Prophets and Poets: Langston Hughes and Habakkuk in Conversation

Prophets and Poets: Langston Hughes and Habakkuk in Conversation

As a literary scholar and theologian, I often find myself turn to poets and prophets for words of hope, insights, wisdom, and understanding. Both prophets and poets posses the rhetorical skill and an incredible discernment to precisely diagnose the human predicament, and tell us exactly where and why it hurts. They also tell us the “what” and the “who” and eventually, they will prescribe the right medicine to heal the wound–both personal and collective. Both poets and prophets always portray themselves as the conscience of society. They call us to sympathize with human suffering and pain, to do justice, to walk humbly, and to create emancipative future possibilities.

Prophets and Poets are deeply concerned about the value and meaning of human existence. They also write about the fragility of life and the miscarriage of justice in society. Like us, they also struggle with the problem of evil in the world, and protest against injustice, human oppression, and theodicy. In this essay, we bring Langston Hughes and Habakkuk in conversation on these sensitive issues. We will analyze Hughes’ excellent and provocative poem, “Let America Be America,” and the rhetorical language of selected passages in Habakkuk. We shall attempt to highlight literary parallelisms/connections and shared ideologies in both writings.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967), an African American poet, Habakkuk, an Israelite Biblical prophet lived in two different historical periods. They did not share the same cultural milieu and historical trajectories. While Habakkuk claimed the call to the prophetic ministry in order to channel  the will and message of God to the Israelites and orient the people of God to live righteously, walk in obedience and holiness before God, Hughes had appointed himself as the mouthpiece of the people, as we love to call him “The Poet of the People.” Habakkuk was chiefly concerned with the task of magnifying God among his people  and the nations. The supremacy of God in all things occupied the prophet’s conscience and doing. Hughes’ desperation involved exclusively the dignity and emancipation of his people (the African American population) in the American society. Arguably, Hughes’ poetic verses are anthropocentric; by contrast, Habakkuk’s prophetic words are theocentric. Yet, we would argue somewhat they complement each other in their respective duty. One cannot fully understand the predicament of man in the world unless he/she has a good understanding of the God who created them both male and female in his image. Man is not an autonomous being. He is intrinsically connected with God and depends on him for his life and everything else. As Apostle Paul urges his first- century audience,  which is also a reminder to all of us today, “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). What establishes a link between God and human, the prophet (Habakkuk) and the poet (Hughes,  is this: “We are his offspring.”  Humans are the special work of God their Maker.

Both Habakkuk and Hughes longed for justice, national renewal, and transformation–both at the individual and collective level. Their calling as poet and prophet and their commitment to human flourishing and freedom is what distinguishes their vocation to that of other individuals. Their audience was impressive and inclusive because Hughes and Habakkuk attempted to reach out to all people: men and women, the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy, the religious and the non-religious, the educated and the non-educated, etc. This sense of multicultural audience and the diversity of the human experience is well articulated in these poetic lines by Hughes:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”)

Perhaps, we should use the terms prophet-activist and poet-activist to reflect both the specific nature of Hughes and Habakkuk’s vocation and their active engagement with people. To call Habakkuk a prophet-activist means that he had employed both the written and spoken word as a catalyst to redirect the people of God to the moral vision of the Covenant; he had also appealed to all human faculties to challenge the people of God to live according to the divine design for them. Primarily, Habakkuk is an activist for God. He is also an activist for the people of God. In his first complaint in the first chapter, the prophet challenges God to remember his distinctive divine identity and to remain faithful to his covenant with his people.

Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die. (1:12)

In the opening verse of the second chapter, the prophet reiterates his concern to God about the welfare of God’s people, a candid indicator  of his activism and solidarity with the people:

I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint. (2:1)

The prophet’s longing for God’s hesed-lovingkindness toward God’s people is made known in a prayer of lament in the third chapter of the book:

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. (3:2)

On the other hand,  the “I” in these poetic lines by Hughes bears the sense of collectivity; this realist stanza expressively declares the poet’s ethic of solidarity and human relationality, and a politics of activism regardless of one’s occupation/vocation in life:

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead.

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”).

