The Emeritus professor of Religion at Princeton University joins us to discuss his recent text American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.
Author & Emeritus Professor Dr. Albert Raboteau
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Professor Albert Raboteau to this program. His latest text sheds critical new light on the lives and thoughts of seven major prophetic figures in 20th century America. The text is titled “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice”. Professor Raboteau, an honor, sir, to have you on this program…
Albert Raboteau: It’s an honor to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: After a long and distinguished career at Princeton.
Raboteau: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me ask when you chose these seven persons as American prophets, I want to ask in a moment what qualifies one to be a prophetic voice in America after–because I jump so fast–I tell the audience at home who these seven figures are since you can’t see those faces perhaps so clearly on the cover of the text.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Those are the seven persons profiled in this text. Now to my question, Professor Raboteau. What qualifies one to be an American prophet, to be a prophetic voice in this country?
Raboteau: Well, the definition that I found most useful for looking at these seven figures of unusual people who were unusual, but they were also exemplary. So their exemplarity is part of what I’m after in this text. And the definition comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote as his doctoral dissertation in Germany in the 1930s, the classic text on “The Prophets”.
And he defines the prophet as one who experiences as a fire in his or her bones the divine pathos for humanity and must speak. So these are all people who experienced that divine pathos for humanity. That is, they had religious experiences which changed their lives in a way that made it impossible for them not to become involved in the cause of social justice.
It made it impossible for them not to speak truth to power, became impossible for them not to try to move others to feel the compassion that they did for those who are oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and the poor. And they not only felt it, but they were able to convey that to other people and, therefore, to move significant numbers of American citizens to join them in that struggle exemplifying the divine pathos.
Tavis: You use a phrase that I have used countless times, of course, and many others have used countless times. And yet it occurred to me–I won’t go through a long story here, but I could illustrate the point.
I was giving a speech the other day, a few weeks ago, in Texas and it didn’t really occur to me until the end of the talk when we got to the Q&A that there were a good number of people in the audience who really didn’t even understand what we mean when we say social justice. I kind of felt bad that I jumped so much into this speech thinking apparently, or not thinking, that I needed to define the term social justice.
It is a term. It’s a phrase that we use so much now in our vernacular that I think it merits asking you for those who want a functional definition, an operational definition, of what social justice is for one who has taught this for years on end. When you say social justice, what do you mean? How do you define that?
Raboteau: I mean it in the sense of treating others as you would like to be treated. It’s that basic.
Tavis: Wanting the same things for other peoples’ kids that you want for your kids. Exactly.
Raboteau: That’s right. You want the same kind of life and advantages in life and a well-lived life for others as you would for yourself. And basically for those who are Christians and even people who are not Christians, the Golden Rule still applies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
That’s very basic and it underlies any kind of civic community that’s worth its salt in terms of actually being a living community. You treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.
Tavis: I was not surprised to see this when I got into your text. Not surprised, but certainly was pleased that you made the distinction about the civil rights movement. It has become the litmus test for so many other struggles for freedom and justice in this country and, for that matter, as you know, around the globe.
And yet you made a clear distinction in your book that you see the civil rights movement as a Kairos moment, not a Chronos moment. So it’s not just the passage of time. It is the special moment in time that allowed these prophets to speak to us in a way that, quite frankly, changed America. Tell me more about why you see the civil rights movement in retrospect as a Kairos moment for America.
Raboteau: It was a Kairos moment because it was a moment when, historically, and there have been at least two such movements within our history. One is the abolitionist movement, the anti-slavery movement of the mid–19th century.
And the second is the movement in the mid–20th century of the civil rights movement in which significant numbers of people became concerned over the ongoing effect of the nation’s original sin, and that original sin was slavery and the treatment of Black people, and prejudice.
And they were able to become concerned because they were able to see in terms of the anti-slavery movement. They were able to see through the words of former slaves telling their narratives or a fugitive slave accounts which revealed to them what the real conditions of slavery were.
In the 20th century, they were able to see the beatings then on Pettus Bridge in Selma. They were able to see and hear the screams of people as they were being treated like animals by southern police. And they were able to see the police dogs attacking children. They were able to see people being washed off their feet by the fire hoses in Birmingham.
So they became eye witnesses to the brutality of the system and that caused them to raise very important questions about–in Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous words–“Is this America? Is this the home of the free, the land of the brave? How can this be happening here and, if it’s happening here, is there something I can do about it?”
Tavis: Black Lives Matter, the movement, is asking the same question that Fannie Lou Hamer asked all those years ago. She is on your list of one of these seven American prophets who fought for social and political justice. You define, again, the civil rights movement as a Kairos moment. Is the era of Black Lives Matter a Kairos moment in this country?
Raboteau: It may very well be because, once again, people are seeing the brutality of the police state. They’re seeing unarmed people being shot down like dogs. They’re seeing people murdered in front of the eyes of their children.
And, once again, they’re beginning to raise this question, you know, is this what America is about? Now what prevents it from being called a Kairos moment is simply what’s going to be the fruit of the demonstrations?
Tavis: Too soon to tell.
Raboteau: It’s too soon to tell. What kind of organization is going to result from this movement? In the other two Kairos moments of the anti-slavery movement, the feelings, the emotions, were able to be translated into organization. Same is true for the civil rights movement. It was able to be transformed into an organization. We’re still waiting for that to happen in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tavis: One of the things that occurred to me the minute I saw the book come across my desk is that every one of these persons–this may be part of the definition of being a prophet–every one of them at some level at some moment was both criticized and rejected. Say something to me about that.
Raboteau: Yeah. I think if you are prophetic, you raise questions that are troubling. People don’t like to be troubled. They like things to stay the status quo. They like things to be normal. Because if you raise especially a troubled conscience, then people get the feeling that I may need to change, that our society needs to change, and that that’s going to be costly. Part of what people tend to resist is the personal cost that might be involved in them changing their lives in order to do something about these issues.
Tavis: The other thing, of course, that comes to mind clearly is that each one of these persons was a person of faith. And I wonder where one’s faith fits into the conversation about the kinds of leaders we want to have today.
I mean, it seems to me that, when you talk about your faith in the public square today, some people automatically dismiss you. Some people see it as proselytizing. Others see it as irrelevant, not a factor that they even see that ought to be considered in the process of assessing one’s leadership. Just talk to me about where one’s faith fits into the conversation about how to make America better.
Raboteau: Yes. Faith can be dismissed as divisive because we have different faiths. But faith is where peoples’ values lie. This is the basic foundation through scriptures, through ethics, through communities for what our basic values are. So it can’t be realistically left out of political discourse.
What happens needs to happen in societies that other peoples’ values need to be taken seriously. If they are being taken seriously, then it means that you’re going to have different faiths, different beliefs, coming into contact. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean conflict.
Tavis: Yeah. Contact, but not conflict.
Raboteau: Because this is a society in which we have freedom of religion. So religion in the context of freedom of discussion should not be left at the doorstep. It should be brought into discussion because this is part of who people are.
So our problem now is our discussion is so uncivil. There’s so much dispute and antagonism and demeaning of others that people are reluctant to bring something into the discussion which may seem even more divisive than needs to be.
Tavis: One of my favorite verses in the tradition that I grew up in is that many are called, but few are chosen. Were these seven chosen?
Raboteau: I believe that they were chosen in that they answered a call. And any one of us who answers a call that we feel deeply is chosen, and that chosenness works itself out in answering the call.
Tavis: That’s a brilliant answer, but I expect no less from you, Al Raboteau [laugh]. The text is called “American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice”. I’ve just scratched the surface here, but it’s a powerful text, empowering to read. I highly recommend it. Professor Raboteau, good to have you on the program.
Raboteau: Wonderful to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Tavis: And by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working with diverse partners to build a national culture of health so that everyone in America can live productive and healthy lives.
The California Endowment. Health happens in neighborhoods. Learn more.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.