Black Suffering and the Book of Job
Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.
This paper was originally presented to the A.B.S.W. Pastoral Leadership Conference, October 26, 2011, American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley, California.
Most of my sermons and addresses are composed from behind a desk in my personal study or on a laptop while traveling from one speaking assignment to another. The thoughts which I desire to share with you in the next few minutes originate from a quite a different locale. These thoughts were formed on October 10, 2011, on the third floor of Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Antioch, California. As tubes and needles punctured my flesh, I remembered that I had been tapped by Academic Dean LeAnn Snow Flesher to share a paper on the topic “Black Suffering and the Book of Job.” Please listen to what came to my mind as I lay constricted beneath the white lights and sensitive gazes of doctors, dietitians, and loved ones.
I wrote: This morning as I twist and turn on my hospital bed, my thoughts turn to one of the Old Testament’s most mysterious figures, Job. You might remember the widely respected citizen of renown and wealth whose health and good fortune were snatched away amidst a contest between God and his adversary. Job’s children were destroyed. Boils broke out on his flesh. At the height of his anguish, loved ones approached his bedside with preachments of blame which merely added to his misery.
Today as I lie upon my bed, I too am surrounded by three friends: Brother Earl Nichols, Brother John Williams, and Reverend Harry Williams. However, they are nothing like Job’s infamous companions, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. When I utter the moan from the excruciating pain of my Taoist yin, my friends respond with the groaning yang of existential despair. They provide what is called the fellowship of suffering.
Job existed in a time when medicine consisted of ancient elixirs and sacred roots. He could not in his wildest of imaginations have foreseen a day when physicians could scan the human body with electromagnetic radiation to determine the cause of illness. He could not have pictured the medicines that the twenty-first century has wrought. And yet, there is still pain.
As I lay here, a skilled nurse probes the scarred black-and-blue flesh of my inner arm seeking a vein that will allow her needle to send life-giving fluids flowing through my bloodstream. (How paradoxical! She stings in order to save.)
I would not wish this ordeal on my most bitter enemy. As the searing pain pries at my nerve endings, jazz great Louis Armstrong’s sweet blues anthem comes to mind.
Cold empty bed . . . springs hurt my head
Feels like Old Ned . . . wished I was dead
What did I do . . . to be so black and blue?
“Even the mouse . . . ran from my house
They laugh at you . . . and all that you do
What did I do . . . to be so black and blue?”
The New Orleans trumpet player’s lament leaps back across time and joins hands with the words of Job:
If only my anguish could be weighed
and all my misery be placed on the scales!
It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas—
no wonder my words have been impetuous.
The arrows of the Almighty are in me. (Job 6:2–4a, niv)
Suffering is a mystery. All people suffer. And yet there is the question: Why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Why are there some nations that lay ravaged by starvation, thirst, and AIDS while others have silos overflowing with wheat? Why are some children kidnapped from classrooms, strapped down with assault weapons, and forced to become child soldiers while others are spoiled with peppermint candy and Xbox computer games?
Human suffering is universal and yet particular. Everyone suffers and yet no one else can own my pain. This is the paradox. The gospel singer sheds tears as she cries out, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” Though billions have suffered on the face of the earth, the singer’s pain is unique and only to be understood by Jesus.
In the thirteenth century, a Catholic sect called the flagellants traveled through Europe scourging themselves with whips. Though this practice was later denounced, some of the members bragged about their self-inflicted wounds. “My lash marks are bloodier than yours. My cross weighs a hundred pounds. Your cross only weighs fifty.”
Buddhists are called to escape suffering through a process that leads to radical identity erasure. After the human closes his or her eyes for the last time, he or she goes through several stages of reincarnation, arriving at the last stage of radical identity erasure where he or she becomes like a drop of water that loses its identity in the ocean of Nirvana.
My painful October 2011 is only a fragmentary sample of the continuing pain that reverberates across the globe. However, the looming biblical illiteracy in the era of Black nihilism prevents the majority from understanding pain from the context of a biblical Job.
I believe that the preachers of hip-hop cannot understand the pain of Job. The Joban context is theistic. It is sacred. Most hip-hop is secular and atheistic.
Consider the words of the Philadelphia hip-hop band, the Roots:
The seasons are done, and reasons are none
People dying, bullets flying ’cause they squeezing for fun
It’s all of a nightmare, that’s right there
They hoping that somebody in the hood just might care
With all this protesting and rallying, the death toll’s tallying
Foul smells around them, pails in the alley and...
