James Cone’s excellent Spirituals & the Blues
It’s widely recognized that the blues has its roots in the Spirituals. These were songs that had their beginnings in the humiliation, the exploitation, the suffering that was black slavery in the United States. Slavery in America began in the seventeenth century. From the 1700s on, America become the land of opportunity and freedom for white Europeans; for black people, it meant one thing – bondage and dehumanization. Slavery meant being snatched from your homeland and sailing to an unknown land in a stinking ship; being regarded as property; working 15-20 hours a day and being beaten for showing fatuigue; being driven into the fields three days after giving birth; being sexually and physically abused as a matter of course.
Although the odds were stacked against them, black slaves were not passive – they resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways. One of these was the sort of religion they developed. The Christianity embraced by many blacks in slavery was not just that of their masters. The idea of Christianity that black slaves embraced was one where freedom and liberation was vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said.
So black people shouted and prayed, preached and sang about a God who was not confined to the powerful and the free. A God who was for them and loved them and who was their source of strength and dignity in the midst of the trials and hardships of life. A God to whom they looked for deliverance, not just when this life was over, but right now, from the torment of slavery.
Interesting to note, of course, that although blacks found plenty of encouragement for wanting relief from slavery in the Bible, so too, did the anti-abolitionists in the 19th century, citing numerous NT passages, including Colossians and Ephesians as supporting slavery. The same was the case by the apartheid regime in South Africa. Which raises for us the very real problem of how the Bible ought to be read. A crude literalism, with no understanding of the culture in which the Bible was written, or the pervading narrative of liberation and justice stretchimg from the Old Testament into the New, more often than not lands us in trouble.
But for black slaves, as for Jews over the centuries, the story of the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt was a formative one. Those of you who’ve heard Springsteen’s Seegar Sessions will remember the spiritual that celebrates the come-uppance of the slave-master in chief and his army:
O Mary don’t you weep no more. O Mary don’t you weep no more
Pharoah’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.
As well as the deliverance from Egypt, other Old Testament stories keep appearing: Joshua and the battle of Jericho; Daniel in the lion’s den, Daniel’s fiercy furnance. All stories of God coming to the aid of his people when the odds were stacked against them. Black faith was grounded in the sense that God’s liberation is at work in the world. God’s righteousness for them was not some religious concept – it was an affirmation of the power of God released in history for deliverance.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about the God of the Bible, it’s this – that God is not remote from God’s world, unknowable – rather, God is the God of history, who works and intervenes in our world to bring change and transformation.
And in case we think that the aspirations we find in the spirituals for crossing over Jordan and reaching the promised land and meeting those who’d gone before were solely about going to heaven when you die, here are the words of one ex-slave preacher:
“When I started preaching I couldn’t read or write and had to preach what Master told me, and he says to tell them slaves iffen they obeys the master they goes to heaven; but I knowed there’s something better for them, but daren’t tell them ‘cept on the sly. That I done lots. I tells ‘em iffen they keeps praying, the Lord will set ‘em free.”
Slaves clearly had to be very careful about how explicitly things were expressed – and it’s likely that many of the references to freedom in the spirituals had at least a dual meaning. Heaven was not just some opiate for the slaves to make them more docile & submissive. It was at once a transcendent reality beyond time & space – but also earthly places where freedom lay, like Canada, the northern US and Africa.
Harriet Tubman was a slave who escaped to Canada. She used a song to let her relatives & friends know that she intended to escape to freedom:
When that ole chariot comes, I’m goin’ to leave you
I’m boun’ for the promised land, Friends I’m goin’ to leave you
I’m sorry friends to leave you, Farewell! Farewell!
But I’ll meet you in the mornin’, Farewell! Farewell!
I’ll meet you in the mornin’,When you reach the promised land
On the other side of Jordan, For I’m boun’ for the promised land.
When she reached freedom, she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” Harriett Tubman went on to return to the south thirteen times and brought with her what she called “over 300 pieces of living and breathing property to the promised land”
Swing low, Sweet Chariot was used by slaves looking over the Ohio river – “I looked over Jordan and what did I see?” And the chariot was the means of transport northward. “Steal away” meant to sneak into the woods for a secret slave meeting. Christian faith for many slave inspired a hope for things to change in this world, and not just in the next.
Christian hope is not about escaping our troubled lives at the end for some sort of disembodied existence in a beautiful celestial city. It’s about God renewing and transforming God’s world, making all things new, including God’s people. As the apostle Paul tells us “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption”. Christian hope looks forward to God establishing a new world full of God’s grace and justice – and requires Jesus-followers to anticipate this new world and participate in God’s liberation project even now by modeling a self-giving love that simply won’t stand for poverty, oppression or despair. Christian hope must never result in quietism and self-complacent passivity, as we wait for God to sort the whole mess out. Jesus described his own personal mission as bringing “good news to the poor…proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.”
The slavery out of which the spirituals arose has long gone in the United States – but sadly there are more slaves in the world today than at any point in history, with numbers as high as nearly 30m people, despite being outlawed everywhere. Bonded labour, child trafficking, the sex-trade all continue to bring people into servitude and lives of misery. Just one of the injustices in our world in which Christians need to be actively engaged in fighting. (For more information on how you might do that, see the Not for Sale website or Christian Aid’s campaign).
Here’s modern blues master Eric Bibb singing about “that great getting up morning” when God’s world will see its final transformation: