Tuesday, June 23, 2009

All Means All: The Contribution of the Black Church's Prophetic Critique

And, as a follow-up to what I have just posted, and a first installment of the series from my journals discussed in that posting, I'd like to offer the following. This is from a journal entry in the summer of 1991.

I offer it now as a contribution to the discussion over the weekend of what welcome really entails, when a church professes to be a welcoming community.

As the following posting will indicate, I've been convinced for some time now that if churches don't mean all when they say all, then they might as well stop proclaiming to welcome anyone (and therefore admit that they are failing at the most fundamental constitutive obligation of Christian churches). If all doesn't mean all, then churches are just failing to be church. Church, at its most fundamental level, is always about welcoming everyone, about embracing everyone, about combating every invidious social distinction that makes one person more valuable than another, on the basis of distinctions that have nothing to do with human worth.

That's how Jesus lived. And that's how any church that claims its origin in him has to behave, if it wants to claim to lead believers to walk on the path Jesus walked. And so to my journal entry from the summer of 1991:

I never understood the old Southern hymn “When We All Get to Heaven” until I heard it sung by a soloist in a black church. As I heard the song sung in white churches when I was a child, I imagined the point was heaven—another of those many next-world songs that impoverished Southern people have sung for so long, full of lavish imaginings of the topography and ornamentation of the beautiful city where we won't weep or hunger anymore.

When the soloist in the black church sang the song, I suddenly knew it was not so much about heaven as about all—the accent is on getting all of us to heaven. The hymn is eschatological: it’s about the final gathering together of all God’s people, the final completion of salvation in which all thrive.

It takes the black church to tell this story. It takes a people who experience being shut out, deprived, maligned—a people for whom the way of salvation as defined by the self-righteous middle-class morality of many white churches is made much more difficult by the exclusionary walls that such morality constructs and refuses to see as even subject to discussion. How to obtain salvation in that middle-class moral framework, with its emphasis on propriety and appearances, when there’s hardly food on the table, no adequate health care, no work? Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t fornicate, white slave owners preached to their slaves, and the middle-class church continues to preach as the core of its moral message. And damnation to those who do these things, the middle-class white church and its moral system have insisted.

No wonder that under the circumstances, many fail to make the mark and are cast into outer darkness by churches intent on equating their middle-class values with gospel values. But God’s ways are not our ways. God sees the heart whereas we see the appearance. God is on the side of the poor. When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be—rejoicing because you brother who peddle drugs while politicians preached at you to work but provided no decent jobs, you’ll be there; and you sister who sold your body for a fix while white women in the beauty parlor whispered about the decline in morality, you’ll be there. We’ll all be there, and the first shockingly last.

How did the soloist get this across? With flawless execution, she took that “all,” held and elaborated on the word, exalted it till it filled the church and people began to clap and stomp and pass out with elation. All. That’s what God says to the church today.

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Some notes:

1. Philadelphia Sunday School teacher Eliza Edmunds Hewitt wrote "When We All Get to Heaven" in the 1890s, and it was published in 1898. Hewitt was Presbyterian. The hymn circulated after that in hymnals widely used in various churches in the U.S., and became a favorite hymn in Southern evangelical churches, one often sung at funerals.

2. The incident I'm recounting here occurred in the years in which I was teaching theology at Xavier University in New Orleans, an historically black Catholic university. During my time at Xavier, I went to a funeral in a black church at which "When We All Get to Heaven" was sung in a way that moved me profoundly and opened my eyes to the real significance of this popular old hymn.

3. As well as I recall, the funeral took place at a black Catholic church, though the hymn is more often associated with evangelical piety than Catholic piety. But many black Catholic churches in New Orleans have freely adopted elements of black evangelical piety and incorporated them into their Catholic liturgical traditions.

4. As I listened to the hymn and thought about how different the rendition of it was in this black church setting than in the white churches in which I had always heard it sung, it struck me that I was hearing, in this alternative rendition, the powerful current of prophetic thought that runs through some parts of the black church experience, which contests the claim of white middle-class Christians to own the gospel.

5. The WPA slave testimonies report again and again that white plantation owners encouraged their slaves to go to churches whose preachers were controlled by the white community, where they would hear a carefully tailored "Christian" message that focused on the obligation of slaves to obey their masters, not to steal, not to lie, to work hard, etc. Many of those speaking to WPA employees about this experience in the Depression period stated that they were not persuaded by this white middle-class moral message.

6. Many former slaves asked, for instance, how those who had stolen human beings away from their homes in Africa had the right to turn around and tell those stolen human beings that stealing a ham to keep their families alive was sinful. They also noted that the God of Moses and Daniel and Jesus seemed to have different values than the God preached to them by the white church with its middle-class morality. That God, the God of the bible, seemed to value all human beings and to be particularly interested in those in bondage, whose side God took.