READING from "The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore"
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But why is God so slow in conquering the forces of evil? Why does not God break in and smash the evil schemes of wicked men?
I do not pretend to understand all of the ways of God or his particular timetable for grappling with evil. Perhaps if God dealt with evil in the overbearing way that we would wish, he would defeat his ultimate purpose. We are responsible human beings, not blind automatons; persons, not puppets. By endowing us with freedom, God relinquished a measure of his own sovereignty and imposed certain limitations upon himself. If his children are free, they must do his will by voluntary choice. Therefore, God cannot at the same time impose his will upon his children and also maintain his purpose for man
God's unwillingness to deal with evil with an overbearing immediacy does not mean that he is doing nothing. We weak and finite human beings are not alone in our quest for the triumph of righteousness. There is, as Matthew Arnold wrote, "an enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness."
"There Must Be A God Somewhere: The Enduring Spirit of the Negro Spiritual"
I thought you would appreciate Dr. King's reflections on evil; his own struggle to understand how his God could allow such atrocities as holocausts and slavery and other lesser forms of cruelty. Dr. King is best known for his religious oratory, his power as a preacher, but he came out of a tradition that also finds redemption through singing. This weekend, when it is more customary to focus on the genius of Martin Luther King's speeches, letter s and sermons, we are going to look at the genius of the musical tradition of his church, which expressed its faith through songs like this:
Over my head, I hear music in the air
there must be a God somewhere!
Over my head, I hear singing in the air there must be a God somewhere!
The powerful musical legacy of the African American church is not an accident in this nation. It is a living response to the evils of slavery, injustice and racial hatred both historical and current. Soulful singing, in the manner of the spirituals, is an expression of hope of God's justice when human beings are unjust. Spirituals aren't just songs, they are prayers, they are lamentations, they are the bursting forth of a cry that must be let loose in the world. They are the sufferings of a people rendered beautiful and offered up in the certain faith that God is listening.
What we now call "the Negro spiritual" is a tradition that began in the vocal lamentations of a people torn from their countries, their lands, their gods, their families and their human dignity.
By conservative estimate, upward of fourteen million Africans were imported into the Atlantic slave trade. For every African that reached these shores alive, four died in the machinery of slavery at one end or the other of the traffic or in the dreadful Middle Passage. That's at least sixty million people lost from West Africa in less than four hundred years genocide on a scale unmatched in recorded history. (John Rublowsky in Wyatt Tee Walker, Somebody's Calling My Name)
Giving due respect to the songs of the slaves, then, is more than an exercise in curiosity or musical appreciation. In looking more closely at these songs which have been part of our cultural wallpaper for so long, we are helping to recover an entire culture that was decimated by the slave trade. Spirituals composed by slaves functioned in all the ways I have already mentioned as lamentation, resistance, and prayer but they also preserved the worldview, culture, morals and values that slaves were forbidden to transmit in the ways a society usually transmits its values. Spirituals are the oral tradition of a people trying to preserve their humanity against almost impossible odds and in the midst of tremendous psychological and physical trauma.
Perhaps the first thing to note about the African American spiritual tradition is that it has been much misunderstood over history, interpreted as a mere escapism, or limited passive resistance. One of the most damaging results of this particular misunderstanding is the stereotype of the happy singing slave that was perpetuated in some American literature, folktales and Hollywood movies well into the 20th century. "They must be happy," goes the white European mentality, "they're always singing and dancing." This ignorant (and really hateful) conclusion is born of ignorance, and the failure to understand that in African culture, such singing and dancing are intensely religious activities.
From the time of the African's captures, and throughout the long and harrowing Middle Passage before arriving on these foreign shores, slaves used song, rhythm and movement to communicate rebellion, resistance, and the faith that they would be delivered out of their bonds by a God -- or gods who cared about justice and mercy. The great civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois called spirituals "sorrow songs, " but The Souls of Black Folk, he reminds us,
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence by fateful chance the Negro folk-song the rhythmic cry of the slave stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of the human experience born this side of the seas. It has been neglected it has been, and is, half-despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
Slaves came from many different nations and were sons and daughters of a variety of African indigenous religions; religions that they were forbidden to practice in America. The Christian faith was in some cases imposed on them, and sometimes they were converted to it. Those churches we now refer to collectively as "the Black church" are those churches to which slaves were originally taken by their owners -- who were concerned for their souls (e.g. Baptist, Methodist)! Some historic churches in the South still have shackles in the pews, so that they will never forget those early worshipers who attended worship services in chains. The so-called "Great Awakening" of the 1740's was the first era in which black slaves were converted in any consequential numbers, and even then the number was relatively small. It was not until African-American preachers began evangelizing in the early 19th century that the number of true converts grew to considerable size.
