Lift Every Voice for Charleston

I have a friend who believes the correct response to whatever befalls a community of faith is: “What, then, shall we sing?”

This morning in church, many of us throughout the United States joined in solidarity with the congregation at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by singing the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#599 in The Hymnal 1982 if you’re Episcopalian like me; the text is by James Weldon Johnson and can be read at poets.org).

I love that hymn. Being a Detroiter, I know it by heart. But it was particularly difficult to sing today:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

I don’t know about heaven, but earth does not yet know the tune, much less the harmonies. We have work to do. So the triumphant-sounding words in the hymn, which sprang so easily from the tongue in 2009 when our nation elected its first Black president, felt a little flat today.

We were gathered as community to celebrate: that’s the term we use when speaking of the Eucharist. It’s a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we celebrate it. Our story, as people of the Christian faith, looks death squarely in the eyes and takes it on, in the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.” On any given Sunday, that resurrection faith is easy to sing. But this week, we were made keenly aware that we are still, in the words of the hymn, “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It was difficult to sing.

Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“No,” I wanted to reply. The hymn refers, in past tense, to “the day when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet it feels like we’re living in such a time.

Reflecting on the contradictions we were singing, I recalled the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.” Biblical scholars often encourage us to interrogate the text of Scripture by asking, “Where’s the good news?” It’s a question we should also ask while looking out at the world trying to find what the Spirit is doing, and another way to word it is, “Where’s the hope?” Today’s hymn, I think, is actually quite useful in training our vision to see hope where it seems to be absent.

There’s no denying that, even though we keep retreading the same stony road, we are “already and not yet” in a place for which our ancestors hoped. Ground really has been gained, no matter how much journeying still needs to be done. Today’s triumphant-sounding hymn carries that sense of the “already-and-not-yet” by proclaiming a bright future even while acknowledging a “gloomy past.” That in-between stretch of road that spans from hopeless past to future promise continues to be watered with tears but also continues to point us toward the consummation of our hope.

Wisely, the hymn does not end on either a mournful or a celebratory note, but with a prayer, reminding us that our hope lies in praying these words and striving to live them out, together:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Perhaps the rhetorical-sounding questions earlier in the hymn are intended to evoke a mixed response. Have we arrived in the place “for which our parents* sighed”? That language is reminiscent of the biblical descriptions of patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We read, for example, in Hebrews 11 [NRSV]:

…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Our “native land,” to which we pray in today’s hymn to stand true, is that city “whose architect and builder is God.” We’re not quite there yet, but we catch glimpses, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. May we remain true to that native land, and bring along with us whoever we meet along the stony road.

*The Hymnal 1982 changes the word “fathers” in the original poem to the gender-inclusive “parents.” You know our mothers were sighing, too! Maybe more, even.

Othering, Eight Mile, and Original Sin

Earlier this week, a Detroit pastor was shot dead while asking his partying neighbors to keep the noise level down. I read the online article from WDIV, channel 4.

I know better, but as with any bad habit, I did it anyway: I read the comments. They rivaled the story itself as examples of heartbreaking failures of love. Some commenters brought up the Zimmerman trial, decrying the “liberal” media for playing up white-on-black violence but ignoring black-on-black violence; others called for gun control, implying that the primary issue here was someone’s possession of a gun; still others baldly asserted that this is simply how black people behave; others used the opportunity to badmouth Detroit. The politicization and racism in the comments section is as predictable as inner-city violence itself has sadly come to be. Where is the compassion for a family and a community so senselessly devastated? Where is the respect for the man of God murdered at the young age of 46?

Nevertheless, I think the comments, nasty and unhelpful as they are, stem from two very human impulses: our instinctive drive to figure things out, to solve problems by analyzing them; and our equally instinctive need to distance ourselves from tragic situations, to assure ourselves that such things happen to other people. Both these impulses are ambivalent gifts of evolution. They both serve to keep us alive and functioning.

But both impulses also work against us. In particular, the second—the urge to distance ourselves from danger—constantly warps our ability to analyze: if a problem belongs to other people, then surely my safety lies in disconnecting myself from (certain) others…right? (In Detroit, that’s generally symbolized by Eight Mile Road.)

