there's often no resolution to the blues other than the blues themselves. That is there, it doesn't appeal to a transcendent solution, but says that the ability to express life as it is in an artistic manner through the blues, by playing the blues, by singing the blues, is a way of kind of fingering the jagged pain of memory, or the jagged pain of experience. And transforming it through the art of simply signing about it, talking about it, singing it. But it, it is also a strong statement that no one escapes this. You can't evade it. You can't evade it by addiction of various sorts, or by, by wealth, or power, or money.
So we've mentioned musical manifestations. Are there any other examples that you equate to the popular culture or artistic culture where you could say, that's a prayer?
Several people have talked about Woodstock as a religious experience. I was at Woodstock and it, for me, it was not a religious experience. For me it was, it was a lot of crowd, a lot of mud, and a very, very far, distant, distant stage. And it took a long time to get out of there. But, I think I know what people mean. That we search for transcendence. That there is within, within the human heart a desire for transcendence, a desire for something that moves us out of ourselves to a deeper or higher reality whatever image one wants, wants to use. And that, part of, actually, I think, the consumerism about which I've been so critical is that it also is based on a desire for transcendence. But is, is precisely the, the wrong way to go about trying to fulfill that desire for transcendence because it can't, it can't fill the emptiness, because the emptiness is on a different level than the level of possessions or the level of consumption. It's really on the level of, of empty, of self-emptying, so that one can be filled by something much greater than oneself. In religious terms be filled with the presence of God, the power and the spirit of God.
Transcendence can also be looked for in, in various drugs, in alcohol. It's not accidental, I think, that Carl Jung wrote a letter to Dr. Bill in which he said that the basic issue of alcoholism, without dealing with this issue could not be cured, is the desire for spirit. In many ways alcoholics are some of the most spiritual people that one wants to meet, in part because their, their disease is an attempt to answer this deep thirst for, of the spirit, for the spiritual. And unfortunately the bottle does not, not the way to find it.
Any addiction, sexual addictions, other addictions, I think, are often based in this, in this fundamental need for, for some, this, this desire for transcending. Some drugs, some music all of this is frequently based on, you know, a profound need to, to transcend, to have, to be taken outside of yourself, which is the literal meaning of ecstasy. To be taken outside of yourself or, at a lower level, to numb the fact that, that one is suffering, that one is in pain, and that there, there seems to be no way outside of that.
Looking at contemporary prison initiatives, what is your opinion of the role of prayer in spiritual transformation?
There are now prison initiatives that are attempting to incorporate the notion of spiritual transformation into the rehabilitation of, of prisoners. That rehabilitation's not, not enough, that there needs to be real change of the heart. And so they are working in prisons through Bible study programs, through mentoring programs, to, through prayer, prayer programs, to reorient the prisoners lives and to introduce them to narratives of former prisoners or contemporary prisoners who have undergone conversion experiences, to show them the possibility of narratives of transformation, of changes of the heart. And then, once they're out of prison, to try to decrease the recidivism rate by integrating them into church attendance, into mentoring programs that will help them, find jobs, and will support them, you know, afterwards.
So, this endeavor, I think, is a conscious attempt to get at, again, this deeper need for transcendence that we've talked about as evidenced in the lives of people whose, who have gotten into difficulties with the law, and are attempting to turn their lives around, which is what conversion means.
What is civil religion, particularly as it relates to the American culture?
Civil religion is a nebulous term, in part because civil religion is a very multifaceted and generalized reality. And there's no church of, of civil religion, but it does have institutional forms and cultural forms. And basically civil religion is a looking at this nation as being, peculiar, as having a particular, privileged or blessed destiny under divine providence. In some periods that destiny has been very chauvinistic, you know, that this is a redeemer nation meant to spread democracy and Christianity around the globe. Other periods it's been, it's been more muted, but it's an understanding that coalesces around a series of images and tropes. One of them is the one of Exodus, that one of the earliest tropes for immigration of Europeans to America, from the Puritans on, is the notion that this is a promised land. The old, the howling wilderness kind of aspects of it gets replaced by, you know, this being a promised land, and that what we are about is constructing a city upon a hill, you know, that is a new Jerusalem, that will be a model, a model to the nations.