The corner’s filled with teddy bears, cause they killed a child again,
They sing about murder, so it ain’t a song it’s hollering
Get off the choir with your soft attire,
Negroes out here don’t give a [blank], cause they lost desire.
When you listen to this poignant observation about inner-city life in the twenty-first century, you don’t see a smiling face behind a frowning providence. There is no God, here. Black Americans would do better to look at suffering through the eyes of faith rather than the dirty bathwater of nihilism. Our elders never denied their suffering, nor did they become bitter. They coupled suffering with heightened faith. No, it cannot be denied. There’s a particularity linked to Black suffering. Faith-oriented suffering offers to the world blessings in Blackness. Many of our well-meaning white brothers and sisters write about those of ebony hue out of pity. They say in essence, “Don’t let your primordial memories cause you to boil over with rage. Don’t let your crucifixions cause you to ball up your fists.” At other times they say, “We can excuse gang warfare, thug-life culture, and absentee parenting on your part because you’ve suffered.”
Esteemed scholar Dr. James Noel of San Francisco Theological Seminary has introduced me to the philosophical theology of Matthew V. Johnson. Dr. Johnson says African Americans have a rage that stems from the journey of the African Middle Passage, and that that pain must be addressed before we can go on as a people.
The post–World War II Japanese Christian activist and labor reformer Toyohiko Kagawa once prayed, “We are mindful, O God, that you dwell among the lowliest people of the Earth, that you sit on the dust-heap among those in the slums and those in prison, that you are present with juvenile delinquents and the homeless, that you throng with beggars seeking bread that you suffer with the sick and that you stand in line with the unemployed. May we be mindful that when we forget the unemployed we forget you. Amen.”
Not because of the hours that I spent studying Job or the hours that I have spent teaching classes on Job and not because of my book Making Sense of Suffering: A Message to Job’s Children, but because I know what it is to wrestle with pain and theological questioning at two o’clock in the morning. Not all Black people can identify with Job. It would be well if they could be “as honest inside and out” and be as passionate in praise and prayer as Job in addition to being a priestly intercessor for endangered sons and daughters, as he was. Job was the most influential man in the entire East. Were he alive today, he would be a peer of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Fortune 500. Eugene Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, says that there is “a small transcendent black elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect.” He is referring to people like Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Enterprise, and Oprah Winfrey, whose fortune has been estimated at close to five billion dollars. In addition to the mainstream black middle class that is reduced with each recession and the loss of civil service jobs (the only jobs available for the majority of educated Blacks, as well as teaching, police, and fire services), unemployment increases each time a conscienceless power block in Congress forces a compromising president and passive Democrats to vote for no tax increases but an increase in the laying off of persons who work in the civil service and government sector.
The majority of employed and unemployed Black people identify with the faithful servants who worked for Job, the faithful servant of God. They were also the servants who cleaned, cooked, ironed, and worked as nannies and house servants in the homes of Job’s sons and daughters. Like loving and loyal servants, some of them died at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans mentioned in verses 15 and 17 of chapter one in the book of Job. Marcia Y. Riggs, womanist scholar and associate professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, in a seminal work called Awake, Arise, and Act documents how from 1800 to 1920, underpaid black women who also had no benefits or insurance were illegally dehumanized by oppressive, capitalistic structures that froze Hagar’s daughters into caste structures as “mammies,” cooks, and housemaids. These women were much better off than the women who were confined to hard work as field hands. Professor Leonard P. Curry of the University of Louisville has written extensively about economic status and black social stratification in The Free Black in Urban America, 1800—1850: The Shadow of the Dream. And Job’s surviving male servants who escaped the terror of the Sabeans and Chaldeans parallel in my thinking the elders, grandsons, and sons who across the generations continue to love their families, fuel their faith, and contribute to human uplift without the respect and recognition of mainstream media culture.
The lingering effects of this history upon the present in a Joban context is explained with great clarity by Robert E. Pierre and Jon Jeter in A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Barack Obama’s “Post Racial” America. They tell us of the implosion of the housing market, which has triggered the greatest loss of wealth for African Americans in history. Life expectancy for black men in cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Oakland, and New Orleans rivals that for black men in Port-au-Prince, Sierra Leone, or Kinshasa. Black women are half as likely to marry as white women, twice as likely to die from a chronic disease like diabetes, three times as likely to die from a chronic disease like high blood pressure, three times as likely not to have health insurance, and four times as likely to have a doctor amputate a limb. By May 2008, the economy had claimed so many jobs that nearly a fifth of all black workers were out of work, a figure that rivals the nation’s unemployment peak of the Great Depression.
