Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Give Me Jesus

Spirituals.

As in, the genre of music from America's legacy of slavery.

The choir director at my church knows I'm not a fan of spirituals.  He, like many classically-trained musicians, contends that as a type of folk music, spirituals represent a vivid aesthetic of faith in the midst of oppression, and he says that makes them more than worthy of being sung in church, no matter how white the congregation.

I don't deny that spirituals command a unique place in America's worship and classical repertoires, but I'm always a bit uneasy, being a white guy, singing words that black people sang while being abused by, well, white folk.  My friend rebuts my concern with the fact that many spirituals contained code-words for real political freedom, not just religious slogans white slaveowners would have expected their human property to learn in their segregated southern churches.  That means spirituals, as anthems of liberty anybody should appreciate, are more than just songs for black people.

When I attended the multi-racial Calvary Baptist Church in New York City, the choir and congregation sang spirituals frequently, but doing so made much more sense in that context.  Less than 50% of the church was white, and blacks in our congregation were from not only the South, but also Africa and the Caribbean.  We all knew the story of America's tortured record with civil rights, but the political correctness implicit in spirituals was far less obvious in racially diverse Manhattan, as opposed to Dallas' lily-white enclave of Highland Park, where my church is located.

My other objection to spirituals in general is that many of them contain sloppy - even heretical - theology.  After all, white slave owners didn't force their human property to attend church so they could learn how Christ came to die for their sins.  Like it has been for centuries, church was a socialization tool more than anything else, so it's unlikely that sound theology was conveyed to slaves, even as their owners were sitting in grander religious palaces under sermons that danced around the very ethics propping up the southern labor standard.

I realize this is wildly inappropriate for me to say from a political correctness standpoint, but bad theology has a bad habit of breeding and spreading, not only through weak song lyrics we whites excuse because slaves composed them, but also through the system of black churches we have in the United States today.  Whites suffer from bad theology too, of course, as can be seen from the post-Civil-War liberalism which sprouted from white abolitionist mainline churches in the North.  Similarly, however, bad theology from the South's poorly-taught slaves likely bred the likes of President Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and an incredibly reliable voting bloc that feigns spiritual amnesia when it comes to social issues like abortion.  For the Republican Party to be the party that, for all practical purposes, set slaves free politically, having the Democratic Party assume it now needs to protect the interests of blacks didn't happen in a vacuum.  Never having a solid theological foundation must have played an integral role in modern America's quandary of blacks who oppose abortion and gay marriage overwhelmingly voting for a president who champions both.

Nevertheless, having said all of this, there are still some spirituals that even I can't deny speak to the essence of faith, and cut to the heart of the matter in a way other religious songs don't.

Take, for example, a song that came to mind this afternoon as I continued to mull not only the tragic passing of Harriet Deison, but the homegoing yesterday of a longtime family friend, the hospitalization of yet another family friend today, and other sobering events from recent days.

It's entitled "Give Me Jesus," and that's exactly what I pray not only for myself on this dark, rainy day in Texas, but for you as well.  Jesus truly is ultimately, perfectly, and absolutely, all we need.  And God has given Him to us!

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus
You may have all the rest [or, "you can have all this world"],
Give me Jesus.


Dark midnight was my cry,
Dark midnight was my cry,
Dark midnight was my cry,
Give me Jesus.

Just about the break of day,
Just about the break of day,
Just about the break of day,
Give me Jesus.

Oh, when I come to die,
Oh, when I come to die,
Oh, when I come to die,
Give me Jesus.

And when I want to sing,
And when I want to sing,
And when I want to sing,
Give me Jesus.

And if you would like to see a video of this spiritual, here it is sung by Fernando Ortega, who as a Hispanic, conveniently erases whatever racial hang-ups there may be about this song:



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