Singing Salvation & Liberation

July 30, 2017

Psalm 137, p. 858 VU with refrain; Song of the Sea, p.876 VU; Luke 1:46-55 (p. 57 New Testament)

The fabulous Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson once declared, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free.  It gives me hope.  With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”  I’ve got nothing against the blues, but give me songs of salvation and liberation any day.  Throughout the centuries, Christians have been singing songs about God’s redeeming action in our lives.  For Christians, these songs are about the inner dynamics of salvation AND the outer longed-for reality of liberation.  Those two things, salvation and liberation, are linked – and for many, they are the same thing.  Can one experience salvation of the inner self without also longing for liberation?  And can one be truly free in this world if one’s soul is still in chains?

A few weeks ago I talked about Lament.  Laments are songs expressing our distress to God; they move through stages into an expression of confidence in God’s action in the world.  We hear lament in the reading of Psalm 137 we just did together; then we get songs of liberation – quite literally so, in the Song of the Sea.  Miriam led the people of Israel in a celebration of their escape from the soldiers of Egypt.  It may sound pretty blood-thirsty to us, but we do need to remember the story. These people had been invited into Egypt as welcome immigrants generations ago, and had then been enslaved, simply because they were growing in number, and the locals got uncomfortable.  Sounds eerily reminiscent of today, doesn’t it?

A people who have escaped from a short and brutal existence might be forgiven in being glad that they’re not being dragged back into it, even though the cost may be the lives of some of those sent to chase after them.  They celebrated with dancing and singing their praise to God! Exodus 15 tells us that Moses and the Israelites sang this song to YHWH, and that Miriam led the women with tambourine and with dancing: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”  Don’t get me wrong: I don’t particularly like these parts of the Bible, but I have to admit it’s how most human beings would respond. They’re alive, they’re safe, and they have to celebrate!

The diverse group of escapees in the Exodus story firmly believed it was God who had given them their freedom. African-Americans, too, looked to God for their liberation in their own time, and they were strongly inspired by the stories of Exodus.  So many of the spirituals we know are about freedom!  They sang of crossing the river to the promised land – the metaphorical Jordan that would take them to heaven, and the real Ohio river that meant freedom in the slave-free North.  The train that was “a’comin’” was the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to escape to the Northern States and to Canada.  It was a “Gospel Train” of salvation from sin and brokenness and a “Freedom Train” to emancipation, at one and the same time.  Singing these songs gave them hope and encouragement in a time of great hardship and desperation.

So often liberation comes at a terrible price:  look at what it took to end slavery in the United States!  In the American Civil War, brother killed brother, women were attacked and murdered and their homes burnt around them, and it didn’t even completely succeed!  Anyone who remembers the Jim Crow laws or sees race relations in the United States now, know there’s still a long way to go.  I don’t know if any ordinary people came out of the Civil War unscathed, and the United States of America itself is still struggling with the consequences of being a nation that was built on slavery.  Yet how much worse might things have been if slavery had been allowed to continue?  Liberation exacts a hard price, both from those in need of liberation and those who have the keys to the prison.

A nation pays a price for oppressing others – a long, historical price that passes over generations – and liberation can take a long, long time.  Just ask the First Nations of Canada how long the journey can be!  Canada is only just beginning to come to terms with what it will mean to honour our First Nations in the way the earliest treaties between Europeans and the Nations demand.  I do not know any Christian hymns of liberation that come out of the First Nations community – probably because Christianity was oppressive and not liberating for many in those communities.  This is not true of all, but it is definitely true of many.  I would love to see music coming out of contemporary First Nations churches that expresses this hope for liberation as well as personal salvation.  Perhaps the music already exists – in the language of the people who sing it.  I imagine the music might look very different from our four-square hymns and gospel choruses!

