The history and progress of civil rights in America has never been easy, and many times it has been downright ugly and dispiriting. But sometimes, yes, sometimes, glory breaks through.
We have seen history shifting in America lately, but rarely have we seen such a dramatic and public shift.
As one who has put my reputation and personal safety on the line in a variety of settings for a range of civil rights issues, I find it difficult to put into words what I was feeling as I watched the PBS program In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.
As I watched these performances, I found myself almost numb with wonder and disbelief. I have heard, and sometimes sung, these songs in times of distress and desperation — in times and situations when hope seemed naive and preposterous — yet these songs and their hope were all the more essential for their inherently desperate fragility.
These songs, from Marvin Gaye’s despairing 1960s classic “What’s Going On”, to Bob Dylan’s growling cynicism in “The Times they are a Changing”, to the wistful “Abraham, Martin and John”, capture the cost inherent in the hazardous and seemingly never-ending struggle to nurture the human face — the human soul — behind the unflinching mask of brutality, bigotry, and injustice. Other songs, particularly “(Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody) Turn Me Around” and “We Shall Overcome”, speak of the quiet, unyielding determination of those who know, deep in their souls, that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what cynics and naysayers might proclaim, God’s justice will prevail in human history.
And then there are the “now, but not yet” songs like “People Get Ready” and “Free at Last” that speak of that truth, that freedom, that Glory just out of reach.
Also not to be missed are the historic songs that speak of God’s glory and mandate: ”How Great Thou Art” and the civil rights classic “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize”.
As I think back on these songs and their history, I still can’t help but shiver at their resonance with every aspect of society. Schools, laws, businesses, and governments all upheld, maintained and profited from blatant racism. It was a brutal struggle to wrest basic human justice from entrenched evil and — perhaps even more painful and difficult — to make the evil of racism vivid and real to those “good” people who were too comfortable and complacent to risk anything to change, even what they knew had to change.
As I think back on these songs, and on what the struggle has cost us, I move a few steps closer to understanding why I could barely watch these songs and their singers, why tears kept coming and I felt a surge in my heart that I only feel when I know, deeply and far beyond words, that God is at work here and now. God cares about human history. God’s hand is over us.
There’s a shiver I feel in the presence of the holy. As I watched and listened, remembered and felt, I couldn’t move; I could only find myself marinating in the holy, soaking in the presence that is indefinable, inexpressible. I found myself in the silence of the name that cannot be named, in the presence of the Spirit who is in, yet infinitely beyond, our world.
The oddity, of course, is that not everyone responded the way I did.
As we all do, I brought my history and experience to this experience. I find myself marveling that others have such different responses.
My time working with peace and justice groups — singing “We Shall Overcome” arm-in-arm with strangers — was brief but still resonates. One vivid lesson is how visceral truth, hope, and faith can be. In an experience like this, one realizes that truth, even the Gospel itself, is no abstraction — it is a living, dynamic struggle of redemption, sacrifice, and restoration. Retreat into cynicism and fear is not an option.
There is a medical term for a newborn child who dies for no particular reason: “failure to thrive”. The vast majority of Christians I know are living in the spiritual equivalent of “failure to thrive”. They have become “saved” but somehow have not tapped into the “new life” promised and waiting for them. They are the spiritually “stillborn”.
The Gospel for them (and for many that I know and love) has become a series of theological propositions — a spiritual checklist. The Bible could easily be seen as a continuing battle between two groups. One group, represented by Moses, King David, Jesus, and many others, know God as a being who cares deeply about his creation and his people, and is always doing “a new thing”. The other group includes those convinced that they (and only they) understand God and know what he should (or shouldn’t) do. These are the people who make (and enforce) the rules. Their first commandment is “I’m right and everyone else is wrong”.
I know far too many who use the Bible to ratify their own political or philosophical assumptions. When Jesus told us that the Truth will set us free, I am convinced that He meant that we would be released from our natural human biases and would be able to see and reach far beyond our own horizons. And it wouldn’t be by ascribing to creeds or philosophical propositions. As William Butler Yeats put it, the truth cannot be known — it can only be embodied. Or as Jesus put it to the Samaritan woman (by most accounts, the first true Christian missionary), we must worship God in spirit and in truth; with our hearts, passions, and attitudes, and by how we live our lives.
This is faith with teeth, a faith that recognizes how high the stakes are, how long the battle is and how faithful God is in our lives and the history or each nation. Justice is not inevitable. The road is long and difficult, but we continue. As the civil rights song based on Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Train”, put it:
“This train is bound for glory, this train,
This train is bound for glory, this train,
Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.
This train is bound for glory, this train.”
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.