Painting by Troy Guillory
To be washed in the “blood of Jesus” is to be judged and exonerated by God, the Great Judge and God’s Son, our Great High Priest. Christianized African slaves made the connection between the Savior’s blood and the blood that gives life to all living things. Albert Raboteau, an African American who has become Orthodox, has written: When I was considering becoming Orthodox, a friend and fellow historian of African-American religion asked me if I understood how much Orthodoxy fit the aspects of African-American religion that had most personally interested me over the years. Several months earlier, an Orthodox monk had remarked to me how attuned he thought Orthodoxy was to the traditional spirituality of black people. Both comments took me by surprise. Gradually after my chrismation, I began to reflect more generally upon the relationship between the faith of Ancient Christianity that had claimed me and the religious traditions of my people whose history I had been researching, writing, and teaching for the past twenty-five years. Since there are so few black Orthodox, it seemed like a lonely task. Providentially, a friend informed me of the conferences on Ancient Christianity and African-Americans, the purpose of which is to gather people from around the country to discover - in the context of prayer and the Divine Liturgy - the deep affinities and resonances between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality.The resonances or points of convergence between Orthodoxy and African-American spirituality are profound. The first resonance is historical. Ancient Christianity is not, as many think, a European religion. Christian communities were well established in Africa by the third and fourth centuries. In Egypt and Ethiopia, Coptic traditions of worship, monasticism, and spirituality have remained authentically African and authentically Christian down to the present day.The second resonance is spiritual: there are important analogies between African traditional religions and Orthodox Christianity. In classical theological terms, these analogies constitute a protoevangelion: a preparation for the Gospel based on God's natural revelation to all peoples through nature and conscience. I would distinguish eight principal areas of convergence between African spirituality and Ancient Christianity.
1. Traditionally, African spirituality has emphasized the close relationship, the "coinherence" of the other world and this world, the realm of the divine and the realm of the human. The French poet, Paul Eluard expressed this insight concisely when he said, "There is another world, but it is within this one." Orthodoxy also emphasizes the reality and the closeness of the kingdom of God, following the words of Jesus, "The kingdom of God is within [or amongst] you." Indeed, the closeness of the heavenly dimension is graphically symbolized in Orthodox churches by the iconostasis, the screen which stands for the invisibility that keeps our visible eyes from perceiving the heavenly kingdom already present among us behind the royal doors. The icons hanging upon the iconostasis serve as so many windows upon this invisible, but ever present world, as do the lives of the saints that the icons represent. In both traditions, ritual is understood to be the door that allows passage between the two worlds to take place. Traditional African religions depicted the other world as the dwelling place of God and of a host of supernatural spirits (some of them ancestors) who mediated between the divine and the human and watched over the lives of men and women, offering, when asked, to protect people from harm or to provide favor on their behalf. Orthodox Christians believe in the power of saints, ancestors in the faith, to intercede with God for us and to protect and help us in time of distress.
2. African spirituality values the material world as enlivened with spirit and makes use of material objects that have been imbued with spiritual power. Orthodoxy sees the world as charged with the glory of God and celebrates in the feast of Theophany the renewal of the entire creation through God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus. Orthodoxy also appreciates the holiness of blessed matter, and uses water, chrism, candles, icons, crosses, and incense in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments).
3. The person in traditional African spirituality is conceived not as an individualized self, but as a web of relationships. Interrelatedness with the community, past as well as present, constitutes the person. Orthodox theologians speak of the person as being radically interpersonal, a being in communion, ultimately reflecting the interpersonal nature of the Divine Trinity. And the corporate character of Christian identity is grounded in the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ.
4. African religions speak of human beings as the children of God, who carry within a spark of God or "chi," a bit of God's soul that animates the spirit of each man and woman. Orthodoxy, following Genesis, teaches that we are created in the image and likeness of God and that it is our basic vocation to be "divinized," becoming more and more like the image in which we are created.
5. African spirituality does not dichotomize body and spirit, but views the human being as embodied spirit and inspirited body, so that the whole person body and spirit is involved in the worship of God. Orthodoxy also recognizes the person as embodied spirit and stresses the importance of bodily gestures, such as signing the cross, bowing, and prostrating, in the act of private and public prayer.
5. Worship in African-American tradition is supposed to make the divine present and effective. In ceremonies of spirit-entranced dance, the human person became the representation of the divine;. And divine power heals and transforms. In Orthodox worship, God becomes present to His people, most powerfully in the Eucharist as the Holy Spirit changes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and as those receiving Christ in Communion become more and more healed and transformed.