And so one can run through a whole series of texts of the Presidential inaugural addresses that play the changes upon, upon that theme. Sometimes it's less biblically oriented and more civically oriented in terms of the institutions of republican forms of government. So, the Declaration of Independence becomes a kind of a sacred document, which is on display as, not just a curiosity, but an object of veneration almost. The Civil War, it becomes the, the great trial, the great, you know, moment of purification, of the nation. Therefore, Lincoln becomes a major figure in the, this kind of pantheon of the civic religion along with Washington and Jefferson and some of the other founders.
The Gettysburg Address, you know, would be another one of the documents that is part of the cannon of the civil or civic religion. The second inaugural also would be one. Some of the forms, ritual forms are things like Memorial Day which used to probably have more, you know, pious meaning than it does today when people would actually, you know, visit graves and it would be, you know, parades and other forms of ritual observing, observing the day. Thanksgiving is still one of those feast days of the civic religion. Voting is a kind of ritual of it. The inauguration of presidencies is one that often calls for the language of the, of the civic religion.
But the basic, the basic concept of the civic religion is that America is exceptional and Americans are exceptional; that we are particularly blessed nation in that we have, we have a moral responsibility in terms of preserving freedom and the democracy and to some extent, you know, a Judeo-Christian identity.
How have American presidents have used prayer and why?
Presidents have used prayer of, there have been frequently prayer breakfasts at the White House. Billy Graham was, you know, often a significant figure at such prayer breakfasts or, you know, in, as an unofficial advisor to various presidents. The sense of the president, you know, going to church, you know, something that is newsworthy, that's good, and that's observed by the press. The fact that we have a chaplain in, a professional chaplain who leads meetings of Congress with a prayer. All of these are, are evidences of a kind of religious overtone in the nation which quite different if one compares the secularism of, of many European states.
The notion that that many people have that that this is a Christian, a Christian nation is still a very, very powerful. And the longing for the time when this was a Christian nation. I was, I was tempted to ask when was that? But that aside, many people do have the sense that we've, that this was a Christian nation, is a Christian nation, or should be a Christian nation. So there's, there has been this, this inner, intertwining of religion, you know, with what in many societies would be seen as secular institutions, as secular occasions. That is, you know, part and parcel of American history and American identity.
Part of the reason why civil religion is so hard to define is because religions of various sorts can get bound up in this. There are those who will say, well, you know, we're a religious nation. We're not a Christian nation, but, you know, prayer in the, you know, in the school is an important issue, you know, whatever the prayer is.
There's a famous apocryphal statement by Dwight Eisenhower, which he never said, which is that, Americans, it's important to Americans to practice their religion and they don't care what religion it is. Well, he didn't say that. He might have. He should have said it. I mean, it, that expresses a particular other dimension of the civic religion of our society. Indeed, the whole notion of religions pluralism, you know, and the value of religions, you know, that students are given off time for religious holidays, not just Christian holidays but, you know, Jewish holidays. And, the question is, what would be Muslim holidays, will it be, you know, Hindu holidays? But the notion of religious pluralism that, you know, religions, variety in religion as a and respect for different religions itself enters in to the concept of American civic religion.
One of the things we're looking at a little bit is the contemporary religious response to the immigration debate. Please discuss.
I think many current issues have religious undercurrents because of the particularly powerful way in which religion is entered into the narrative understanding of America, Americans as a people. So questions of religious pluralism that I just referred to play out in the context of that religious understanding that we are a religious society. Therefore we prize religion and even though, in our history there's been a lot of religious bigotry, there is a sense that, that better angels of our nature, you know, look at separation of church and state as actually promoting religious pluralism and diversity.
With immigration, immigration can also take the form in this current debate of a religious undertone. And there are those who think of America in some sense being spoiled by immigration. And yet that runs against a long strand. It's expressed by, you know, Lazarus's poem on that, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, you know, the spiritual dimension to give me your poor, your oppressed, you know, America welcomes the off scorings of the world. And offers them, you know, opportunity. Again this has a kind of religious sense to it. There are also groups who look at immigrants and supporting them as a kind of religious refuge. So offering shelter to those who are impoverished and are seeking to better their lives in this, in this nation. And, you know, even some churches that have offered refuge to illegal immigrants who were in danger of arrest, partakes of that religious tradition and even older religious traditions of refuge.