The Christian doctrine of “original sin” serves as a warning against trusting those base instincts unquestioningly. Our instincts were, as far as we can tell, forged on the fly in response to certain conditions our ancestors—human and pre-human—faced. The goal, or more accurately, the mechanism, was survival. One way to think about original sin, then, is to consider that we, as individuals, but also as a species, learned to do wrong before we’d become moral agents. Just as selfishness, generally, considered a vice in most ethical systems, is necessary to a baby’s survival, behaviors we now consider morally reprehensible actually got us here, as a species, in the first place. But now, as spiritual and moral beings who ought to know better (what Bruce Cockburn called the “Angel Beast“), our task is to transcend our animal instincts, testing them and keeping what is good, but learning to control and move beyond those that actually harm us.

Central to any ethical system is the consideration of others. Our instincts will mostly serve us well if our goal is personal safety, the rest of the world be damned. But humans are social animals. As spiritual social animals, our ethical obligation, and also our health, consists in opening ourselves to each other, to the universe, and to God. Our task is to grow into greater interdependence.

Sadly, our culture itself works against that growth. Consumer capitalism, American “rugged individualism”—these forces, or, as the Bible terms them, “principalities and powers,” are bigger than any of us, and perhaps than all of us; they discourage our growth into interdependence. The market needs individual, mobile workers and consumers. Consumer culture has so pervaded our lives that we identify ourselves with our brand loyalties, including political parties and religious affiliations. The more labels we are willing to wear, the more we are drawing lines between ourselves and those like us, and others who are not like us. Even “family values” have been co-opted by this thinking, becoming a means to delineate an “us” vs. “them” and to camouflage self-interest with the patina of religiosity.

Indeed, self-interest is entirely at home in American Christianity, which, historically, has largely been moralistic and private. Our spiritual practices, like our consumer habits, are predominately individualistic. In the religious realm, our animal survival instinct concerns itself with what will get me into heaven, the rest of the world be damned. This is an exaggeration, of course; I hope very few, if any, American Christians consciously adopt that attitude! But that attitude is seen wherever “sin” is only conceived in personal terms—epitomized in our culture at the moment by sexual behavior—while ignoring social sins such as institutional racism and environmental degradation. In America, too many Christians honestly believe all is well with their soul as long as they abstain from certain individual behaviors, believe the right things about God, and ask Jesus to forgive their sins. And this is seen as perfectly compatible with, say, unquestioningly benefitting from race or gender privilege, or buying clothing made using slave labor, or making comments like those attached to the article referenced at the beginning of this post.

A father, a pastor, was murdered for asking his neighbors to keep the noise down. This wasn’t an isolated and bizarre action by a disturbed individual we can easily other. What took him wasn’t just a gun or a person’s anger, but some kind of twisted thinking where one’s own enjoyment is more important than the very life of one’s neighbor. That thinking is endemic in America, from the Koch Brothers who are in the news now for dumping their pollution on Detroit, to the food industry using cheap, unhealthy ingredients, to for-profit prisons, to corrupt politicians stealing from the People, attacking minority religions under the guise of freedom of religion and freedom of speech—why would that kind of thinking not also be at a party next door to a pastor? Until we really start to believe that our neighbor’s well-being is as important as our own, all this sickness and violence (literal and economic) is just going to escalate.

All of us are implicated in this shooter’s belief that his “right” to do what he wanted was of more value than his neighbor’s life. Ours is a culture that idolizes the weasel words “liberty” and “freedom.” And however well-meaning we try to be, our actions as consumers and as citizens of this representative democracy constantly privilege our own comfort, wealth, rights, and freedoms over whatever neighbor needs to be othered in order for our privilege to remain intact. I know this from experience; I try and I fail all the time.

It’s human instinct. It’s original sin. It’s bigger than any of us as individuals and it’s bigger than all of us lumped together, at least in our sub-cultures. And sometimes it’s how we survive. But it’s also what we’re called to struggle against.

But what if Christians really believed that their personal salvation depended upon the well-being of their neighbor? If that seems a scary prospect, don’t go asking Jesus precisely who your neighbor might be.

Chances are, they’re on the other side of Eight Mile.

MLK

Here are some questions to consider:

How often do I secure my own interests at the expense of someone else’s life, health, happiness, security?

What might repentance look like? How would it really affect my daily life, including my consumer choices?

How can I use my spheres of influence to encourage growth into interdependence in myself and those around me? How can the wider culture be transformed, and what might be my role in that?