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COMMENTARY: The Subversive Power of Spirituals and Faith

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The soloist was halfway through “Wade In the Water” when I realized that this call-and-response chant sung by Southern slaves was telling how to escape: “wade in the water, children,” so that Master’s bloodhounds can’t pick up your scent. Wear black, said another verse, to escape detection. What other […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The soloist was halfway through “Wade In the Water” when I realized that this call-and-response chant sung by Southern slaves was telling how to escape: “wade in the water, children,” so that Master’s bloodhounds can’t pick up your scent.

Wear black, said another verse, to escape detection.

What other secret-meaning songs were sung in the fields while clueless overseers kept watch? “Follow the Drinking Gourd” told fugitive slaves how to follow the Big Dipper north to freedom. “The Gospel Train” told about the Underground Railroad. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” told slaves to find Ripley, Ohio, where a “band of angels” would bring a “sweet chariot” to carry them across the dangerous Ohio River. “Balm in Gilead” pointed to the prophet Jeremiah who said, “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. “Deep River” promised a “home” across the Ohio.

Slave owners thought Christian songs would pacify slaves and train them to suffer quietly. Instead, spirituals became their liberation theology: training captives for freedom with escape instructions and with a promise that the liberator God of Exodus was coming now for them.

Faith, you see, is ultimately disruptive, even subversive. Christian faith is about transformation: new creation, new names, new identities, new homes. It is about movement, not standing still. It points forward, not backward. The more we turn to ancient texts, the more we see that the arena of faith is today, and its drive is onward to freedom.

I think that is why religious leaders are so desperate to get us arguing about sex and orthodoxy. Once people actually read their Bibles, they get beyond the well-known texts on sexuality, and discover that the heart of the Old Testament isn’t a few verses on sex, but entire books on freedom, justice and mercy. They get beyond arguments over church authority and ordination rules, and discover that Jesus actually taught about wealth and power.

Once people read the prophets, they understand Jesus and see why his Gospel offended the powerful. Once people read about Israel’s bad kings and foolish alliances, they see parallels to modern politics. Once they read 1 Corinthians 12 & 13, they understand the folly of religious pride. Once they read the Sermon on the Mount, they understand Christian ethics.

I say, let’s all be evangelicals _ not just those who scour the Bible for excuses to declare their superiority, but all of us. Let’s read the Law _ all five books, not just Leviticus 18:22, which is trotted out to forbid homosexuality. Let’s read what Jesus actually said and did. Let’s read the books that early bishops banned and ask why they were banned. Let’s step deeply inside Luke 2.

Let’s accept the authority of Scripture _ as it truly is, not as the rulebook some claim it to be. Let’s dream with Daniel, let’s sing with David, let’s glean with Ruth, let’s hang up our harps on trees and wonder whether God’s song can be sung in a strange land. Let’s walk with Adam and Eve, not as some pseudo-science about the genetics of sin, but as an essential human drama.

And then like our African brothers and sisters in their fields of oppression, let’s sing the songs of faith. Let’s sing about freedom, not as politicians’ sly promise to “our kind,” but as God’s radical promise to all. Let’s sing about rivers we all need to cross. Let’s sing about suffering and servanthood. Let’s sing about hope, granted freely to the “meek and lowly,” not parceled out to an elite. Let’s join hands across the divides, even those righteous chasms that we ourselves create.

Rather than let ourselves be pacified or manipulated, let’s insist on being disrupted and liberated.

KRE/JL END EHRICH

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant and leader of workshops. His forthcoming book, “Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask,” will be published by Morehouse Publishing. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. His Web site is http://www.onajourney.org.)