Take 4: The Sorrow Songs & Black Churches

Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas

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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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10 thoughts on “Take 4: The Sorrow Songs & Black Churches

  1. Thanks for writing this. I found this to be really illuminating. I was especially struck by your insight about why many black churches do not sing the spirituals/sorrow songs and I emphatically agree with your argument that, as “solid works of theology” (which I think was one of Andrew from memoria dei’s major points) these songs can help disrupt the “prosperity gospel” that pretty much every church, whether rich or poor, black or white, inevitably ends up preaching.

    Do you know of any church communities that are actively using these songs in such a disruptive way? Or how can we move towards this?

    I think, to reference the discussion I had with Andrew over at memoria dei, if these songs could be sung by white people (or by any people) in a way that was truly disruptive of white privilege and white supremacy, I would enthusiastically endorse it. Instead of asking WHO can sing these songs, perhaps we should be asking, how can we sing them in a theologically authentic way, which again is what I think Andrew was getting at.

  2. “Do you know of any church communities that are actively using these songs in such a disruptive way? Or how can we move towards this?”

    Not that I know of. The last time I heard a Sorrow Song in church was when I played Ezekiel Saw The Wheel before I preached a sermon Ezekiel 1 & 2 for a college ministry.

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