Bayard Rustin: A Faithful Life

Pastoral Care Support

by Dan Seeger.

I am privileged to have been able to count Bayard Rustin among my friends. Bayard was a member of the AFSC’s New York Office Executive Committee for some of the years during which I served as regional director of that office.

 In this essay, I will draw together two of the key spiritual threads in Bayard’s life: his African-American heritage and his Quakerism; these two streams of spirituality compliment and reinforce each other. They hold special meaning not only for African-Americans and Friends, but represent a spiritual treasure of significance for all people.

The Book of Revelation, sometimes also called the Apocalypse of John, is the last book of the canonical Christian scriptures. John, the author of Revelation, while on the island of Patmos, had a dream, or a vision, which he proceeds to describe in considerable detail.

The text includes many fantastical word pictures describing titanic struggles between good and evil. The Book’s powerful images have entered into our common culture: the Pearly Gates, the Seven Seals, the Grapes of Wrath, Gabriel and his Trumpet, the Seven-Headed Monster, and the New Jerusalem, to name a few.

Many have assumed that the text is a linear narrative of history which allegorically describes past, present and future events. Such people assume that if they can accurately link up actual historical events with the narrative in the Book of Revelation, it will be possible to determine exactly where in the Book’s sequence we are at present, and therefore, what will happen next.

What has all this to do with African-American spirituality and with Friends?

George Fox and the Valiant Sixty were avid readers of the bible and based the essentials of their spiritual movement on their interpretation of scripture. George Fox quoted scripture so extensively that some people went so far as to say that if the Bible were ever lost, it could be completely reconstructed from George Fox’s memory and his writings.

It may surprise people to learn that the Book of Revelation was one of Fox’s favorites. In the light of the somewhat questionable place of the book in Christian history, one might wonder at this. But as is the case with so many other Biblical issues, the Friends saw something in the text that eluded others.

Fox’s understanding of the Book of Revelation was not that it is a linear description of events beginning somewhere in the past and moving on to predictions about the future. Rather, to Fox the book is a poetic and metaphorical description of what is going on right now.

What the Apocalypse of John revealed to George Fox was not the end of the world, but its rebirth, a rebirth instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples as they act concretely in the world to advance the cause of justice and truth in human society. Using imagery from the Book of Revelation, George Fox describes this struggle for truth and justice as “the Lamb’s war,” a war carried out by the meek through gentleness, nonviolence, self-sacrifice and peace.

In centuries following George Fox, scholars came to designate this interpretation of the

Book of Revelation as “post-millennial-ism,” or as “realized eschatology.” These are terms that simply mean that the Second Coming of Christ has already occurred, and the promised new age, or New Jerusalem, is being constructed as people of faith advance the causes of peace, truth and justice.

But let us turn from academic theology to consider one of the most remarkable developments in the history of religion: the community of uneducated, enslaved people in America developed its own very powerful Biblical understandings, understandings recorded not in learned treatises, but in their own wonderful music.

The enslaved African-Americans identified with Israel’s bondage in Egypt and expressed their yearning to be free, often in a desire to be released from this world. “Go Down, Moses,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Deep River” are songs of this sort. They identified with the suffering of Jesus. They could see the suffering Christ as someone whose predicament was somewhat the same as their own. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” is a famous African-American spiritual of this sort.

In their own reading of the Bible, the African-American slaves perceived a clear emphasis – the cry for freedom and justice from the underside of history. Their cry for help from Almighty

God was also a cry of hope. They saw themselves as a people of destiny, participating in God’s working in history.

And it is here that the Quaker reading and the African-American reading of the Book of Revelation comes into focus. For associated with the slaves’ cry for freedom was an expectation of the justice and the judgment of God. Unlike George Fox and the early Friends, African-American interpretations of the Book of Revelation often seem to accept the conventional understanding that the text follows a linear time sequence. This has led some people to disparage both the Biblical text itself and the songs based upon it.

Are the Biblical text, and the songs derived from it, encouraging people to be passive in the here and now while awaiting a magical rescue from Heaven, or while awaiting some kind of pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye? Perhaps there has been, from time to time, some tendency in this direction. But the criticism is often unaware of the way these songs actually functioned in the communities where they were sung.

These texts, when sung, bound people together in a posture of hope. Singing about a future in which the world will be turned upside down and the oppressors will be overthrown tends inevitably to draw the future back into the present. In song lyrics drawn from the Book of Revelation the presently existing order of things is boldly declared to be illegitimate, the future is open not closed, and the spirit can resist being captured and submerged by the present.

Revolutionary ideas and religious orthodoxy are given voice in the same vocabulary. Hope for the future can inspire resistance in the present. After all, if the present order of things is displeasing in the sight of God, and if God will overturn it all eventually, what is the point of putting up with it now? The song “Blow Your Trumpet, Gabriel,” [link to the lyrics online] can be understood as an otherworldly reference on one level, but it is not always clear that the trumpet call is really about the next life.

I knew Bayard Rustin during the last 15 years of his life. He was then an urban intellectual – a writer of weekly newspaper columns, a world traveler in humanitarian causes, an art collector, a formidable debater, a humorist with a mischievous sense of irony. The film clips of his earlier life, when he was visiting college campuses with his guitar or his lute on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, showed another side of Bayard which perhaps his New York friends might not have fully understood.

Bayard’s presentation of African-American spiritual songs drew upon deep roots of human experience and spiritual perspective which unite the heart and the mind, and which thus prepared listeners at least to begin to grasp the challenging truths of the Sermon on the Mount.

On August 23, 1963, when Martin Luther King made one of the greatest speeches in American history at the greatest public demonstration in American history, organized by Bayard Rustin, Dr. King included in his words the famous “I have a dream” sequence. The explicit Biblical reference in that sequence comes from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:4-5).

But the structure and scheme of the “I have a dream” passage is patterned on the Book of Revelation exactly as the Book was understood by George Fox. Dr. King’s speech is the holding up of an image of ultimate peace and justice which, although rhetorically couched as dream or vision of a time uncertain, nevertheless has implications for the here and now, and for the challenges which must unfailingly be met in the here and now.

Knowing that there is no time but this present, those who are valiant for the truth make the constant choice not to run from the present moment in the naive hope that salvation will appear around the next corner. Alone, we perhaps cannot accomplish much. But together our work can make the principle of love visible, showing the way to the New Jerusalem.

In bringing our brother Bayard back in from the shadows, we affirm again the beginning of a new humanity in which the complex fragmentation of our social existence is healed and sanctified. With this reconciling gesture we express thankfulness for the variety of gifts and for the differences of personality which have been gathered.

When each of us puts our own potential and insights at the service of the group, our unity grows stronger and richer, and together we create a spaciousness in which no one is an outsider. Thus, in the recognition of the life of Bayard Rustin we see once again the miracle which makes peace and justice possible.

This article by Dan Seeger has be excerpted from a longer piece. If you would like to read the longer version, please contact George Schaefer, PYM Care & Aging Coordinator at gschaefer@pym.org