Tag Archives: sorrow songs

The Musical Jesus: From James Hal Cone to Jesus Walks

James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.

Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.

The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery. This ultimately led to his rebellion and subsequent death. Similarly to Cone’s configuration of the Spirituals he believes that the Blues had a similar message. The Blues represent a secularized version of the socio-political message that was expunged from Spirituals. They too could equally be used as tools of liberation against dominant oppressive groups. Much like spiritual the Blues could be used to articulate a powerful socio-political message with profound theological implications. They affirmed the personhood of African Americans in the face of institutions that were created to take this very thing away from them.

While reading Cone’s work I began to think about some of the other connections that can be made with between African American experiences and how that has translated into music to have implications for theology, politics, and society in general. I preface this by stating that James Cone wrote this particular work in the 1970’s so what he wrote was indeed insightful for the context to which it was written. However, I believe that the religious insights from spiritual are reflected within the work of African American’s in other genres of music as well. In today’s context I do not see theo-political issues reflected in any particular artist or genre rather I see it in various songs by various African American artists. For example, Kanye West in his song “Gorgeous” poses a very interesting question.

West is questioning the function of hip hop music in the 21st century. Much like the Blues did for African Americans in the 20th century hip hop resonates with ideal and experience of many African American youth today. This is complicated by the secular nature of hip hop music. Hip hop music in itself could be seen as the religion of the youth today. The thought, ideas, cultural values, and even its counter cultural elements are appealing to youths. Ultimately, West is posing the question has hip- hop music replaced the socio- political elements that were once held onto by the Blues and Spirituals. Hip hop is to the soul of modern youth as what spirituals were to slaves. While admittedly this is not the case for all of hip hop music, West may be on to something, certainly there are hip hop songs that articulate a political theology the likeness of spirituals and the blues. Kanye West’s own work is an example of this. His song “Jesus Walks,” although not a gospel song has some inherently spiritual dimensions to it. From the introduction to the hook the song is laced with theo-political implications. He begins with the verse:

“We at war ” “We at war with terrorism, racism” “But most of all we at war with ourselves”(Jesus walk)” “God show me the way because the Devil tryna break me down” (Jesus walk with me)”

These lines hint at how West views some of our current socio-political struggles. Threats such as terrorism, racism, and even our inner struggles can leave us helpless. He sees they only way out is through his belief in Jesus. Jesus serves as liberation in this context in much the same way that Christian theology function as a form of liberation for the slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. West in this particular song is making use of theology and politics to articulate freedom from systems of oppression that dominate society today. Although West’s song gives insight to current use of African American political theology, I wonder what other songs and genres have similar themes.


James Cone’s The Spirituals and The Blues

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture

Anthony Pinn, et. al.: Noise and Spirit: The Religion and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music

(A THROW BACK!): Calvinism And Holy Hip Hop

White Saviorism Cultural Appropriation in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmit Till

MTV is for Minstrel Television: Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, & Race

A Covenant of Peace: Ezekiel's Use Of Numbers


Tetragrammaton (Photo credit: nathanleveck)

Zeal, the Knowledge of YHWH and Radicalism

“YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, “I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.”- Numbers 25: 10-13 NRSV


” I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. […] They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations.”- Ezekiel 34:25-26, 28-29

When I was in seminary and taking a class on Ezekiel, one of the questions that haunted the class at the end of the semester is what happened to the language of God’s “Covenant of Peace”? Where did it come from? One of the problems I believes starts with the commentary we depended on, by Katherine Pfisterer Darr, who is rightfully hesitant to explain Ezekiel as a prophet who used the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy (unlike Jeremiah, Paul, and Christ Jesus, for example). I think there was an opportunity missed to talk about Israel’s role in the Ancient Near East, as well as Ezekiel’s role as PRIEST and prophet. The notion of a covenant of peace, as Darr points out, is part of the ANE tradition whereby the gods end their hostilities towards humanity and creation at large. The god’s pledge to be peaceable was signed and sealed with a visible sign. Darr rejects the idea that Ezekiel borrows this idea from any of the Torah writers since he has a theology that deals more with the ritual and ceremonial laws of Israel (a priestly theology if you will). Ezekiel cannot simply be put in a box, I tried that once, and utterly failed.

Ezekiel is more of a hybrid thinker, using the language of the Law and the priesthood. Ezekiel and his disciples were zealous for YHWH, much like Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron (the head of the Priesthood). Phinehas was given a covenant of peace with YHWH because he saw one of his fellow Israelites sinning right in front of the Moses and the congregation, and in the First covenant manner, since blood had to be shed, Phinehas used a spear to sacrifice the man and his lover. Once YHWH saw that one of the priests was concerned, the plague that Israel was suffering ended, but not before thousands had died of the sickness. This plays out as an example of the scapegoat mechanism. A few persons must die for the rest of society to be “saved.” If the spearing and priesthood are the visible sign for Aaron’s family and the covenant of peace, then the destruction of the first Temple (along with the people in it Ezekiel 9 & 10) as well as the raising of Ezekiel’s 2nd temple Ezekiel 39:21 through chapter 48) is the sign of YHWH’s latest covenant of peace with Israel.

When we get to the New Testament, the death of the Son of YHWH, Christ Jesus, is the visible sign of the covenant of peace, that God makes with humanity, creation, and between Jew and Gentile, who are engrafted into the covenant life. The finality of Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices, making all other sacrifices and scapegoating unnecessary.

