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Friday, March 23, 2012

Context, Experience, Relevance, Meaning--Part II

Again, the theological priorities that shape faith grow out of the experiences of individuals and societies.  How we approach sacred truth is always mediated through a worldview shaped and framed by what we and those around "go through."  That James H. Cone writes regarding the faith formation of African slaves transported to America is a case in point.  These same principles apply and relate to the way "the poor" read and understand scripture and the other formal and informal sources of their faith. 

The theological assumption of black slave religion as expressed in the spirituals was that slavery contradicts God, and he will therefore liberate black people.  All else was secondary and complemented that basic perspective.  But how did black slaves know  that God was liberating them?  Black slaves did not ask that epistemological question.  As with all ontological assumptions, the truth of a prepositional assertion is found in the giveness of existence itself and not in theory.  Black slaves did not devise philosophical and theological methodologies in order to test the truth of God's revelation as liberation.  From their viewpoint it did not need testing.  They had already encountered its truth and had been liberated by it.  Instead of testing God, they ritualized him in song and sermon.  That was what the spirituals were all about--a ritualization of God in song.  They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise to him who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity. . . .

The spirituals nowhere raise questions about God's existence or matters of theodicy and it is safe to assume that the slave community did not perceive a theoretical solution of the problem of evil as a felt need.  Rather, their needs were defined by the existential realities which they encountered.  As slaves, they felt sharply their oppression and complete lack of freedom.  In the Bible, the black slaves found the God who liberated the Israelites from bondage and whose will was the liberation of the oppressed.  This same God who came to mankind in Jesus Christ the Oppressed One, who disclosed that God's will from all eternity was not to be reconciled with human slavery.  Moreover, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God made clear his will to deliver the oppressed.  This biblical disclosure the slaves appropriated as speaking directly to their own condition.  Whether they reasoned correctly about the Bible's message is irrelevant, a question for speculative discussion by those not entrapped in their situation. 

That this theme of God's involvement in  history and his liberation of the oppressed from bondage should be central in black slave religion and the spirituals is not surprising, for it corresponded with the black people's need to know that their slavery was not the divine Creator's intention for them. In fastening on this knowledge, they experienced the awareness of divine liberation.  Their experience of it and their faith in its complete fulfillment became factual reality and self-evident truth for the slave community.  Only those outside the community and the experience could dare question it or remain unconvinced.  To be sure, they did not deny:
          Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down,
          Oh, yes, Lord!
          Sometimes I'm almost on the ground,
         Oh, yes, Lord!

But the certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.  Penultimately, white masters may torture and kill slaves capriciously, and the world seem only chaos and absurdity.  But ultimately God is in control and black slaves believe that they have encountered the infinite significance of his liberation.  And so they lifted up their voices and sang:

          Do, Lord, remember me.
          Do, Lord, remember me.
         When I'm in trouble,
         Do, Lord, remember me.

         When I'm low down,
         Do, Lord, remember me.
         Oh, when I'm low down,
        Do, Lord, remember me. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and enlightening.