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Winter Books

Faith with a liberating edge

By Albert J. Raboteau
Oxford University Press, 151 pages, $9.95

By Alvin J. Poussaint and Amy Alexander
Beacon Press, 194 pages, $25


Albert Raboteau, author of Canaan Land, has been in the forefront of scholars seeking to recover the religious history of African-Americans. Starting with his groundbreaking work, Slave Religion, he has revealed the richness and variety of that history and its connections to African religions. His works serve as a needed historical foundation for black liberation theology as they highlight the two-century quest for freedom that so often centered in African-American churches.

In Lay My Burden Down, psychologist Alvin Poussaint and sociologist Amy Alexander see black religion and the black church less positively. Raboteau’s work has been of special significance in revealing the religious experience of African-American Catholics, a group often overlooked by other religious scholars, and Canaan Land is an excellent introductory text for high school through graduate school courses in American religion, African-American religion and black theology.

The book begins, as it must, in Africa with the beginnings of the slave trade in 1502. It continues to the present day, showing the significance of the independent African church movement, slave religion (or the “invisible institution” as it was known) and the role of black Christians, Protestant and Catholic, in developing and supporting the black community. It reveals how Africans contributed not only their labor, but also their culture, music, dance, language, art and religion to the multiracial and multicultural societies that constituted what became the “new worlds” of the Americas.

The last chapter, “Black Faith: Continuity Within Change” is particularly significant as Raboteau attempts to reveal in greater depth the role that the black church -- which he defines as broader than the historically black Protestant churches -- has played and continues to play as both a “source of stability and as a vehicle of change.” He recognizes, however, the fragmenting of the black community. This happened as blacks went through the aftermath of the civil rights movement and what can be called a second reconstruction effort on the part of dominant society, all too often aided and abetted by African-Americans themselves. Thus, the church is still instrumental in helping blacks with today’s societal shifts but is also finding itself at a loss in attempting to deal with the challenges of today.

In a parallel examination of the black community, Poussaint and Alexander present a somewhat less positive perspective. Lay My Burden Down is not a study of religious history but of the psychological and sociological impact of race and its accompanying ills in American society today. They look at the apparent disintegration of the black community and its inhabitants’ decreasing ability to withstand economic and other factors that continue to traumatize their community. They raise the question of why there is a growing number of African-American suicides, especially among young males. In their search, the authors raise the issue of black-on-black violence and “suicide by cop” as possible further evidence of blacks’ growing inability to withstand contemporary pressures. And these investigators ask why.

They note that with upward progress has come “declining levels of religious belief.” Historically, because of their orthodox religious beliefs and personal devotion, the black community rejected suicide and other self-destructive behaviors. Seeing someone about one’s problems was and still is frowned upon as a sign of weakness. This raises a critical challenge for black theologians and the black church: How do we teach of the goodness and righteousness of a God of justice to those who no longer are being raised in the black religious traditions or who no longer see God and Jesus Christ as the answer to their every need? How do we help our young men and women to see faith as a strength and not as a weakness while also helping them deal with the realities of today’s more secular and individualistic world? How do we reinterpret our Christian faith for the challenges of today so that those mired in deep despair in our neglected inner cities and rural areas especially but also in the growing black suburbs can find healing and solace?

Raboteau shows what the black church has done historically to help the black community survive and thrive, but Poussaint and Alexander call for the need to recognize other, more secular sources as well. Both books, albeit radically different in many ways, complement each other, for they show how a people of faith were able to survive against overwhelming odds, and what happens when that faith becomes complacent, loses its liberating edge, and thus fails its people. We must look at what we are teaching in the church and ask whether it helps or hinders us today.

Stoicism and acceptance of suffering helped blacks in the past, but these attitudes are self-destructive in today’s world. Poussaint and Alexander raise an alarm directed to everyone in the black community, calling us to reclaim our histories and to rebuild our communities by providing a reason to believe in the possibility of a better tomorrow that will overcome the bitterness of today. Raboteau reveals the historical source of that belief and gives us a foundation for retapping the strength and courage of black Americans and rebuilding those communities.

Diana Hayes is assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001