I do want to note that there is a danger sometimes in singing these songs of salvation and liberation.  These songs sometimes go from celebrating liberation to celebrating triumph over people seen as enemies – like the Song from Exodus.  Exulting over one’s enemies may have been part and parcel of tribal societies at the time the Hebrew Scriptures were written, but it is not something we want to promote today, in this world where religion is used as an excuse for oppression and atrocity.  It’s interesting to me that in the songs sung by the slaves stolen from their homes in Africa and forcibly converted to Christianity, there are no penalties described for those who have enslaved them. Now, of course, that is the better part of wisdom when your oppressor has the power of life or death over you.  But it makes these songs far more adaptable to contemporary times than, say, the Song of the Sea, or a song like “I’m a soldier of the cross” that I sang in Junior Choir.   Even though many of our more militant modern hymns are actually about the fight for justice rather than the defeat of an enemy tribe or people, those kinds of subtleties are mostly lost on those who hear them and also on many who sing them.  It’s too bad, in a way, as the “soldier” image encourages what I’ve heard called a “muscular” Christianity – Christianity that is disciplined, hard-working, courageous, committed and loyal.  We need those kinds of Christians today!  Perhaps the apostle Paul’s use of images from athletics would be a better fit for our sports-crazy culture.  Someone needs to write some new hymns!

In the meantime, we might turn to hymns like “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “Amazing Grace” – hymns that celebrate the experience of having one’s heart touched by God.  John Wesley, who wrote “Love Divine” and many other hymn texts, was a priest of the Church of England who joined the Holy Club at Oxford that dedicated itself to prayer, Scripture and disciplined spiritual practice.  He spent time with  Moravian Brethren in the Americas.  In his travel with them, he had an experience in which, “His heart was strangely warmed”, and it was at that moment that he began to understand more deeply that worshipping Christ is more than just ritual and adherence to a particular moral code or creed.  He began to understand that Christ can transform the heart, and that this is what is meant, in part, when we talk about salvation.

It’s fascinating to me that Methodism, the movement he and others began, prized the experience of individual transformation, but also the need to transform society so that it aligned with that transformed heart.  The early Methodists sought the betterment of society, and spoke out on major social issues like the effect of widespread alcoholism on the home, sanitation practices, prison reform, the emancipation of slaves, the public education of children, and more.  They understood that the transformation of the heart toward the will of God necessarily comes with a commitment to doing what we can to bring the world into alignment with the will of God.  Outrages like slavery had no place in a nation that was supposedly Christian, and early Methodists and other Pietists were at the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain and all its colonies. Emancipation was achieved in 1833 in the British Empire, and in 1862 in the United States – though it was only half-hearted emancipation, since if the Southern States had ended their part in the war, they would have been allowed to keep their slaves!  So much for Christian principles!   (http://www.methodistheritage.org.uk/heritageofmethodism.htm; https://www.thoughtco.com/emancipation-proclamation-was-also-foreign-policy-3310345)

The songs of the Methodist emergence and the songs of the African-American slaves are not the only songs of salvation and liberation we know today.  One of my favourites in More Voices is a rousing hymn of liberation based on Mary’s song at the Annunciation: “My Soul Cries Out!”.  The real name is “Canticle of the Turning”, and the chorus says, “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.  Let the fires of your justice burn.  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!” There is a section in Voices United entitled “Commitment: Peace and Justice” and a section in More Voices indices that lists 48 hymns on the topic of justice!  Add in headings like “Healing”, “Salvation”, “Renewal”, “Transformation” and more and there are hundreds of hymns in our repertoire, new and old, that sing of our confidence in the power of God to bring salvation and freedom to our lives and our world.

Next week we’re going to sing out of ALL of the United Church hymnals and supplements that I can get my hands on.  As a taster, here’s one of the songs that was in the Canadian Youth Hymnal, published in 1939.  If you know it, sing it with me!

When Israel was in Egypt’s Land; Let My People Go!

Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My People Go!

Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s Land,

          Tell ole, Pharaoh, Let My People Go!

 

We need not always weep and mourn, Let My People Go!

And wear these slavery chains forlorn, Let My People Go!

Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s Land,

          Tell ole, Pharaoh, Let My People Go!

 

O let us all from bondage flee, “Let my people go!

And let us all in Christ be free.  Let my people go!

Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s Land,

          Tell ole, Pharaoh, Let My People Go!

 

This week, may we be inspired by Scripture song and hymns ancient and modern to invite Christ’s salvation and claim God’s liberating power, for our sake, and for the sake of the world.  Amen!

 

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