“Up above my head, there’s music in the air, I really do believe there’s joy somewhere.” There’s a joy, even a raucous joy, that flourishes in many spirituals despite material deprivation and injustice. “Before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave” says that now that freedom has been won, we are NOT going to let go. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” may refer to slaves’ escape over creeks and rivers so that dogs cannot track them, but also refers to a deep and comforting belief in an eternal home at peace with God, where the singer is beloved, free, and valued as God’s own child, despite the circumstances of present life. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel” envisions the Black American singer as a descendant of Daniel, of Jonah, of all the Israelites delivered by God, a claiming of God’s promise of liberation. Calvin Earl writes of “Do Lord remember me” that it was the prayer of enslaved people that, even though the world forgot their dignity and humanity, “at least [God] would listen to their story and acknowledge their existence.” My favorite spiritual, “Poor me,” has the refrain “trouble will bury me down.” The verses speak to the extremes of African American experience: “I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down—trouble will bury me down—But still my soul feels heavenly bound—trouble will bury me down . . . . Sometimes I feel I’m ready to drop, but thank the Lord I do not stop.” It’s heartbreaking in the way it expresses both the desire to keep on keeping on, and the desire for it all to stop, to be done with a grinding existence. “God’s gonna set this world on fire,” “I got a home in that rock,” “Keep your lamp trimmed and burning,” and “Oh Mary don’t you weep” all contain images of judgment, a cosmic reorientation that sees the poor and miserable justified and glorified, the rich oppressors brought low. They are the American prophetic tradition, the necessary counterpoint to American optimism and self-congratulation.
For the white American Protestant, the theology of the Black church may be more challenging than any other. Whereas white mainstream Protestantism in America has mostly done away with the wrath of God, Black Protestantism has kept a healthy respect for judgment and retained the language of wrath and vengeance. My high school’s choir performed a version of “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the refrain “Pharaoh’s army got drownded” troubled me. Doesn’t the God who teaches us to love our enemies also love everyone?
Well, yes . . . and no.
Yes, the prophets say, God may love all people, regardless of race, nationality, or purity status, if they love God and perform God’s justice in the world. And no, because God reserves the right to dislike and even be enraged at others, even members of the people of Israel, if they treat each other with injustice and cruelty. After all, the same Jesus who told us to love our enemies also called the unjust clerics of his day “You brood of vipers,” a phrase my college Old Testament professor said could be rendered these days as something like, “You sons of a female dog.” Jesus wasn’t messing around. As much as we like to picture Jesus as meek and mild, dishing out endless words of comfort and peace, he could also be rude, angry, and downright offensive. He once called his best friend “Satan.” Trying to get along with everyone in some ancient Palestinian version of “It’s a small world after all” is not what Jesus was about. He was about confronting injustice, comfort for the powerless, and always, always telling it like it is.
Everything Jesus said is contextual. Jesus’ mission was primarily to the underdogs of the Roman Empire in Judea: to the poor Jews who didn’t enjoy special privileges with Rome, the poor Jews who were excluded from having a full religious and social life because of illness or social status, people perceived as the dregs. Those are the people who received God’s word of comfort and promise. Those who did the oppressing, Jews who collaborated with the Roman overseers by selling out their fellow Jews, clerics who cared more about the appearance of holiness than about actual holiness, those who used other people’s misfortune to prosper: Jesus targeted those people for critique and even ridicule. This is not the version of Jesus that Victorians used to try to shame children into being meek and quiet. The Jesus of the Gospels is loud, brash, and offensive. You always, always have to pay attention to where Jesus is and to whom he is speaking when interpreting his words. Jesus often vented the anger of God, with a potency that makes people uncomfortable even now.