The spirit of communitarianism and human solidarity is evident in the oeuvre of Habakkuk and Hughes. To move this conversation forward, it is good to note at this point that the  people of Habakkuk’s time experienced a devastating exile from their homeland; they also went through a terrific  moment of starvation, drought, and social alienation as a result of the collective sin of idolatry and disobedience, and  the grievous sin of autonomy and disbelief resulting in God’s deliberate withdrawal from them. Thus, Habakkuk complaint to God is crafted in this rhetoric of anguish:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save? (1:2)

The people of God had belittled God’s glory in their midst and among the nations, and brought great shame and damage to God’s name, his majesty and splendid transcendence. God’s abandonment of his people creates catastrophic effects in society and alters human behavior to violence, deceitfulness,  and great moments of darkness.

Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise. (1:3)

 So the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
    so justice goes forth perverted. (1:4)

The prevalence of evil in Habakkuk’s society compels him to reinterpret his understanding of  God’s most-praised virtue: holiness; in the same line of thought, Habakkuk’s historical witness of the tragedy of humanity, his complete depravity, and his desire to do nothing but evil leads him to lament over God’s refusal to intervene in the affairs of men to eradicate evil in their midst and prove himself to be the “Holy One of Israel.”

You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he? (1:13)

As the guardian of God’s holiness  and the one who clarifies God’s distinctive character and virtues to the people of God, Habakkuk is surprised by God’s indifference or lack of response to the plight of his people.  On the other hand, the African American people in Hughes’ era had suffered tremendous destructive social oppression and social death; they also endured immeasurably racial violence, lynching, racial segregation, and social inequality.  Consequently, Hughes’ clarion call for racial justice, equity, and wholeness is well crafted in this stanza:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”)

Prophets and Poets question God, authorities, the nation-state (s) the individual, the people. They even interrogate those who have economic-political power and status to create the boundary of life, and establish societal structures and infrastructures. They are fierce individuals who are not afraid to question, to doubt, to laugh, and to die. They always stand for something greater than themselves and are ultimately committed to a cause.

In the following verses, Habakkuk showcases his prophetic wage.

8 as your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
    Was your anger against the rivers,
    or your indignation against the sea,
when you rode on your horses,
    on your chariot of salvation?
You stripped the sheath from your bow,
    calling for many arrows. Selah
    You split the earth with rivers.
10 The mountains saw you and writhed;
    the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice;
    it lifted its hands on high.
11 The sun and moon stood still in their place
    at the light of your arrows as they sped,
    at the flash of your glittering spear.
12 You marched through the earth in fury;
    you threshed the nations in anger.

(Habakkuk 3:8-12)

Trusting in God’s covenant faithfulness and sustaining abundant compassion, the prophet cries to God for the freedom and shalom of God’s people, and for God’s retributive justice:

 I hear, and my body trembles;
    my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
    my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
    to come upon people who invade us.

(Habakkuk 3:16)

The praise song that brings a closure to Habakkuk’s prophetic ministry and activism is crafted in such a way that the people of God will always remember the faithfulness of God and God’s intervention in historical past; in the same vein, this song of human celebration of the mighty acts of God in history is also a letter to God in order that God will never forget what he had done for his people. As the people of God will forget God’s past deeds, God will always remember his people and maintain his covenant faithfulness toward them.

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

(Habakkuk 3:17-19)

In the verses that follow below, Hughes displays the magnitude of his poetic anger. This is a long song of incredible lament with an emancipative intent or goal:

To build a “homeland of the free.”
The free?
Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”)

The poet cannot keep his silence; he wants to be heard. Yet,  he is very optimistic about the American future, which will bring democracy in black, and the potential future when America will keep her covenant and fulfill its promissory note to all of her children–white, black, brown, red, mixed, etc:

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”)

Finally, poets and prophets speak, write, cry, mourn,  lament, sing, protest, and rejoice. They always hope for another and a better world. Prophets and poets are men and women who hope and dream, but they also individuals who create the hope and the dream they long for.

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain….

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”)

 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

(Habakkuk 3:19)

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We need Your Help Now!

Dear HTO Friends and Supporters,
 
In December 2015, Hope for Today Outreach sent a team (Dr. Celucien Joseph and his wife Katia Joseph, and other partners in Haiti)to the rural area of Corail, Port Margot (Haiti). As we walked through the neighborhoods, handing out small donations to families, we were have witnessed God’s love, grace, and mercy toward the people of Port-Margot. The people were very grateful and thankful for what they received from us. Their words of appreciation made us feel so proud of we have achieved so far at Hope for Today Outreach (HTO). We witnessed their poverty and suffering, and we realized how much we needed to add to our donations food such as rice, beans, and non-perishable food. And this is the reason why we are writing to you now, to request your help, with either a donation of funds to buy the food for the people or a donation of food (rice, beans, and non-perishable food) to provide for 500 underprivileged and poor families in Port-Margot.
 
Hope for Today Outreach puts great emphasis on feeding the hungry and the poor, as we believe the biblical imperative to always “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). I’m sure you know of how important it is to care for the less fortunate… They are our brothers and sisters after all. Obviously, we won’t be able to accomplish this task without the assistance of partners and supporters like you; hence, we beseech you to help us by sponsoring HOP or by donating the items needed for our June mission trip to Port-Margot, Haiti.
 
By sponsoring and helping feeding the poor of Corail, Port Margot, you will be reaching out to many undeserved families, alleviating hunger and poverty in the Region, and making a tremendous difference in the lives of children, young people, and families in such a big way!
 
For my Christian friends (being a follower of Christ), I’m sure you will understand the importance of giving to the poor and care for the needy; it is a way to spread the good news and love of Christ, and this is what this ministry’s main goal! We want to reach out to the people of Port Margot and help them to know the Lord in a personal way, yet through our act of kindness and compassion. Also, by helping us feeding the people of Corail, HTO will be providing a huge service to all the families.
 
If you would like to sponsor or provide assistance toward this coming mission trip in June, please contact me, Katia Joseph via the telephone (772-985-0696), or via email at customers@hopefortodayoutreach.org. If you would like to send the donations (financial support, rice, beans, and non-perishable food) to us, please send it to the address listed below:
 
Hope for Today Outreach (HTO)
P.O. Box 7353
Port Saint Lucie, FL 34985
 
HTO is sending a mission team to Port-Margot in June 4, 2016. If you are sending any of these items listed below, please do so by Monday, May 9, 2014 so we the items can be shipped to Haiti on a timely manner before we arrive.
 
We thank you for the time you have taken to read this letter.
 
Blessings in Christ,
 
Katia
 

Holy Discontent: These Things Make Me Sad!

Earlier in a post today on Facebook, I wrote that “sometimes words fail to communicate what we want to articulate.” Although words still fail me, here are the things I have been contemplating about today (Language will always remain a fallible vehicle to clarify effectively the human mind, communicate adequately the human thought, and action):

Holy Discontent: These Things Make Me Sad!

There are many things in this world that are very depressing to me, but the following fifteen issues are notorious:
1. The depressing living condition of the Haitian people in Haiti.
2. Politics in Haiti.
3. Politics in the United States.
4. The Race Problem in America.
5. The failure of Evangelical Christianity in America to care for the poor, the needy, and underprivileged families.
6. The unholy alliance between Evangelical Christianity and the Bourgeoisie class in America.
7. The failure of Evangelical Christianity to practice justice and be in solidarity with the oppressed and disheartened.
8. The disastrous effects of globalization and free market capitalism.
9.  The end of (spiritual) piety and the triumph of secularism and atheism.
10. The end of compassion and love.
11. The end of human hospitality and community.
12. The triumph of (social) evil in our society and the world.
13. The fear of the stranger and difference.
14. The desecration of life and dehumanization of people.
15. The continuous battle of people of color–black people in particular-in this country to acknowledge their humanity and show that they too count in America.

20 Simple Truths Everybody Should Learn about God, Life, and People

20 Simple Truths Everybody Should Learn about God,  Life,  and People

HTO MISSION TRIP PICS (PORT MARGOT, DEC. 18-26) 451.JPG

  1. Love is more important than freedom.
  2. God is love.
  3. God loves the poor.
  4. You give life meaning when you love and serve those who can’t love nor serve you in return.
  5. Justice and love are inseparable.
  6. Don’t follow religion, follow God.
  7. Life is a journey not a destiny.
  8. Show kindness and compassion to strangers and  the poor.
  9. Friendship with the poor and the disadvantaged is worth pursuing.
  10.  Give food to those who are hungry, and a cup of water to the thirsty.
  11. Justice and compassion will never fade.
  12. Many people suffer in the world because of a simple act of injustice.
  13. Always do good to others!
  14. Love your enemy!
  15. Love your family!
  16. Love sacrificially and serve unconditionally!
  17. Do not pursue money in this life; rather, cultivate genuine relationship with people that will last because people matter more than money or wealth.
  18. Invest your time in what is eternal and life-transforming.
  19. Pursue what is honorable, just, and beautiful in life.
  20. Love God, love your neighbor, and walk in solidarity with the poor, the needy, and the powerless.