Pastoral Series

Reconciliation: Singing together

Reconciliation: Singing together

Sunday at 4pm, we’ll hear the Winston-Salem State choir sing old “slave spirituals,” and D’Walla Simmons-Burke and I will reflect on their meaning. When we think of reconciliation, we begin we realizing how we and others are broken and wounded.   James Cone wrote that “the spiritual is the spirit of people struggling to be free; it is their religion, their source of strength in a time of trouble. If one does not know what trouble is, then the spiritual cannot be understood.”

This music might help us understand the suffering of others, and then perhaps our own woundedness.  W.E.B. DuBois, calling them “sorrow songs,” explains how they are “the music of the children of disappointment, and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”  Fascinating: how overhearing the frustration of others, we discover our own hidden sorrows – and then bounce back in compassion to theirs.

An irony of slavery was that masters wanted their slaves to get religion: plantation owners read from the Bible, claiming it was God’s will for the slaves to be subservient, docile and obedient.  The Bible gets misused all the time, foiling possibilities for reconciliation.  And so I love the scene in the new film, “Birth of a Nation,” when Nat Turner shouts, “I’ve read the whole Bible now, not just part.”  This Bible is a fervently revolutionary book, demanding freedom and justice for all.  The slaves chafed under bondage, but relentlessly hoped for God’s good future.

Every time someone asks if they can repeat or reuse something I wrote or said, I reply, “Steal away, steal away to Jesus.”  How poignant was this song in the slave South?  Blacks, who had been stolen from Africa, singing what only they knew was code language: tonight, steal away if you can to a secret meeting in the woods.  Did Nat Turner write this song, as many believe?  Frederick Douglass said that when they sang “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,” they meant more than heaven.  “Canaan” meant “Canada.”  They were hoping to ride that underground railroad to freedom.

All this is of great historical interest, and might help us understand some deeply rooted feelings in today’s African-American community.  We need to hear, understand, and insure a fairer world for their descendants.  We also might hear intonations of our own bondage, our own craving for a better, holier place.  We feel free, but we have so far to go to enjoy the kind of joyful freedom God made us for.  That freedom comes as a gift from God, and won’t happen until we insist on the freedom and flourishing of everybody else.

And so I wonder what role singing might play in the quest for reconciliation.  Certainly, to be reconciled to God, it won’t hurt you to sing “Amazing Grace” or “Love Divine” or “Blessed Assurance.”  To be reconciled to others, maybe we sing those songs, and some others.  How many grand social movements, like Civil Rights, were galvanized by crowds singing together – songs like “We Shall Overcome”?  The godfather of modern atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche, complained: “They will have to sing better songs before I will believe in their redeemer.”  Maybe we just sing – together.  What better image of the reconciled life can there be than various singers, with different kinds of voices and abilities, joining together in harmony?

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