6. The African-American spirituals placed a strong emphasis on a tone of sad joyfulness that reflected African-Americans' experience and their perspective on life. In Orthodoxy, the sad joyfulness of the liturgical chant tones poignantly expresses the attitude of penthos or repentance which characterizes the Orthodox Christian's attitude toward life. This tone of sad joyfulness relates directly to the third major area of analogy between African-American spirituality and Orthodox, the experience of suffering Christianity.
And to Mr. Raboteau’s list, I add the African emphasis on blood as the symbol and sign of life.
God brought forth new life from the shedding of blood in the great flood of Noah. God brought forth a new earth from that baptism of water. Notice how water and blood are coupled, just as in His crucifixion blood came forth mingled with water.
Noah’s first act after leaving the ark was to offer sacrifice to God. Abraham's most supreme sacrifice, after God had entered into covenant with him, was to offer Isaac. Having raised up for the people a savior in Moses, God did not deliver them until they had sprinkled the doorframes with the blood of the Paschal lamb. Then God established for this people the Passover as an enduring ordinance with the words: " When I see the blood I will pass over you."
The blood of cattle or of goats could never take away sin; it was only a shadow of the true reconciliation with the Creator. Nothing earthly could accomplish the heavenly. Only God can atone for our sin. That being so, blood of a totally different nature was necessary for a covering of guilt and deliverance from death. According to the divine counsel, only the blood of God's Son could affect redemption and righteousness. Jesus Christ accomplished all by his willing and perfect obedience and love.
Because Jesus Christ is both the source of creation and God’s covenant of grace and peace, He is the head of the human race, a second Adam. In the Incarnation, He assumed full responsibility for all that sin in the flesh had done against God. His obedience and love were not that of a mere mortal, though He was fully man. His was the obedience and love of the One through whom all things were made and through whom all things are restored to perfect blessedness.
To enjoy this blessedness one need only trust in Him whose blood accomplishes all righteousness. The sinner who turns from his sin to God receives forgiveness and the promise of new life. Through that faith, he is perfectly reconciled to God and there is nothing that can prevent God from pouring out the fullness of His grace upon him.
A reader, Nancy, has commented: "I was interested in what you had
to say about African culture, and the affinities or similarities to
Orthodox belief systems. I don't know how much you know about native Alaskans and Tlingit culture, or the conversion experiences in the Aleutians, but much of what you say about Africa would apply to the native cultures (and there are several variations) in Alaska, and helps explain why they converted to the Orthodox Faith. There is a fascinating book Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity Through Two Centuries by Sergei Kan which discusses many of these issues. For example, Tlingit natives (and probably the rest of Alaskan natives) revere their ancestors, and as the title of the
book would indicate, they saved all those memories through oral
histories, and deeply appreciated Orthodox remembrance of the dead
through ceremony and prayers.
One interesting cultural difference though: The Tlingit people used to burn the bodies of the dead, mainly because it was a cold climate, and they worried that the deceased would get cold. That's why they insisted on cremation. Orthodox priests were rather horrified by these "barbaric" practices and insisted that they give up these practices. They would agree to do so, bury their dead, and later on sneak out, dig them up and cremate them."
Tribal peoples have many "culture traits" that in common. These incude: concern about blood, proper burial, life-cycle ceremonies, close observation of patterns in nature and a belief that "as in the heavens, so on earth."
Thank you for this article showing the similarities between African Spirituality and Orthodox Christianity. This would include the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.
Ethiopia was the first Christian nation. The most ancient Christian communities there venerate the Tabot, an ark of the covenant. Some scholars believe the practice represents backflow from Judean culture. They link the word "tabot" to the Aramaic word tebuta and to the Hebrew word tebah. I believe the practice originated among the Nilotic peoples and is linked to Kushite worship practices.
Ethiopia is also were the oldest human fossils have been found. Ardipithecus ramidus bones of 35 individuals were found in a stretch of the Awash River, near the village of Aramis in Ethiopia. "Ardi" walked upright and had human dentition. It took 17 years for scientists to analyze these remains. Paleoanthropologist Tim White led the University of California at Berkeley research team. The bulk of the physical evidence to date indicates that humans appeared as fully human and unheralded by sub-human ancestors around 3.7 million years ago.
RE: have you written anything on the "red thread" theme which includes ochre, Rahab, the scapegoat / temple red chord crimson thread traditions, left wrist "bracelet" against the evil eye, etc?
Hi, Ed. See this:
That's the stuff, Alice. Thanks much!
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