Dr. Rabateau Speech
“Seeing Christ in the Poor”
Dr. Albert J. Raboteau
Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion, Princeton University
Christian Churches Together, January 13, 2011
I am grateful for the invitation to participate in this Annual Meeting of Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. We gather here in Birmingham, a pilgrimage site of one of the most significant religious movements in the history of our nation, along with Selma and Montgomery to name two other holy sites in the state of Alabama. I am awed by your active commitment to the cause of social justice and reminded once again of the old saying, “Those who can’t do — teach.” But I take some consolation in the belief that teaching is a form of doing. As my biography mentions, I teach and write about American Christianity and African-American Religious History. I am an Orthodox Christian, involved with Emmaus House, a house of hospitality for the poor located in central Harlem. And I am a native of Mississippi, born during the era of long entrenched segregation.
This morning I want to draw upon two deep reservoirs of Tradition — by which I mean the living presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church — that are important in my life academically and personally. The first rises from the Christianity of African-American slaves in antebellum America; the second from the 4th century pastoral work of several Christian bishops in Cappadocia in the eastern part of the Late Roman Empire. For these reservoirs converge (flow together) as resources for renewal in the ongoing struggle against poverty and oppression.
Seeing Christ in the Poor: “You are well aware of the generosity with which our Lord Jesus Christ, although he was rich, became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through his poverty.” 2 Corinthians 8:9
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, Wednesday, September 18th, exactly three weeks after the March on Washington, King attempted to articulate meaning in the deaths of the four girls as he delivered their funeral oration before a huge congregation, including 800 Birmingham pastors of both races, the largest interracial gathering in this city’s history:
“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.”
(I remember watching that eulogy on T.V. and the mixed emotions that wrestled with me — anger, sorrow, as well as the desire for vengeance — fueled by my own family history. My father was shot and killed by a white man in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, three months before I was born. His killer was never prosecuted. My father’s present absence cast a long shadow over my life.) In his sermon, King sounded themes that echo deeply the tradition of suffering Christianity born in American slavery, a system that called into question the worth of black persons and indeed the very existence of a God who allowed such evil to continue generation after generation for over three hundred years. White racism as institutionalized in the systems of slavery, segregation, and discrimination forced American slaves and their descendants to wrestle with profoundly troubling questions. “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,” so confessed Nellie, a free black woman from Savannah, Georgia, speaking during the Civil War. Slave Christians received their answer in their belief in the suffering of Jesus. When they sang “I been buked and I been scorned” they were singing about Jesus as well as themselves, linking their suffering with his. They recalled in their songs and prayers that He was delivered into the hands of wicked men. He was tried and condemned. He was beaten and hung upon a cross. “Sometimes I tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” He took upon himself the burden not just of our mortality, but the burden of evil. He bore it 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 take on meaning when they placed it within the redemptive suffering of Jesus. Slaves profoundly identified with Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who 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 who asked how she endured slavery:
“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 anybody, 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.”
Faith like hers led Howard Thurman in Deep River, his classic meditation upon the spirituals, to make 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.” Contrary to the religion of those who believed that Christianity and slavery were compatible, the slaves bore witness to the truth of the gospel: that the law of love contradicted slavery and the racism upon which it was built. 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.
Slaves understood, 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. Indeed, slave Christianity directly challenged the national myth of America as the Promised Land and the Redeemer Nation. 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 understanding of choseness. 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.
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 out 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.
The slaves located their lineage in the Biblical exemplars, the prophets, apostles, saints, and martyrs — 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 (and perhaps for some it did). Instead, at its best, it inspired compassion, for all those who suffer, including upon occasion, compassion 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. Bayley 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 …’ 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.”
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. 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 little more than animals, the slaves defended their humanity by stressing their divinely given dignity. “[D}ey 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.
Howard Thurman remembered that his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, 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.” Acutely aware of the harmful effects of racism upon the self-esteem of black people, especially children, King recycled this story from Thurman in several sermons.
In the midst of suffering so bleak, it seemed as if 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 20th 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.”
This 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, some 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. The image of Christ’s presence in the poor and outcast resonates with ancient Christian teachings on poverty, the person, and the responsibility of the Christian community for social justice and may serve as a resource for contemporary Christians struggling to live out the commands of the gospel regarding wealth, poverty, racism and social justice.