In this, Jesus is firmly in the tradition of the prophets. Today we heard from the firebrand prophet Amos, who called out the powerful of Israel for their rapacious ways, for sexual exploitation of poor women, for nickel and diming the poor until they owned nothing. They sustained themselves and their luxuries by taxing and fining the vulnerable of Israel into a poverty they could never escape. And yet they professed to wait joyfully for the “day of the Lord,” which is a prophetic trope with multivalent meanings: it could refer to the day that God intervenes in human affairs by setting Israel up as the leader of the nations, or it could mean the day God punishes Israel for her own offenses. Amos’ hearers clearly expect the first: a purely nationalistic vindication of Israel, a time when Israel will be a global superpower and the rich will be completely untouchable. But Amos quickly reorients his listeners: the day of the Lord is primarily a day of judgment, a day when God looks at Israel and judges whether it has lived up to its side of the covenant at Sinai: have the people of Israel protected the vulnerable? Have they made sure everyone has enough to eat, enough to keep warm at night? Have they protected the rights of the poor and the immigrants in their midst? No, they have believed their hollow worship services will please God. They believed they could divorce their worship from their ethics, forgetting that the God of Israel places ethics at the center of religious life: one’s faith is measured by generosity, justice, respect, and sharing the goods of creation. Amos’ diatribe culminates in a fervent call to “let justice roll down like the waters, and solidarity as a wadi in flood.” Amos’ Hebrew words recall the channels of the desert wadis—they could be empty for months, and then all of a sudden, after the rains began, a rushing flood would roll down and wash everything in its path away. It is sudden, destructive, and unstoppable. And joyful, because it means that crops will grow and there will be fresh water to drink.
On the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, is inscribed Martin Luther King’s paraphrase of Amos’ speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” And that this one quotation could sum up the Civil Rights movement says much about the Black church’s prophetic witness to America. The fighters for Black liberation are America’s prophets, keeping alive the message that religion without justice is dead and is an invitation to God’s judgment. It is they who have reminded us God’s message is a not only a message of comfort to the oppressed, but also a message of warning to the oppressor.
My high school self wasn’t any different from most white Americans when it comes to that message. I didn’t want to hear about God’s judgment, but about God’s mercy. And I think that was because, at some level, I recognized that I am a member of a group that has historically oppressed people of color in this country, and that continues to benefit in some ways from that oppression. Three women died last week of heatstroke while picking grapes for our tables, right here in the United States of America. What do you think Amos would say about that? What would Amos say about the way extrajudicial killings by police seem to be an acceptable punishment for unarmed or compliant Black, Latino, and indigenous people in this country? What would Jesus say to the evils of predatory lending, or other cycles that keep people locked in debt? There’s a popular Facebook meme that pops up every so often, a picture of Jesus, whip in hand, chasing out the predatory lenders from the temple courtyard. The caption says, “If anyone ever asks you ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”
It is past time for the white church to ask itself, Who is harmed by the repression of the theme of God’s anger? Whom does it make feel good and reassured? As long as we keep dodging these questions and justifying our watered-down vision of biblical justice, we are Amos’ self-satisfied targets, we are the people who go around doing business as usual while Jesus confronts the predatory lenders in the temple portico.
There’s a strong instinct to be defensive whenever issues of justice arise, to deny our role in oppression, to try to justify ourselves. It is completely understandable, and completely natural, part of the fight-or-flight reaction. But it’s an understandable and natural reaction that must be overcome, because as long as we’re trying to justify ourselves, we are not trying to make a world of justice and peace for the most vulnerable. Perhaps it is time for white mainstream Christians to reclaim the wrath of God—not to use it, as fundamentalists do, to judge others, but to judge ourselves.
This is not a new idea. The Jews of Hellenistic Palestine, who created the first biblical canon, held on to a prophetic tradition that deeply critiqued their ancestors, and they did so for a reason—because they knew they needed reminders of what being in relationship with God is about. Our Christian fathers and mothers likewise claimed those texts, again as necessary critiques of self-justifying injustice, as reminders to measure our deeds against the justice and mercy that God calls us to. I think God calls us anew in every generation to reapply those prophetic voices to our own situation, to use them as a standard for judging where we stand with God.
As I said, it’s easy to be defensive. At least, it’s easy at first. But then you find yourself being twisted like a pretzel trying to keep the justification going. It becomes tiring always to be defensive, just as in a marriage or friendship, so also in larger issues of racism and sexism. It feels so hard to take the first step of admitting that we could be doing more to stand up for justice—it means we will be called to speak up in uncomfortable situations, to show up at vigils and rallies, to take action in the face of injustice. Maybe it will mean asking a favorite uncle not to use racial slurs. Maybe it will mean paying more for fruit so that those who labor in the fields will be treated better and paid a fair wage. Maybe it will mean campaigning for protections for those who harvest our food.
It can be hard and alienating to stand up for justice, but it is also infinitely more joyful than apathy or defensiveness. “Up above my head, there’s music in the air, I really do believe there’s joy somewhere.” Let somewhere be on this earth, as it is in heaven. Let us not stop, in the face of all the troubles that would bury us down. And let each of us not be satisfied until justice for all people rolls down like the mighty waters, and solidarity like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.