But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.[1 Peter 2:9]
A couple of weeks ago, I was saddened to learn of the death of Albert J. Raboteau.
In sharing the news of his passing, I’ve been surprised at the number of people I know who had not heard of him. I debated whether to write this post since he was not so well known among my colleagues. But after some hesitancy I decided to go ahead and expand the circle of awareness of this scholarly trailblazer, who helped establish African American religious studies as an academic discipline.
He has left a large imprint on the lives of many who studied under him at Xavier University in New Orleans, Yale, UC Berkeley, and Princeton.
For a deeper insight into his life I commend to you his obituary from the October 13, 2021, edition of The New York Times, and a personal reflection by one of his former students, Yolanda Pierce, now dean and professor at Howard University School of Divinity, which appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of The Christian Century.
Though I never met him, I was introduced to the work of Albert J. Raboteau by one of my seminary professors, Dr. Rudolph Featherstone, who assigned us his groundbreaking book, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, as required reading for our class on The African-American Religious Experience.
I confess that prior to seminary, my church and religious formation was totally influenced by white theologians (Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis). As I’ve stated in one of my previous posts, it was in seminary where I learned to read scripture with “Third World” eyes, and to challenge those European viewpoints.
It was also in seminary where I began to question why African-Americans, or for that matter, any other marginalized ethnic group, would embrace Christianity. Brought to this country in chains, condemned to perpetual servitude, and always made to feel inferior, the thought of accepting their captors’ faith as their own became a struggle for me to understand.
The effort continues for me even to this day. But it is the works of scholars like Raboteau and others (James Cone, for one) that helped me to contest those long-held opinions that anything other than European theology was of lesser value. Raboteau’s works became nourishment for my spiritual and intellectual hunger.
After learning of his passing, I went to my bookshelves and took down the three books of his that I own. In addition to Slave Religion, I have also read Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals & Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice. Again, I would commend these as essential reading for anyone who wants to enlarge their sphere of knowledge and widen their perspective.
For the next several weeks, I hope to reread Raboteau’s works to refresh my memory and renew my understanding. As we continue to battle racism and white supremacy in the church, it is helpful to reinforce the ground of our beliefs, especially as it bolsters our hope in the church as a witness to God’s presence on earth.
To demonstrate a sample of his writing, I close with a fragment of Albert Raboteau’s epilogue in Fire in the Bones, in which he enlightens the reader of the African-American Christians’ confidence in God’s promise of justice in the face of adversity:
African-American Christians believed they were a chosen people, not because they were black, nor because they suffered, but because their history fit the pattern of salvation revealed to them in the Bible. They saw themselves in Christ, the suffering servant. Their lives modeled the paradoxes of the gospel: in weakness lies strength, in loss, gain, in death, life.
The problem of suffering was complicated for black Christians by racism. In accepting their suffering, black Christians were not accepting the racist argument that God intended them to suffer; they were asserting that chosenness empowers people to make something out of suffering. In the end, suffering is a fact of life. We can try to ignore it, evade it, deaden it, overpower it, but only at the cost of our humanity. To recognize that life brings suffering does not mean we have to succumb to fatalism. Suffering and injustice must be challenged at the deepest existential level, the level of defeat and despair that Christ overcame through his passion, death, and resurrection. In this sense, African-American Christianity is a paradigm of the central mystery of the gospel, sorrow becomes joy, death yields life.
There’s much wisdom to be mined in this treasure trove of knowledge that Raboteau has left us. We are blessed that his spirit and his legacy live on in the lives of those who learned from him and are now authors, educators, and scholars themselves.