Chapter three of Job has twenty-six verses of bitter and painful lament. Verse 9 says: “Let the stars of the twilight . . . be dark; let it look for light, but have none; neither let it see the dawning of the day” (kjv). Like a modern-day black blues singer, in verse 11 Job croons: “Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” Job sounds like blues singer and guitarist, B.B. King who said, “When I first got the blues they brought me over on a ship. Men were standing over me and a lot more with a whip and everybody wanna know why I sing the blues. Well I’ve been around a long time man I’ve really paid my dues.”
Professor Charles Ogletree, professor of law and founding director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School reminds successful highly achieving Blacks who stand head and shoulders above others that they have had “to show strength, grit and determination, and confidence, when the burden of depression is doing everything it can to pull them down.” Black Pain, by Terrie M. Williams, a licensed clinical social worker, is designed to help those who experience emotional pain to find relief and in some cases healing through therapy and faith, non-toxic friends, diet, and exercise. Servants of Job and that underclass who missed the fortune of Job’s faith would do well to read this book.
The last chapter of Job deals with a large stimulus package given to Job by God that doubly restores Job’s honor, status, power, relationships, and wealth. We notice that the new family given Job omits the names of Mrs. Job and the sons. But gender equality and economic justice are evident in the naming of daughters Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-Happuch. These unearned blessings are a sign of God’s grace.
In the field of economics, there is a principle called Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages. It states simply that society is best served by paying the average worker the minimum salary needed for survival purposes. But with Job owning more, the invisible and nameless servants have greater economic security, and they possibly could become subcontractors in Job’s economic empire. With more wealth to protect the educated children of Job’s servants of today, who now have MBA degrees and own their own security businesses that hire the unemployed in the hood to protect Job’s economic interests from the destructive raids and ravages of the Chaldeans and the dreaded murder and mayhem of the Sabeans. May the wisdom of the God who dwells in light unapproachable resist the satanic temptations of God’s shadow self so that the good and innocent will never suffer the pain of undeserved suffering.
Let us call to mind the words of Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Northridge, whose African American spirituality says, “May we remember the fact: the best prayer is righteous practice; work works best when it is done, not just discussed; faith finds its fulfillment in small and great acts of good; and struggle is the only way to serious self and social transformation and the creation of the good world we all want for…ourselves and future generations.”
Ironically, a woman’s voice is heard but once in Job’s entire saga. His unnamed wife offers the morbid advice “curse God and die.” In my own experience, it is the women who have caused me to hope. My grandmother was my first teacher of biblical studies. My mother was the first theologian who prompted my interest in the spiritual realm. My first wife, Sister Joanna Goodwin Smith in times of parched drought, watered my plant of faith. My helpmeet and the love of my life, the Reverend Bernestine Smith, is a prayer warrior who has traveled with me through many dangers, toils, and snares. My daughters and granddaughters manifest fertile faith in an absurd world.
As early as I can remember, African American males have heard from the lips of Black women the core of womanist theology as expressed by Langston Hughes in his poem “Mother to Son.” Hughes writes as if listening in on a tender exchange between a mother and her male child. Hear these timeless words.
Well, son I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it and splinters,
And the boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you find it kinder hard.
Don’t you fall down now—
For I’se still goin’ honey.
I’se still climbin’, and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Women have so much to say about the reality of suffering and the realm of faith. As I bring this article to a close, it is my high hope that strong womanist scholars often overlooked in the academy will continue to explore in greater dimension from the perspective of their womanist wisdom, which is inclusive of but not limited to Black suffering. My prayer is that their unfettered voices would lead the discussion on this subject in future generations.
In Elihu’s dialogue with Job he says, “People cry out when they are oppressed. They groan beneath the power of the mighty. Yet they don’t ask, ‘Where is God my Creator, the one who gives songs in the night?’” (Job 35:9–10, nlt). However, my own night seasons of suffering are best described by words based on a hymn by preacher and songwriter Reverend George Young:
Sometimes on the mount where the sun shines so bright,
God leads God’s dear children along;
Sometimes in the valley, in darkest of night,
God leads God’s dear children along