Much church music has been rightly criticized as “other-worldly.” Rather than helping us live a well-lived life now, a life of justice in the midst of injustice, a life of peace-making in the midst of hostility, such music too often serves as a religious pain-pill to put up with wrongs rather than speak up for equity and fairness. The spirituals seem to tempt us to just wait until the sweet-by-and-by, to wait until we get across the Jordan, to wait until the world comes to an end. And yet much can be said—as social critic W.E.B. DuBois said one hundred years ago—that the spirituals, and the blues, arose from a matrix of oppression and injustice, and as such were powerful expressions of the longing for social change. They were, he said, the “most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.” DuBois called them “sorrow songs,” “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” And yet, DuBois continues, “Through all of the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.” That is, the Sorrow Songs implicitly believed that the cosmos would bend toward justice, toward the righting of wrongs, toward the undoing of oppression.
This is the social function of some of the most important songs in Hebrew and Christian scripture, too: the Song of Moses is a revolutionary proclamation of a freed slave-people, that the Warrior God has thrown Pharoah and his military might into the depths of the sea. Or the song of Hannah, that weeping woman excluded from the ranks of the social pecking order because of her barren womb, would insist that God breaks the bows of the mighty, fattens up the hungry, and hungers up the fat-and-happy: and that God gave her a miracle baby, too. The Song of Mary, generations later, would echo Hannah, and sing of another miracle baby, and would add another revolutionary verse to the song Hannah started: God, Mary would sing, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones … lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Black liberation theologian James Cone reminded us some decades ago that the questions we ask depend upon where we sit or stand. The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, Cone noted, was much concerned with the manner in which Jesus was present at the Lord’s table. Had Martin Luther been an African, kidnapped and sold on the slave market in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, said Cone, “his first question would not have been whether Jesus was at the Lord’s table, but whether he was really present at the slave’s cabin.”
Similarly, I would add that how well we hear a song depends upon where we sit or stand. The old African prayer-song Kum Ba Yah, for example, in my experience in white church circles, this song serves as a camp-fire song for naïve sweetness, a naivete that thinks that if we’ll all just play nice, everything will be just hunkey-dorey. But if I sit with uncomfortable tales long enough—the horrid middle passage; or the contemporary plight of children in the alleys of Nairobi; or the suffering of loved ones under the scourge of illness and death—then I begin to hear a different echo, a different sort of cry…