Friday, February 13, 2015

Have You Not Heard?

In the summer of 1971, when the Jackson 5’s I’llBe There was in heavy rotation on the AM station that blared from the transistor radio slung over the handlebars of my banana-seat bicycle, I spent a lot of time at the swimming pool at the Booker T. Washington State Park in Chattanooga.
As you might begin to surmise from the name of the park, Booker T. was originally created, under Jim Crow segregation laws, for black folks – one of the two state parks in the entire state of Tennessee that was built for blacks. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all of the state’s parks had become integrated, but, to the best of my memory, I was the only white kid in the pool most of the time that summer.
Truth be told, from a look at photographs on the park’s web site, that story might still be told this summer. Which is to say, this is not history and, as Faulkner might have put it, it’s barely even past.
In any case, I wound up spending so much time there that summer because my dad was working with a man named Dorsey Sims to run a program to teach inner-city kids how to swim. All of those kids were black. Dorsey Sims headed up one of the most successful high school basketball programs in the state and had an in with those kids that my dad didn’t have. I’m still not sure how my father knew coach Sims, but they were about the same age, and coach Sims had a son my age. More than 40 years on, I cannot recall the son's name, but I remember that he spent that summer educating me about black pop music of the time. That was the summer I fell in love with Motown.
Last week, I looked up I’ll Be There to try to figure out which summer I was remembering, and, naturally, I listened to it again. I can promise you that I didn’t notice this in the summer of 1971, but I’ll Be There is a spiritual. Oh, sure, it’s a pop ballad love song on the surface, but beneath the surface there’s a subtle but clear allusion to faith. The first line of the song says, “we must bring salvation back – where there is love, I’ll be there.” That’s gospel – in substance as well as in style.
The prophet Isaiah asks, “have you not heard?” I hear in the question an invitation – indeed, a demand – to listen with more care, to listen deeper, to attend to deeper rhythms and meanings even when the writer of a song or story doesn’t intend them. You see, I’m not suggesting that the 13-year-old Michael Jackson had deeper intentions or even that Barry Gordy, Hal Davis, and Willie Hutch – the grownups who wrote the song – had any such intentions. I’m simply saying that gospel truth is often woven into human expression because the One who knit us together in the first place, knit us with particular attention to the presence and deeper meanings and movements of the divine spirit of love.
It’s not surprising, though, that gospel truth often finds its most compelling expression in human song, nor should it be surprising that such truth-in-song finds its most moving expression in the songs of people living on the margins of societies.
At about the same time I was discovering Motown, James Cone, who had published his groundbreaking A Black Theology of Liberation the previous year, was at work on small classic called The Spirituals and the Blues.
In it, he wrote, “the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”[1] Cone hears the blues as “secular spirituals … about black life and sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.”[2]
These are the songs of Job. These are the songs of those diseased, oppressed, possessed people who sought out a healing touch from Jesus.
Job sings about “months of futility, and nights of misery,” and laments that his “eyes will never see happiness again.” The sorrow songs, as W.E.B. DuBois called the spirituals, affirm the same experience: “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows my sorrow.” In neither instance does the song offer an answer to the abstract philosophical question of evil. Rather, both address the concrete existential question of living on in a world where evil is real, of remaining faithful in a world of sorrow, of experiencing the presence of the divine in a world from which God seems to have withdrawn.
Thus, while the spiritual repeats that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, it concludes, “Glory, Hallelujah!” As Cone put it, “The ‘Glory, Hallelujah!’ was not a denial of trouble; it was an affirmation of faith: God is the companion of sufferers, and trouble is not the last word on human existence.”[3]
Cone was building on thoughts first expressed by DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, where he wrote, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”[4]
There are, according to some sources, more than 6,000 Negro spirituals. Think about that for a moment: more than 6,000 songs of human faith and hope arising out of the most inhumane and hopeless conditions imaginable. You can hear that hope and faith in the song Cone recalls his mother singing around their house in the small southern Arkansas town of Bearden:
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep.
(You really should click these music links, and the one below; they take you to awesome recordings of the songs!)

If God delivered the captive Israelites from the bondage of Pharoah’s Egypt, then God would do the same for captive slaves in America. That’s why the song was sung. As the first sentence of Cone’s introduction puts it: “The power of song in the struggle for black survival – that is what the spirituals and blues are about.”[5]
Why does any of this matter for us today? For the pretty much Anglo community with whom I work whose lived experience is just about the furthest thing imaginable from that of slaves?
To begin with, this matters for the simple fact remains that our only honest answer to Isaiah must be, “no.” “No, we have not heard, and thus, we do not know.”
We have not heard my own denomination’s plaintive cry, uttered most clearly in the majestic words of the Confession of 1967, where we proclaimed in one voice:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. […] Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess. (Confession of 1967, 9.44a)
More broadly, we remain deaf to voices proclaiming truths that, however subtly, make us uncomfortable. To begin with, the spirituals proclaim in song the theological truth that black lives matter, and that they matter, first, to God. That has to have a claim on our lives, and that claim ought to make us uncomfortable if not with our own individual thoughts and actions, then, certainly, with the ways that white-dominated economic and political systems continue to marginalize and oppress people of color in our own town, across our own country, and around the world.
Moreover, listening again to Isaiah’s insistent question – have you not heard – the spirituals allow us to hear, if we have ears to listen, to a faith experience that is both not our own but that also makes a great claim on our own.
Because, finally, the spirituals voice an urgent demand for justice. In that demand, given voice in this powerful expression of black culture, God calls to us – we folk of such unquestioned privilege that we somehow don’t even understand that there is such a thing as white culture – God calls to us.
As Dr. King reminded the moderate white religious leaders to whom he addressed the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[6]
The One who wove us together in that garment, wove us with love and calls us to follow the way of Jesus – a way of love and of justice.
My pre-teen self of all those years ago certainly didn’t think in such terms, but I think that, as my ears began to be opened to the songs of folks not just like me, I began to have my heart opened to other voices, as well, and to the Voice that calls us to walk a way of love and justice. Along that way, Jesus promises that wherever there is such love expressed and such justice practiced, he’ll be there to walk with us.
One of the spirituals puts it this way,
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, walk with me.
When my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.
In my trials, walk with me.
In my trials, walk with me.
When my head is bent in sorrow
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.

[1] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1972), 35.
[2] Ibid. 97
[3] Ibid. 58
[4] quoted in Cone, 13.
[5] Ibid. 1.
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope (San Francisco: Harper, 1986) 290.

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