The View From The Mountaintop

February 10, 2013

Amos 5:21-24; Luke 9:28-36

“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Most of you can probably identify the source of those words – the famous speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.the night before his assassination, 3 Apr 1968. The mountain is where you go to see the truth of things. The mountain is where you go when you want to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead. The mountain is where you go to encounter what is holy. King’s speech harkens back to the story of Moses, who at the end of his life, climbed the holy mountain and saw the land where his nomadic people would settle – a land he would not enter himself. Moses made numerous trips up the mountains. He went there to meet God, and to receive God’s teaching for the people.
In the story of Jesus, we find him at the top of a mountain, together with Moses, the great revealer of God’s Word to the ancient people of Israel, and with Elijah, the greatest prophet of God, who also encountered God on the side of a hill, in the sound of a still, small voice. It is on that mountain that the disciples get a glimpse of who Jesus is – of the light of God shining from Jesus’ face.
“Climbin’ up the Mountain” is a powerful image in African American music. On the surface, it’s about meeting God in the hereafter, in “the sweet by and by”, in a heavenly place. But behind the surface is another story – the story of a people who believe that one day they will see the liberation that Moses’ people experienced: freedom from slavery and a land in which they will make their homes in safety and the dignity of full personhood under the law.
The spirituals of the South are a testimony to the power of Christian faith to strengthen people in the midst of the very worst of poverty, hardship and oppression. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is meant to do the same. Soon after this event, Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem, be arrested and killed. But here, on the mountain, he shines with the glory of the resurrected Christ. It is a foreshadowing of the promise of Easter as the shadows of Calvary begin to gather.
Harriet Tubman, the famous conductor of the Underground Railway – known to her people as “Moses”, spoke about her experience of freedom in words remarkably like that Transfiguration experience. “I looked at my hands, to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything, de sun came like gold trou de trees, and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Harriet Tubman (c.1820 – 1913) “In “”Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,”” by Sarah H. Bradford, 1886.”

Many have criticized Christianity as a religion that pacifies the oppressed with the promise of an eternal reward in return for obedience and submission in the present. That’s what the slave-owners thought they were doing when they promoted the conversion of their slaves: they thought of religion as a softening influence – that its teachings of pacifism, brotherly love, and submission to God, would keep slaves in the place the owners wanted to keep them.
But if they thought that, they were wrong. The slaves paid attention to their Bibles, and in the stories of Moses and the people of Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery, they found inspiration for their own quest for emancipation. The spiritual’s words, seemingly reflecting the Christian piety so beloved of the slave-owners, masked a deeply Biblical and deeply Christian vision of freedom and human dignity. Take the Biblically–based “There is a Balm in Gilead”. It’s a hymn of comfort, of encouragement – but it’s also a hymn of resistance. The reference to the balm of Gilead – a healing plant – is also a coded reference to a Biblical passage that reads like this: In Jeremiah chapter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”. ( In other words, “woe to the slave-owners of the American South!
Spirituals are rooted in the rhythms and cultural traditions of the African countries from which the slaves came, combined with the hymns of the early 1800s – camp meeting songs, revival songs, and so on. The earliest were called “shouts” – a kind of ecstatic singing accompanied by dancing and clapping in a ring. Work songs were sung, as well as “quiet songs”, which slave-owners would allow as long as they weren’t obviously challenging the accepted order of things. Singing was a part of life in work, at home, in gatherings, in church. The supposedly safe “quiet songs” contained more coded references, like the Balm in Gilead: references to the Gospel Train or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” hid references to the Underground Railway, the road to freedom into Canada and the North. In singing these songs, those enslaved held out a vision for justice, a vision of a promised land, that is completely Biblical and completely Christian.
That vision continued in the Civil Rights movement, as the Biblical demand for justice rang in the hearts of black and white alike. People sometimes forget that the most influential leaders of that movement were people of faith. The conviction of their own worth came from their knowledge that they were children of God, equally and fully, like their white counterparts. They heard the prophets speak of God’s disgust with religion without justice, worship without righteousness – they heard that call and they acted on it. “This Little Light of Mine”, “Oh Freedom, and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” which became “Marching ‘round Selma”, are all songs that took that strong anti-oppression message of the spirituals into the 1960s.

SHARING THE VISION –K’OS on Q – talking about sampling white music, working with white musicians (The Smiths, English alt rock band)
The movement for the liberation of slaves inspired other movements: the women’s emancipation movement and the feminist movement that followed, the Civil Rights movement, the resurgence of First Nation’s and aboriginal activism worldwide and retrieval of the languages and cultures that had been forbidden them; the call for full inclusion and equal rights for the gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgender communities. It’s no accident that when these movements gathered to speak truth to power, they used the words of the earlier liberation movements, and especially the words of “We Shall Overcome”, which harkens back first to a gospel song from the early 1900s, and before that, to a spiritual from the 1800s. You can still hear these songs at contemporary marches for justice issues today.

The spirituals of the American South are a rich legacy of faith, a reminder of the hope we have in Jesus, a call to renewed work for justice and peace right here where we are. The challenge of social change is not over – not for people of colour, not for religious or ethnic minorities, not for women, not for First Nations, not for the environment. As we sing the spirituals, let us be thankful for the beauty, the power and the emotion they capture, for the path to which they call us, and for the strength and inspiration to follow that path. As we sing them, we share a glimpse of that mountain-top experience. May it sustain us for service in the world. As Martin Luther King Jr, said, “Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. you only need a heart full of grace. a soul generated by love. “Martin Luther King, Jr.\” (1929 – 1968)

If interested, see: Sweet Chariot: the Story of the Spirituals
google Harriet Tubman

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