As is well known, early Christian theologians used Greek rhetoric, philosophical terminology, and thought to explain Christianity; they also, interpreted Hellenic culture in light of the Scriptures, radically changing, in the process, the late antique understanding of poverty and the poor. Peter Brown, my colleague at Princeton, argues in his book, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” [What a wonderful Episcopal title that is —“lover of the poor!”] Judaism served as both “mentor and rival” to Christianity in offering social services to the poor in the late Roman world, a fact noted with chagrin by the last pagan emperor, Julian (the Apostate), in a letter he wrote in 362 to a pagan priest: “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
It was the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St.Gregory of Nazianzus, who elucidated this novel virtue and its central importance to the community life of Christians. Around the time of a severe drought followed by famine in the year 369, St. Basil delivered three homilies on wealth and possessions, stressing the theme of property as something entrusted to us rather than something we permanently own. In the first homily (“On Greed”) he preached on the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12:16-18. In words that have become justly famous for their rhetorical power he asked:
“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”
King preached on this same text in June, 1958, identifying poverty and race:
“You see this man was foolish because richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others…Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations…For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God make a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature…God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in the universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”
In another homily (“Against the Wealthy”) delivered in 369, Basil interpreted the Gospel story of the rich young man in Matthew 19. Here he diagnosed the tendency of wealth to feed the ever-spiraling need to gain and maintain dominance over others:
“[S]o those who progress to great power take on, at the expense of those they have already subjected, the ability to do still greater injustice; the growth of their power becomes a superabundance of wickedness … Nothing can withstand the force of wealth; everything bows to its tyranny, everything trembles before its lordship; each of those who has suffered unjustly is more concerned not to experience some new evil, than to bring the perpetrator to justice for what has happened before. He drives away your yokes of oxen; he plows and seeds your field; he harvests what does not belong to him. And if you speak out in resistance, you are beaten; if you complain, you are held for damages and led away to prison….”
Directly addressing the rich young man rhetorically, Basil contends that the young man’s failing is his treasuring of possessions over love of God and love of neighbor:
“If what you assert was true that you have kept the command of love since your youth and have distributed what you have as much to others as to yourself, how is it you have this excess of wealth? For care of the needy consumes our wealth, when each person receives a small amount to meet his or her own necessities, and all divide up what they have equally and use it for those in need. But you seem to have ‘many possessions. ’How is that? Is it not clear that you have considered your own enjoyment more precious than the comfort of the masses? Surely the more you abound in wealth, the more you are lacking in love!”
St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us that Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen on his family’s country estates those suffering during the famine brought on by the drought of 369. Eventually Basil developed a large complex of apartments for the bishop, his guests, needy travelers, and the poor. “Here the sick received medical and hospice care … The poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades.”
Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa and his lifelong friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, also delivered major homilies expounding in detail the requirements of Christian philanthropy. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in “On Loving the Poor,” (probably given at the beginning of Great Lent) argues that fasting is meaningless unless extended to acts of social justice:
“There is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline which affects the soul; this abstinence [is] from evil, and it was as a means to this that our abstinence from food was prescribed. Therefore I say to you: Fast from evil-doing, discipline yourselves from covetousness, abstain from unjust profits, starve the greed of mammon [and] keep in your houses no snatched or stolen treasure. For what use is it to touch no meat and to wound your brother by evil-doing? What advantage is it to forgo what is your own and to seize unjustly what is the Poor’s?…Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread with the hungry; bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.”
Preaching on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, a text that appears repeatedly in the sermons of the Cappadocians, St. Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed:
“I am fearful of that ‘left hand side’ and of ‘the goats’ … because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, as some do, nor just with precious ointment, like Mary, nor just with a tomb, like Joseph of Arimathea, nor just with gold, frankincense and myrrh, … but let us give him this honor in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day …”
The special identification of the poor with Christ is stated even more boldly in his sermon “On Almsgiving”:
“Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance (prosopon) of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.”
Perhaps the most striking and frequent references to the poor in patristic social teaching occur in the sermons preached by St. John Chrysostom after his election as Archbishop of Constantinople, in 398. Chrysostom vividly paired caring for the poor with serving the Divine Liturgy:
“Do you wish to see his altar? … This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes your altar … venerable because it is itself Christ’s body … This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime … invoke the spirit not with words, but with deeds. Nothing kindles and sustains the fire of the Spirit as effectively as this oil poured out with liberality …When you see a poor believer believe that you are looking at an altar; when you see this one as a beggar, don’t simply refrain from insulting him but actually give him honor; and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop them, prevent it. Thus God himself will be good to you, and you will obtain the promised good things.”
And preaching on Matthew 25:
“Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. . . . Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. . . . What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?”
Contemporary activists and theologians have revisited these patristic themes in discussing the social mission of Christianity today. Listen for example to the words of Fr. Ion Bria echoing Chrysostom’s connection between liturgy and human rights:
“What does sanctification or theosis mean in terms of ecology and human rights? Christian community can only proclaim the Gospel — and be heard — if it is a living icon of Christ. The equality of the brothers and freedom in the Spirit, experienced in the Liturgy, should be expressed and continued in economic sharing and liberation in the field of social oppression. Therefore, the installation in history of a visible Christian fellowship which overcomes human barriers against justice, freedom and unity is a part of that liturgy after the Liturgy.”
