In writing for Amanda Porterfield’s 2010 compendium of essays which make up the book ‘Modern Christianity to 1900: A people’s history of Christianity’, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan discusses the complexity of circumstances, and the resulting deliberative theological nature of African-American Spirituals.
Duggan describes Spirituals as “chants of collective exorcism” that delivered souls of black folk from total despair during the pre-civil war era’[i]
These songs were ‘collective expressions of hope and solidarity’[ii]. They incorporated Biblical stories which were then ‘recast in the terms of the African-American antebellum[iii] experience, emphasising themes of freedom from bondage, divine justice, and redemption of suffering’[iv]
Singers and those who participated in this musical movement towards the cross, towards the empty tomb and ultimately towards Jesus the Christ, ‘climbed from feelings of sorrow to feelings of joy – the practice of chanting enabled people to throw off some of the ill effects of slavery…they named the forces of evil, strengthened people to resist those forces, and encouraged them to seek freedom and justice’[v]
Duggan rightly suggests that the ‘music carried the words, engaged the bodies and emotions of singers, and united people into a community that shared meaning and created emotional distance from the injustice that surrounded them’[vi]
In summing up Duggan concludes that Spirituals in some very specific cases[vii] ‘speak of adherence to a cosmology of divine justice involving faith in God, human responsibility, and desire for freedom. They all reflect an ironic sensibility that juxtaposed the difficulties of physical existence with moral authority and spiritual rewards…these spirituals saved lives and inspired endurance, resistance and hope of freedom.’[viii]
The phrase “chants of collective exorcism” makes me consider at how much Worship music and those involved in it today overlook this deep aspect of its role and existence in the life of the Church. Maybe we shy away from the term because of the abuse and ignorance that has been forged around the word exorcism?
Karl Barth noted that the New Testament says no more than the Old Testament. In reality the New Testament is in fact the answer to the question of the Old Testament; the recollection and the anticipation[ix].
Barth will later write: We exist in a time of grace. Having had ‘proper time break upon us’[ix] we stand in the light of the apocalypse and its, or rather His further unveiling (apocalypse) which is to come. God in His freedom offends the oppressor.
Jesus the Christ is the apocalypse of God – the Word already spoken – the emancipation of humanity for God and for each other.
The judgement of the revealed God who is grace-in-the flesh, suffering in order to reach us because even though religion promises as much, through it humanity cannot reach Him.
At best, religion is our response to God’s act because the God-deed is done in Jesus Christ the Lord – God has been faithful to his word.
The Word already spoken is not a carcass for often hostile and prejudiced, scientific refute. Nor is it the property of empty repetitive ritual found in some forms of religious propaganda. Both these only exist as human quests for lordship, power, influence and wealth. Attempts to reinstate humanity as its own lord over others and by default then over the true Lord.
Instead, the word spoken is to be heard and received.By placing Himself in juxtaposition to us, God enters into relationship with us, affirming His rightful place in our lives in direct opposition to that which wills to enslave us.
As the just-judge he became and will become a contradiction to all that unjustly oppresses us (Acts 24:15).
Barth’s recollection and anticipation could easily be restated as the recollection and anticipation of God’s emancipation. Surely this recollection should mark the nature, character and substance of our worship. An element of collective exorcism defines the consequence as much as the characteristics of authentic worship – where in spirit and in truth our hearts, in prayer are complimented by gratitude.
It is too easy to take God’s emancipation for granted. To deny God our gratitude; withholding our yes to His. To not take His act seriously and instead become apathetic, compliant, disgruntled and open to empty alternatives. We are led to believe that we need to untie ourselves and only find we are slipping further from the firm, unusual hold of God’s grace into a shared despair that both Tolstoy and Nietzsche call the nothingness within the abyss below.
Men and women both clamouring to the top of the heap, pushing each other down, somehow aware of the rising tide (as in the days of Noah, Mt:24:37), yet selfishly trying to carry-on, protecting their possessions and writing the danger off as nonsense. Reassuring themselves by telling others to welcome the Way as being nothing but nonsense.
Alternatively we hear and therefore receive a depth of understanding about worship from African-American Spirituals. They can move us beyond the historical and finite possibilities, towards the infinite potentiality established by God, grace-time held in tension with yet-to-be filled time. A time of existence between that which is already an actuality in Christ and that which is to come.
The African-American antebellum way of looking back in order to look forward, established a where-to in consideration of a where from. The way of looking back in order to look forward appears to have an accomplished understanding of ‘the Way’ talked about by Paul in Acts. As the Way became a vital anchor for perseverance and hope for the many who were mistreated, downtrodden, and sometimes forgotten, so it is that the Way remains a strong and true anchor for us today.
[i] Kirk-Duggan, C.A Spirituals and the Quest for Freedom, in Porterfield, A. 2010, Modern Christianity Augsburg Press, p.317
[ii] Ibid, p.317
[iii] Pre-Civil War America
[iv] Ibid, p.318
[v] Ibid, p.319
[vi] Ibid, p.320
[vii] Examples provided by the author include ‘I got shoes’, ‘You may bury me in the East’ and ‘Mary, Don’t you weep’
[viii] Ibid, p.327
[ix] Barth, K. 1938 Church Dogmatics: I.II:103-109