The Christianizing of African slaves is a very complicated one, as is the story of any people's cultural transformation by trauma or forced assimilation. But to our point today, it is important to appreciate how African slaves were able to adapt the stories of redemption from the Old Testament the sacred Scripture of their captors to address their own need for hope and solidarity. The musicality of the African people, coupled with their exposure to Christian religion, is what gives us what Du Bois called "greatest gift of the Negro people," in songs like "Go Down, Moses:"
When Israel was in Egypt land, let me people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand; let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,
tell ole Pharaoh, let my people go.
It is said that "Go Down, Moses" was a code song used by Harriet Tubman whose nickname was "Moses" to signal slaves to escape to freedom in the Underground Railroad. The song "De Gospel Train" (which you just heard as our anthem) also contains not-so-subtle references to the Underground Railroad ("get on board, little children there's room for many a more"). Other songs that had double meaning to those in slavery were "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" These songs provided a less dangerous way to celebrate the underdog, to identify with him, and to stand in solidarity with all those who rise above oppression.
There is also hidden meaning in those many spirituals whose lyrics refer to baptism and rebirth, particularly the wealth of songs that feature the River Jordan or other rivers in their lyrics. You have heard one of my favorites this morning, "Deep River," with its soaring "my soul is over Jordan" and the yearning prayer or is it an invitation? -- "I want to cross over into campground." As you begin to realize, these songs were not only sung to relieve the pain of captivity and to express the desire for freedom, they were also sung to signal an opportunity for escape; either a chance for the community to meet for a forbidden nighttime worship service down at the river, or a warning to cross the river on your way north in order to throw the bloodhounds off your scent.
"Wade in the Water,"another spiritual that contains lyrics about the Jordan River, has a particularly haunting power. Arthur C. Jones, whose book Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (Orbis Books, 1993) I sincerely commend to you, suggests that this song may have been sung before a baptismal ceremony that "served as a mask for a more traditional West African religious ceremony in which a tall cross, driven by a deacon into the river bottom, served as a bridge facilitating communication between the worlds of the living and the dead. In addition, the cross placed in the water in this manner also symbolized the four corners of the earth and the four winds of heaven."
Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water, God's a-gonna trouble the water.
You may wonder how the slave masters and mistresses were so dense as not to pick up on the hidden messages in the songs they heard their slaves singing. The answer, I think, lies in their own moral depravity; that is, their inability to recognize the humanity of those human beings they owned and brutally dominated. The psychology of denial and white supremacy was so powerful among the slave owners that they truly believed their human possessions did not even desire a different life.
Of course some white men and women struggled mightily with the question of slavery. Some of them were our Unitarian and Universalist forebears, although we cannot claim that all Unitarians and Universalists of the time were anti-slavery, no matter how we might wish to. In fact, although our own Theodore Parker wrote his sermons with a pistol by his side to defend fugitive slaves he was sheltering in his home, other Boston area Unitarians were merchants who had great financial stake in the Triangle Trade.
William Ellery Channing, the most respected religious liberal of his time and in many ways the father of modern Unitarianism, spoke out against slavery only belatedly. His own parents had been slaveholders before the Revolution, and although he took two trips to slave-holding territories that convinced him of the evils of the system, he waited years before using his tremendous influence to speak against it. Why? Because he thought the abolitionists were too strident in tone, and he preferred a more genteel approach to solving social problems. His conscience was prodded by a minister of this church, the Reverend Samuel J. May, who wrote to Dr. Channing,
we [the abolitionists] are not to blame, Sir, that you have not spoken. And now, because inferior men have begun to speak and act against what you yourself acknowledge to be an awful injustice, it is not becoming of you to complain of us, because we do it in an inferior style."'
I don't know when that letter was written. But I do know that when Rev. May served this congregation, the pews were segregated by race, with what was called "the Negro pew" upstairs. When May called for desegregation of the pews, he upset many church members. And "wishing to avoid an ugly fight," our church history tells us, "May resigned his pulpit in the summer of 1842."
This anecdote should help us regain healthy humility when we get a little too self-righteous. We are always learning. We are learning as individuals, we are learning as a congregation, and I hope that we are learning as a nation, even when that learning is frustratingly slow and progress is made only in fits and starts.
Tomorrow we celebrate The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, among his many other inspiring accomplishments, used the old spirituals as a unifying force in his civil rights work. We still feel King's presence in the work for racial justice and reconciliation that we are called to continue many years after his martyrdom.
"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," Dr. King once said. And the way he sang reflected that foundational belief in our interdependence. During the freedom movement of the 1960's, many of the original "I" spirituals and gospel songs were changed into "we" and that is how Martin sang and taught them. Although slavery has been long abolished, the quest for freedom continues, the constant challenge to honestly confront its legacy of lasting harm. But as we have learned today, the spirituals the sorrow songs are also songs of hope. So let us close with an old spiritual that was once sung as "I shall overcome," but that became "We shall overcome" during the Civil Rights Era. Please rise as you are able, leave your hymnals on the pews and sing together,
We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.
Benediction: Paul Robeson
I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want
to hear the melody of freedom or the words
that might inspire hope and courage
in the face of despair and fear. My
weapons are peaceful, for it is only
by peace that peace can be attained.
The song of freedom must prevail.