So, that there are an amazing number of issues in this country historically and contemporary issues which often have religious, a religious overtone or undertone, a kind of, you know, we live in the shadow of a kind of religious tenor that other, many other countries do not.
Historically, how have African Americans responded to American civil religion?
One of the ways in which African Americans have developed a rhetoric to work as it were a kind of moral jujitsu against their oppression, in a situation of oppression within the nation, was to redeem the religion of the master. Howard Thurman has this wonderful phrase that the slave undertook to redeem by some act of amazing spiritual creativity, the slave undertook to redeem the religion that the master had profaned in his midst. In that case, I think, Thurman was speaking mainly about Christianity.
But African Americans also undertook to redeem the civil religion that the master had or racial oppression had distorted by appealing to particularly the Declaration of Independence and the notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as being a right of, of every person. And they did this in a variety of ways in the 19th Century by speeches that directly pointed out this inconsistency.
And by things like refusing to observe the 4th of July because the 4th of July was still a mockery until everyone was free. And so Frederick Douglas in his famous, you know, July 5th speech talks about that, that there is no 4th of July for us. After Emancipation you'll find black newspapers that will say this finally is the first 4th of July that we can observe because finally we, you know, our brothers are free.
So there's a strong awareness of African Americans as standing in the line of the true tradition of American democracy, at least in terms of the extension of it to all men, meaning, meaning black men as well. And therefore, the civil religion is one that gets, the failures of Americans to live up to the civil religion is part again of the moral jujitsu that African Americans would use against the nation.
Now this has its limits. I mean it keeps being done and, you know, King, again, would be an excellent exponent of playing upon both civil religion. You know, we stand in the shadow oh great America with a blank check. That the, that the freedoms that we've been promised have not, have not been given to us. But, there are certain limits to the notion that this moral jujitsu is going to work. That this rhetoric has a, has a convincing power. And so you reach a point in which some African Americans, historically, gave up on either redeeming the religion of their master, in terms of Christianity, or redeeming the civic religion of the nation and imaginatively emigrated. So, early forms of black Islam and black Judaism in which Blacks refused to identify themselves with the racial identity hoisted upon them by the nation, the negative racial identity, or the national identity, or the religious identity. That is, for slaves, the question arose and for African Americans generally, how do you observe Christianity which is the religion of your master or of your oppressor? They were able to distinguish true Christianity from the false Christianity practice by the masters or by the oppressors.
Some African Americans were never able to make that distinction and condemned Christianity as the religion of white men. And eventually some began to proclaim that the religion of Black men is Islam or Christianity, that our origin is variously as descendents of the lost tribes of Israel or as Moorish Americans rather than African Americans, as with the Moor Science Temple or as the Lost-Found Tribe of Shabazz, as with the Nation of Islam. So you'd find new racial and religious and national identities being created in part out of alienation from the dominant religion and the dominant national identity. The moral narrative failed. And therefore, they move outside of the terms of that narrative to a different narrative entirely.
How do you define prayer or what is it to you?
Prayer has many descriptions. Some have spoken of it as a conversation with God. Some have spoken of it as a lifting the mind and heart in, to God. Some have spoken of it as moving the mind into the heart center of the human person and standing there in the presence of God. I think for me prayer under, and what underlies many of these images is a sense of making an effort to move oneself into the presence of God, the effort part being necessary because of the constant distractions of our attention, you know, by daily life.
The image that I like to think of is that God's presence is always there like the sun and that we are like the, like the flower and plant that turns towards that, towards that presence. So, for me prayer is I guess I would define it as paying attention to the fact that we exist in the presence of God. And, indeed that, if God's presence weren't with us, we would not be, we would not, we would cease to be. That God's loving presence is what sustains us in being at ever second, at every moment. And so, and in attentiveness to that presence, and the loving nature of God as being present to us, is the essence of prayer.
Now, then it can move out into all kinds of ways, into different forms of prayer. Prayer for, of intercession, that is praying for others; prayer of petition, praying for some thing, or for some state, or for some grace, some gift; prayer of adoration in which one simply worships God; and a prayer of what I would see as a prayer of quiet in which one simply rests within the presence of God and allows that presence to fill us and to transform us into what is our authentic self, rather than into the many false selves that we often pursue in day-to-day life.
Is there anything uniquely distinct about the American prayer experience?
Is there anything distinct about the American prayer experience? I think the distinctiveness, if there is one, would lie in what I referred to earlier, that is the sense that Americans have, or many Americans have, of having a peculiar relationship with God, peculiarly blessed relationship. And perhaps a peculiar obligation that we are in some sense a specially chosen people. To the extent that that still is alive within our national consciousness and our, some of our national ceremonies and holidays, that to me a mark of specificity.
Now, it's not that other nations may not have that. That is, that there may be other nations and other peoples who think of themselves as in some sense specially chosen or have thought of themselves as specially chosen. But again, that would be specific to their own, to their own histories and their own understandings of those histories. But I think of most nations, Americans tend to be more emphatic about that than many others.
I'd like to get your reaction to this quote, "Prayer affords an opportunity to recognize how Americans despite their diversity are unified in their spirituality with one another and with a higher being. Americans today must understand prayer as a unique unifying force." How do you feel about that?
Well I think it's too narrow. I would say that part of, particularly part of world religions, I mean, Christianity, and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism is precisely that one's national identity should be tempered by the fact that one is a membership of a body sometimes seen directly in the image, you know, tangibly in the image of a body in Christianity, that transcends national boundaries, that transcends ethnic boundaries, that transcends racial boundaries. And that prayer in some profound way gets us in touch with the hidden grounded being of all people and of all creation.
One of my mentors in the spiritual life is Thomas Merton who has a lot to say about prayer as really moving us to the, to that, that still point, he calls it le point vierge, within. Which actually comes from a Muslim mystic. This le point vierge within where our being meets God's being. A point that's unavailable to the brutalities of our wills and that's where it's a virginal point. It's a point of where our nothingness and contingency are filled with, with the beauty and the power and the fullness of life of God. It's the point where the void opens out and we realize that the void is not empty but is full. And it's that point where we experience the unity of all being. So that prayer is much more profound than, than a prayer of national identity or ethnic identity or any of these, of these smaller identities.
Now, that's not to say that there's not a reality to national identity or racial identity or cultural identity. Those are all real and important. But, they're relativized in terms of this, of this much more massive identity that comes about through prayer and not just relativized, but are included within it. That is they're not a, they're not evacuated, they're not emptied, but they are included in it as all valuable, as all, as all meaningful, as all less important. But, you know, not certainly the place where one would stop in terms of the depths of a prayer.
Can you talk about the Yankee Stadium prayer service in the aftermath of 9/11? Why did people gather and to whom were they praying?
In the aftermath of 9/11 people gathered in Yankee Stadium for an Ecumenical prayer meeting and now the question is why did they do that and to whom were they praying? I think the why is because of the overwhelming sense of the tragedy of 9/11 which unlike other terrorist attacks was so devastating in its impact that it created just a national sense of crisis. And therefore, people turned towards God as a result of this crisis trying to understand it, trying to deal with it in a way that would, if not explain it, the mystery of evil is not explainable, but to somehow bring it into the context of faith and of God and praying for those who had died, praying for those families who were suffering, praying for the nation, the world, and some praying for those who, you know, were the terrorists.
To whom were they praying? That's a good question. You know, the ready answer is God but, of course, people in different traditions have different views of who God is. And that matters. Some people say well, you know, it's, one prays to the same God or, you know, religion all leads to the same place. I'm not sure that's true. That is, I think, in order to respect actually the diversity of people's beliefs that one has to take seriously what people say they're doing. So that to say that, that a, you know, a Buddhist who's agnostic about the existence of God is praying to God is in some sense to disrespect that person's belief. It's to conflate it with your own.
So, I think my answer would be that to whom they were praying was various depending upon the religious traditions of those who were praying. And yet there was a unity there, I think, of community there, better use the term community. In terms of people feeling that, even given the variety of their beliefs, and particularly because of the variety of their beliefs given the nature of the attack that they wanted to stand together at this moment and in, in that solidarity to offer prayer to whomever it is that they, that they believe in.