In a time of contagion and lockdown, where shall we turn to find wisdom? In the words of our Poet of the Month, George Walters-Sleyon, ““I must lean on the solace that revives.”
Wisdom brings both solace and instruction, it spans both the practical kind of knowledge, on the one hand, and the cosmic, on the other. Wisdom consoles and also provides insight necessary for physical and mental survival.
In the late Harold Bloom’s 2004 book entitled, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found, his chapters run from the Bible to Christian classics like St. Augustine, from the Renaissance (Shakespeare and Cervantes) to the modern thinkers like Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud and Proust—to such as these Bloom turns for wisdom.
Where do you turn? I asked a friend, and he said, “to poetry”—as it happens, he is a poet. I asked my wife, and she said, Nature—but then, she’s a nature-woman. From the Bible, Bloom chose the Book of Ecclesiastes which we talked about last week, and the Book of Job which has been our focus in this service.
Of the Book of Job, Bloom says, “It offers wisdom, but it is not anything we can comprehend.” He was right about that—the Book of Job almost pushes the reader back with its high-flying emotions and hyperbolic vocabulary.
You know, though, it’s a great romp of a story complete with a Devil, stock villains, vivid bit parts, a larger-than-life protagonist (Job), and a walk-on part for God, the whole tragedy capped by a happy ending of all things! The Book of Job is basically about a man beset by life, by the unpredictable journey that life is. He is successful, wealthy, happy with a happy wife and sons and daughters when all of a sudden all these things are stripped from him, and he falls ill to diseases that disgust his family. The children die, the farm buildings burn, the estate is bankrupted, all but three of his friends desert him, and Job ends up covered with boils from head to toe.
But the whole thing is a set-up—it all comes about for a nefarious reason—in an iconic scene, the Satan asks God if pious Job would be so faithful to God if God hadn’t made his life so cushy—what if God reversed Job’s fortunes, then maybe Job would curse God.
God decides to take up the Satan’s wager, but says, Just don’t kill him—and that’s how Job comes to be naked, covered with running sores and sitting on an ash heap destitute.
How does Job take it? You have probably heard the phrase, “the patience of Job”—well, this cliché overlooks a much more complex figure in the book itself. Job is the antithesis of patience, he is defiant—he endures the suffering, but he howls, he weeps, he inveighs against the Lord.
The abuses heaped upon Job are legendary, and they are inventoried in almost 40 chapters of verse, which are structured as an acrimonious debate between Job and the three lousy friends who come to commiserate with him but repeatedly give him bad counsel.
Ultimately, Job curses the day he was born.
Oh, friends, dear friends, take pity on me. God has come down hard on me!
Do you have to be hard on me, too? Don’t you ever tire of abusing me?
If only my words were written in a book—better yet, chiseled in stone!
Still, I know that God lives, the One who gives me back my life, and eventually he’ll take his stand on earth.
Yes, Job curses the day he was born, but Job does not curse God.
Do we feel like Job these days, don’t we feel we have reason to?—Americans are besieged by a lethal virus, our nation has lost all our friends, and as of last Wednesday, our government is under attack by another infection.
But I’ll tell you who I think can more closely be compared to Job—the African-American of past and present. For, they have endured enslavement, segregation, terrorism, discrimination, impoverishment, malicious belittling, abuse by the American in-justice system, and relentless shunning in this country.
That some have escaped into middle-class security and even wealth—only some—does not change the fact that there are still places in America where they are embraced about as readily as Job when he was covered from head to toe with sores.
And how have African-Americans responded? Their first response, I submit, was the same as Job’s—they sang their plaintive lamentations and they sang their faith in God, in their now world-famous spirituals.
James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, author and composer together of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” compiled two volumes of spirituals in the 1930s.
The Negro Spirituals “were instrumental in the adjustment to being cut off from their native culture, scattered without regard to tribal relations, thrust into a completely alien civilization with a strange language under the harshest of human conditions—chattel slavery.” From these conditions “arose a noble music—the finest distinctive artistic contribution our people have to offer the world—majestic grandeur, exalted, with the dignity imparted by great suffering.”
Johnson asks, “Would they have been able to survive slavery without the [Negro spirituals]?” He wrote, Frederick Douglas once said it was a wonder they are still alive!
In their Spirituals, Johnson went on, “they gave wide play to the imagination, told their stories and drew their morals therefrom, dreamed their dreams and declared their vision, uttered their despair and prophesied their victories, spoke the group wisdom and expressed the group philosophy of life—they are a record and revelation of the deeper thoughts and experiences of the Negro throughout all the years of enslavement.”
Some spirituals are pure, Job-like sorrow songs; others, with a pure faith in God, look beyond the present to the next world, be it in a free America or, failing that, in heaven—you know them:
Go down Moses,
didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel,
no more auction block for me,
nobody knows the trouble I seen,
Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn,
one more river to cross,
ride on King Jesus,
there’s a balm in Gilead,
we are marching to Zion.
Yes, like Job, they complained so, so bitterly to God, and yet like Job they kept faith. Together with the Book of Job, these spirituals constitute a library of wisdom to which many generations of African-Americans took recourse and found solace—and not only African-Americans but many people harassed unto near-death.
How else did the African-American people respond to the Job-level of indignities they suffer in America past and present? In music, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, through the blues—which is a huge subject for another day.
But the day came when they also sent a minister of Love, they sent a representative of God’s love. They sent other kinds of ambassadors, too, but black Americans sent a Christian minister eloquent as the greatest of poets, they sent this winsome, educated, indefatigable minister to the white people and the white establishment and the white supremacy contingent and the white monopolists—they sent Job, in effect, to plead his case with his white “friends,” who gave grudging acceptance and bad advice, telling him to “wait a little longer.”
Martin Luther King was killed because his argument was irrefutable, and he was killed before he got to the Promised Land. He tragically, tragically got Job’s wish to die before God granted him a reprieve. Nor has God even yet granted the African-American people the reprieve that Job got in the end, the reward of his faithfulness being restoration of his family, his wealth, his health and his public standing.
So, whoever sings for the black peoples, be it a Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, or our own Ayanna Pressley, they have a right to raise their complaint all the way up to the skies above, just as Job did in his unabridged keen.
In their great hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, regarded as the black national anthem, James and Rosamond Johnson in the year 1900 managed to combine both sorrow and faith in one song--
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Can we turn to the Book of Job for the wisdom which will inspire and guide us through these two pandemics? The Book of Job is a tough read for people in the 21st century, probably always was—but it will not disappoint the effort—it is where you will learn what faith requires and gives.
To change the course of history that all may be free, keep the dream alive. We will have the victory—just keep the dream alive until the day we can say with Martin Luther King, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last!” Amen.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman 1/17/2021