The absence and the presence of God in African American culture – David Emmanuel Goatley’s book ‘Were You There? Godforsakenness in Slave Religio

The words of this familiar African American spiritual is a
source of inspiration for Dr. David Emmanuel book, Were
You There? Godforsakenness in Slave Religion. Both the
spiritual and the title of the book raise important questions
about God and humanity — especially African American
humanity. They refer to critical issues such as commitment
and abandonment between God and humanity and within
interpersonal relationships.

On one hand, the song is a rhetorical selection that has
become a part of the African American religious witness to
the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as the
Christ or promised Messiah. In it, we are asked if we can
attest to the life and ministry of Jesus on the basis of a
direct encounter with the suffering and death he experienced.

The question relates both to the historical events of Jesus’s
life, death and resurrection as well as to the significance of
all of this for our contemporary reality. Therefore, “Were
you there?” also implies the question, “Are you willing and
able to bear witness to your faith in God here and now?”

On the other hand, the title of Goatley’s text both
echoes the lines of the song and ponders the forbidden query
about how we understand who God is, what God does (or
does not do) and who we are. On one level, the title (“Were
You There?”) is directed toward the reader as it seeks out a
witness to the faithfulness of God in the midst of African
American humanity and suffering.

On another level, the
subtitle (“Godforsakenness in Slave Religion”) points to the
disturbing experience of God’s absence from all optimistic
claims about God’s presence in the midst of the African
American experience of oppression;. In order to explore this
multidimensional query, Goatley turns to the history and
narratives of the African American slaves.

Goatley’s book is divided into five sections. After; a
brief introduction that sets forth his rationale for pursuing
this query, he begins with an exploration into the African
American experience of Godforsakenness during the
Southern antebellum period. This is followed by similar
inquiry into the nature of spirituals as anguished
expressions of abandonment and hope. Next an
interpretation of the Gospel of Mark is rendered in order
to examine “a paradigm of the presence and absence of
God.” Finally, in the concluding section, he suggests some
of the implications of this study for contemporary
theology.

The history and general narrative of African American
reality is rooted in the African tradition of oral discourse.
This inclination towards orality has been conveyed and
preserved through stories arid folklore that reach back to
a distant past. Ironically, the capacity to tell and recall
stories survived during slavery precisely because African
Americans were prohibited from reading and writing.

Storytelling became more than a means of survival; it
became primary vehicle through which a uniquely African
American narration was communicated.
According to Goatley, theology or discourse God has
been central to the African American experience.
Moreover, it has been the quest for “meaningful
existence” that has given rise to their
ongoing struggle for liberation. Thus, there
is a strong correlation between what is
thought and said about God as a supreme
being and the plight of a people who have
experienced situations of extreme
oppression as they continually strive For
complete liberation.

During the Southern antebellum period,
African Americans endured Godforsakenness.
They experienced the absence or
abandonment of God by virtue of the cruel
treatments they received from their
slave-holding oppressors. The Euro-American
institution of slavery functioned as a
construct of human exploitation to the extent
that it dehumanized African
Americans.

The reversal from freedom in
Africa to bondage in the Americas was the
first step in the direction of Godforsakenness.
This was further acerbated by
broken familial relationships, sexual
exploitation and postbellum social
disorientation. Goatley chooses slave
narratives that aptly demonstrate how slaves
tried to comprehend, cope
with and overcome their
experiences of the
absence of God.

Likewise in turning to
African American
spirituals or religious
songs, Goatley
concentrates on another
dimension of
Godforsakenness: the
parallel between the songs
created by slaves: and
their allusions to the
suffering of Jesus, the
Christ. It is important to
note that Goatley
establishes a relationship
between the sufferings of
slaves and their
identification with the
sufferings of Jesus in his
life and death. In other
words, the slaves’
understanding of the
meaning of who Jesus was
is connected to their own
experience of oppression.

This poignancy of
their sense of alienation
is expressed in their
songs. At the same time,
African American
spirituals are not simply
expressions of resignation
to oppression and
despondency. Rather,
they are vocalizations of
the hope that African
Americans also held for
liberation from
oppression.

The resurrection of Jesus
from the agony of death became a symbol for
their own freedom. It is on the basis of this
insight that Goatley makes his claim for the
paradoxical presence and absence of God in
the slaves’ experience. The oppression of
slavery is acknowledged in all of its
dehumanizing depth: God is absent. Taken
together, however, the symbols of the cross
and resurrection point beyond a resignation to
defeat to victory over oppression: God is also
present. For Goatley, this mind-boggling
contradiction is exemplified in the biblical
story itself, especially in the Gospel according
to the tradition of Mark.

In Mark, Goatley sees a narrative that
functions as a paradigm for coming to a better
appreciation of both the presence and absence
of God in the midst of human
alienation and suffering Jesus is deserted by his
friends and enemies through betrayal and
persecution.

Adding insult to I injury, he is
abandoned by God while on the cross. And yet,
God is truly with him in the midst of his agony.
Thus his experience of being forsaken is not the
end of the story. Instead, betrayal and
abandonment give way to reconciliation
and the experience of God’s presence.
Herein lies the foundation upon which a
contemporary theological understanding
of the paradox of presence and absence
should be built.

For contemporary theology, the presence
and absence of God means that African
Americans can rely on the narrative of their
own history of suffering and victory — as well
as the biblical story — as the basis for hope in
the midst of struggle. This should not be
founded upon either easy optimism or
irresponsible escapism. Instead, it must be
grounded in critical reflection on how God
identifies with the oppressed by becoming
one with them: God has to be understood as
“Emmanuel,” the God who is truly among the
oppressed. Only then can God promise and
actualize liberation from the forces of
oppression and death — past, present and
future.

Goatley’s book is an intriguing response
to the question posed by the spiritual, “Were
you there?” Although the content of the last
two chapters is somewhat disconnected from
the first three, he does manage to retain his
focus on how Godforsakenness has been
experienced within the African American
context without becoming too abstract about
how to reflect theologically on this matter.
The latter is precisely what is misguided in
most attempts to “justify” the goodness of
God in light of the overwhelming evidence of
human suffering.

Goatley does not attempt to explain the
contradiction away into some obscure corner
of rational hyper-reality. Instead, he faces the
problem squarely and utilizes concrete
illustrations from both African American and
biblical histories and narratives. In so doing,
he further opens the door for a discussion of
the phenomenological encounter with God as
both present and absent while maintaining his
own position as one who believes that God is
ultimately in the midst of all dimensions of
our reality.

The author’s focus on the immanence of
closeness of God is a helpful reminder that we
should not talk about either
God’s presence or absence in a manner that
would be characteristic of abstract table talk.
Rather, it should be anchored with specific
references to experiences of both.

DR. WILL COLEMAN,
Associate Professor of Theology and
Hermeneutics,
Columbia Theological Seminary

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