Lent and the Unanswered Prayers of Trans-Atlantic Slaves
“O LORD, God of salvation, I have cried out day and night before you . . . Loved one and friend You have put far from me, And my acquaintances into darkness.”
Psalm 88:1, 13
My father told me the Bible is the “Book of Life,” by this he meant it contains principles for understanding and processing one’s life experiences. As a student of history, I seek to understand human experiences through a biblical lens. I am drawn to studying and teaching the experiences of people in the margins. This history can be painfully difficult to examine. Looking for God in it can easily produce feelings of frustration, futility, and despair. For example, there is no easy way to biblically process the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its accompanying three plus centuries of race-based slavery. It is one of the greatest tragedies of history—alongside the other slave trades out of Africa, the Holocaust, other genocides, and the Rape of Nanking.
The raw violence that created and upheld the slave trade and slavery disoriented and alienated many generations of Africans and their descendants, despite the existence of a loving, sovereign God. We do not have to immerse ourselves in this history to struggle with the despair of unanswered questions and unanswered prayer. Although we are well removed from race-based slavery, many today know the pain of unanswered prayers and multiple tragedies beyond our control. What does the “Book of Life” say to such people? If we pray for deliverance, but don’t get it, what are we supposed to do? Doesn’t God care? Is scripture practical enough to grapple with the existence of unanswered prayers?
Such questions are addressed by lament psalms. Laments usually contain these elements: an address to God, complaints about others’ attacks or God’s apparent abandonment, pleas for help from God, a rationale for why God should answer. The redemptive beauty of lament lies in the fact that no matter how painful or depressing the author’s cries are, the author normally includes or ends with a declaration of confidence: God will answer the cry for help, defend, or vindicate, and turn the situation around. (See Psalm 6, 10, 13, 38, 54, 60, 80, 85).
Psalm 88 stands out as the saddest of lament psalms. Its most striking feature is that it does not include an assertion of confidence that God will hear and deliver. It noticeably offers no hope. The second aspect that stands out about this psalm is how the imagery of it describes the pain of the author in terms and phrases which align with slaves’ experiences during the “middle passage.” While this psalm did not prophesy that horror, any accurate description of the middle passage, from the perspective of the enslaved, would incorporate such phrases as:
- “Adrift among the dead”: dead slaves lay chained to living ones until the crew discovered and disposed of the dead.
- “In the darkness, in the depths”: slaves were laid in the dark, lower levels of the ship.
- “I am shut up, and I cannot get out”: slaves remained shackled unless they were “exercising” on deck under close supervision of the crew.
- “I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth”: It was not uncommon for enslaved people to have been trafficked for months before embarking on a ship for another month or more at sea. Despair led many to commit suicide by jumping overboard.
- “Loved one and friend you have put far from me”: the process completely severed them from every basic human identity they knew.
Generations of African-descended people died with unanswered prayers for the end of this torture.
So what is the message of this psalm for those in despair? First, as Old Testament scholar Glenn Pemberton points out, like all lament psalms, this one provides “a vocabulary to express the realities of our brokenness and a grammar that helps us control the vocabulary.” It is a vocabulary reflective of the pain of the enslaved. Second, while this psalm does not offer any reassurance God is going to change our circumstance, it offers, instead, the image of an incredibly strong faith. Despite the long list of complaints, many directed against God himself, the author begins by addressing the Lord as the “God of my salvation” and repeatedly asserts (verses 1, 9, 13) that he cries out to God, both day and night, even with outstretched arms. O that we would persist in prayer and intercession even when we do not feel or see any hope.
In this season of Lent, as we prepare ourselves for Easter, may we not fail to incorporate the full honesty of lament into our own communion with our heavenly Father. No matter how raw our feelings, he will listen.
H. Paul Thompson, Jr. (Ph.D., Emory University) is Dean of the College of Humanities and Science, Chair of the Department of History, and Professor of History at North Greenville University. He is author of A Most Stirring and Significant Episode: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Black Atlanta, 1865–1887 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012). He is a member of the Executive Board of the Conference on Faith and History.