The same classic passage from Matthew 25 that attracted the Cappadocians and St. John Chrysostome, captivated the recently canonized Saint Maria Skobotsova, a Russian Orthodox émigré nun in Paris in the 1930s:
“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”
The identification of Christ with the poor and the despised led her to found Orthodox Action in Paris which established several hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, aid for the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, all to carry out the Gospel social imperative, and it led ultimately to her internment and death in Ravensbruck in 1945 for protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Similarly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, she co-founded with Peter Maurin in 1930 to feed, clothe, and house the poor, observed the old monastic tradition of welcoming all with the care we would show to Christ, an ideal graphically illustrated by the wood cuts of the Quaker artist Fritz Eichenberg, who depicted Christ standing in an urban breadline, identical with the other homeless except for the halo glowing around his head. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta summarized this ancient tradition, and her work among the “poorest of the poor,” when she described those in need with the simple and profound phrase, “Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
The identification of Christ with the poor opens out into reflection upon the Trinity as a model of interpersonal communion. As Bishop Kallistos Ware maintains:
“Every form of community — the family, the school, the workplace, the local Eucharistic center, the monastery, the city, the nation — has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity. When, as Christians we fight for justice and for human rights, for a compassionate and caring society, we are acting specifically in the name of the Trinity. Faith in the Trinitarian God, in the God of personal interrelationship and shared love, commits us to struggle with all our strength against poverty, exploitation, oppression and disease … Precisely because we know that God is three-in-one, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world. Love after the image and likeness of the Trinity signifies that, in the words of Dostoyevsky’s starets Zosima, ‘we are responsible for everyone and everything.’”
It is a fascinating fact that the only iconic symbol of the Trinity allowed in Orthodoxy is the Hospitality of Abraham. That is why a large copy of Andre Rublev’s arrestingly beautiful version of that icon hangs in a prominent place in Emmaus House, the house of hospitality with which I am involved in Harlem. If you have seen copies of Rublev’s icon, you will remember that it depicts the three visitors whom Abraham tends at the Oak of Mambre, as three angels, sitting at table, each with his head tending toward the others forming a circle. It is a reminder that it is our mutual acts of compassionate care that draw us into the never ending circle (circumcession orperichoresis) of self-emptying Divine love.
To summarize, let me suggest what seem to me to be several important implications of seeing Christ in the poor:
- Presence through personal encounter is essential. Hearing the stories of the poor, gaining a vision of their lives and of life through their eyes can change our lives.
- Caring for the poor and oppressed is inextricably tied to worship. It is the Liturgy after the liturgy for the transformation of the world.
- Excess possessions are robbed from the poor. As St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton aptly put it, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
- Consumption readily leads us to an addictive ever-spiraling cycle of manufactured needs—fulfillment—more needs, based on the illusion we have no needs that we cannot fill.
- Wealth tends to displace our need for God in a spurious attempt to fill the emptiness which only God can fill. Engagement with poverty can help to teach us this lesson, just as fasting teaches us our hunger for God.
- We need, as King put it, to move from being a “thing-oriented to a person-oriented society.”
- We need to work for reconciliation across the economic, social, and racial divides to re-member the sundered body, by observing occasions for remembering, and by
- Creating occasions for repentance and for mourning the victims of racism and oppression, both those who suffer and those who perpetrate the suffering.
These elements are constitutive strands of the ancient and living tradition of social concern expressed in the early Church and in African-American Christianity, a tradition that Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently articulated and exemplified.
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 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 reads “You Do It to Me,” reflecting in light and in 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 Jordy Raboteau, a native of Mississippi, grew up in Michigan and California. He received his A.B. from Loyola University in Los Angeles and continued his studies in English Literature in the graduate school of the University of California at Berkeley. After receiving a master’s degree from Berkeley, he went to Marquette University to study Roman Catholic Theology. After two years of graduate study at Marquette, he taught Theology at Xavier University in New Orleans and then finished his Ph. D. in Religious Studies at Yale University.
Raboteau has taught at Yale, Berkeley, Harvard, and currently is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University, where he has chaired his department and served as Dean of the Graduate School. His written work includes Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South, which was reprinted in an updated edition upon the 25th anniversary of its publication; A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History; Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans; and A Sorrowful Joy (a spiritual memoir). He serves as chair of the board of directors of Emmaus House, a house of hospitality for the poor in central Harlem. He is a member of the Orthodox Church in America.