This makes the old traditional hymn from Black churches, “Showers of Blessing” (inspired by Ezekiel 34) all that more interesting. “There shall be seasons of refeshing, Sent from the Savior above.” Written in the first decade of the 20th century, the peak period when thousands of Negro women and men were victims of lynching, “Showers of Blessing” is a theological interpretation of Ezekiel 34 that protests Jim & Jane Crow Law, and the lynching parties that were its scapegoating mechanism.

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Take 4: The Sorrow Songs & Black Churches

Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas

Image via Wikipedia


I think I just wanted to add a few comments to the conversation going on around theology blogs lately about “Ethnic hymns in white churches.” Sonja got us started,

But you could also play out this issue about hymns in a totally different way by abstracting it into a question of whether it’s ever OK to “take over” another culture’s music. And the obvious answer to that is, “We always already have.” I’ve wondered about this too, and I wonder if my discomfort with white congregations singing non-white music is undercut by the fact that, well, Christians have always sung the psalms. I sing them every Sunday, and except for their sometimes saccharine, clownish melodies, I have no problem with them. Christians have always “taken over” the Jewish scriptures, going so far as to pair them up in ways that make them speak Christologically. And it’s not like the church has never oppressed the Jews, so there’s your power element right there. (Sidenote: While I’m on the topic of Jewish music, let me just say that I get really uncomfortable when our parish does the Jew-ish [sic!] “King of Glory” song for exactly that reason. We’re not Jewish, dammit, no matter how much the church fathers claimed to be the verus Israel or how cool and funky you think Israeli folk tunes are. Killing Jews does not entitle you to become them; it entitles you to examine your conscience and repent. Ditto re: co-opting black spirituals.)

Couldn’t agree more.

Then, Katie responded with some questions of her own,

In other words, in a world warped by white supremacy, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to deal with racial and cultural difference in a truly subversive (that is, counter white supremacist) way. In other words, in such a world it is possible that both the refusal and the desire to sing and listen to “black” music will end up reifying the segregationist tendencies of white supremacy.

And then Monday, Andrew had his reply,

If what so-called white churches need is a greater awareness of historical and ongoing racism, let us work to increase this; but what better place to start than by unpacking the significance of the spirituals (perhaps in a homily now and then . . .), and by incorporating them more robustly into mainstream liturgies everywhere?

Do many people often feel awkward when singing these songs? Yes. But get over it. Let it go. Try to enter into the experience. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Step out of your comfort zone for a few seconds. Use it as a chance to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity, not only with African Americans, but also with all those who, even though they pray, have not been respected in their humanity and have not been welcomed as the children of God that they are.

I begin this post with a story:

“Last year, as I was in the city of Houston for a wedding, at the last minute, a friend and I decided to visit Lakewood Church at the 11am service. When we got to the basketball stadium,church, I noticed something quite unique about the racial demographic there, at least for the 11am service.  Even my friend pick it up as soon as we walked through the front door: as a white male, my friend could not meet one person who looked like him. Myself, I thought I was at an urban megachurch like they have in Dallas, but surely, this is Lakewood Church, and since the theology of Be A Better You probably appeals more to upper class whites (in my opinion), what were all the people of color doing here?  The answer lies in the worship music.  Worship at Lakewood is contemporary, both Contemporary Christian and Contemporary Gospel.  This music usually contains traditional, what one considers orthodox evangelical theologies of the cross (substitutionary atonement), so by the time the preacher is ready to give his/her message at Lakewood, it is time for hope (in the form of a prosperity gospel).”

The question, for me, about the sorrow songs, is why should “white” churches sing them if black churches do not?  The age old question of “How can we expect others to love us if we do not love ourselves” applies, even to our preferred worship styles.  The spirituals are not marginalized primarily because of white racism, even though that may be partially true, but because of  1) African American congregation willingly denial of its own history, and 2) churches not desiring to bring up the past due to the disruptive nature of the Spiritual’s theology.  And I do say that the Sorrow Songs are more than just the tricks that the enslaved Africans used to communicate their escapes; they are more than just mere expressions of joy of our favorite token happy Negroes.  The Sorrow Songs are solid works of theology, taken from the most oppressive of canons (that would be the Slave catechism where all pro-slavery texts and the book of Ezekiel were handed down to slave churches by their masters).  If indeed theologians are right in that all theology is ultimately doxological, the Spirituals could be considered exemplary sites of Christian theology.

Yoland Y. Smith, in her Reclaiming the Spirituals: new possibilities for African American Christian education, put it this way,

Unfortunately, many contemporary African American churches have adopted models of Christian education that have serve to distance their congregations and ministries from the spirituals and other components of their triple-heritage [African, African American, Christian].  Having uncritically incorporated Eurocentric educational paradigms, curriculum resources, and modes of worship, African Americans have lost valuable aspects of their African, African American, and Christian heritage.

(page 5).

The historical context in which the Sorrow Songs were birthed makes them all the more problematic for contemporary black, white, and intercultural churches, for the simple reason is this: even though most churches do not claim to preach the prosperity gospel, in reality, they do, in one way or another.  One example of this in evangelical and mainline Protestant circles is that singles are marginalized, as stable middle-class two-parent households are lifted up as the norm; it is the perfect blending of the kingdom of God and the American dream.  Church is supposed to be all about joy; don’t let that homeless person walk through those doors!  At Lakewood Church, interestingly, people are free to sit as they choose, if there is enough room; unfortunately at two black megachurches I know of, they sit people according to class (the ushers discriminate on the basis of who is wearing what clothes–meaning poor people, get to the back of the church or upstairs).

So if the Spirituals are going to be of any relevance to any congregation, and this does include a discussion about where these songs came from, that means that a church must be necessarily open to talking about histories of oppression as well as the complexities of economic status, and how the Gospel speaks to these things.

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