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Sunday 11 August 2019 – Matins
Song of Songs 8:5-7 2 Peter 3:8-13
O when I am alone, when I come to die, when I want to sing, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus.
Words: Traditional spiritual Music: Larry Fleming (1936-2003)
Last week, pictures went viral of an African American, Donald Neely, walking between two police officers on horseback, Neely himself having been handcuffed and tied with a rope. He’d been arrested for trespassing and would normally have been taken to the police station in a car but, apparently, no cars were available, so the two Texan police officers improvised. Their action has served to pour petrol on the already raging flames surrounding the issues of racism in the USA. Not surprisingly, it’s brought to the surface memories of how slaves were treated in previous centuries, many of them having been treated in an almost identical manner.
The picture brought to mind another story, that of another African American, James Byrd Jr. On 7th June 1998 he’d been hitchhiking and was picked up by Bill King and two accomplices, Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Kelly. Using a rope, they attached James Byrd Jr. to the tow-bar of King’s pickup truck and then drove the truck at speed for three miles, dragging Byrd along the road behind them. They then dumped Byrd’s body outside an African American Church in Jasper, Texas. King’s accomplices, Brewer and Kelly were sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively. King, like his accomplices, an avowedly White Supremacist, was also sentenced to death shortly after the crime, but the sentence wasn’t carried out until a little over three months ago, when King was executed by lethal injection on 24th April.
We live in deeply troubled and troubling times. Here in the UK we’re torn apart by Brexit. Populism’s on the rise the world over, not least in the USA, where the current president is perhaps the prime example of a world leader driven by a populist agenda. Among the features of populism are that it seeks to dispense with nuance in public discourse, it demonises the other, and it fuels discontent among those who believe they’ve been hard done by or ignored by the establishment. The president’s recent remarks, telling four members of Congress that they can go back to their own countries if they don’t like what they find in America, have resulted in something of a backlash, not least because three of the president’s targets were actually born in the USA. The suggestion’s been made that, as a result, actions like those of the two police officers in the photo are now being legitimised, lending credence and acceptability to the views and actions of white supremacists in particular.
Populism feeds on bitterness and resentment and one of the effects of the president’s remarks is that it’s awakened dormant grievances about African Americans going back for years. I’m constantly perplexed that more than 50 years after the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, and the assassination of people like Martin Luther King Jr., racism is still rife in that country. Were racism a thing of the past everywhere, today’s anthem would be something of a rather saccharine throwback to a bygone age. In today’s climate, though, there’s a searingly painful urgency to the cry uttered in its words and music: ‘O when I am alone, when I come to die, when I want to sing, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus.’
We’ve been treated all this week to the most wonderful and wide-ranging selection of music performed by the Matthäuskantorei from Lucerne in Switzerland. Today’s anthem broadens this diverse repertoire even further. I confess to never having come across the words of this traditional spiritual, nor ever having heard of the composer, Larry Fleming. He’s best known, I’ve since discovered, for being the founder and director of the National Lutheran Choir in the USA, but he’s also highly regarded as a composer of choral music.
I wonder how you heard this anthem. Was it just a rather clever arrangement of a nice tune with some sentimental words? I suspect that may be how many of us will have heard it. In today’s climate, though, it seems to me to evoke something much more profound. ‘Give me Jesus’ could probably be found on the lips of many Christians throughout the world, who often give the impression, particularly in the West, that an individual relationship with Jesus is just about the sum total of what the Christian faith’s all about. When we hear the words of this traditional spiritual sung in our time, though, we’re connected with our brothers and sisters across the ages who’ve been degraded, abused, enslaved and deprived of their God-given dignity. Imagine singing this spiritual as an African American slave on a cotton plantation or being transported from Africa across the sea to America in a tightly-packed galley ship and it begins to take on a different hue. It becomes an articulation not just for an individual relationship with Jesus but rather a cry from the depths of the heart for a radical transformation of society and its structures. Such a transformation begins in the human heart, of course, but it’s not just an individual matter: it’s about right relationships with one another and with God. It’s about the coming of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy and compassion, in which such things as slavery, racism and abuse have no place.
African American slaves looked to Jesus above all, not least because there was a sense of mutual identification. Just as Donald Neely and James Byrd Jr. were tied with rope, so in some paintings and in films depicting Jesus being led to the cross, he’s also portrayed with a rope tied around his hands being pulled along by soldiers, a solitary figure, almost completely isolated from everyone else spiritually, emotionally and psychologically. The plea, ‘Give me Jesus,’ is thus a reaching out to a God who’s known and seen to be in solidarity with the downtrodden, to one who’s wholly identified with the plight of African American slaves. When they were being brutalised, they saw in him one who was similarly brutalised and yet who met such brutality not with like but with compassion and love. Surely that’s the Jesus they were crying out for.
In our hearts, that’s the Jesus we all want, the one who meets everything and everyone – including the abuser and the enslaver as well – with love and compassion, with the love which, as we heard from the Song of Songs, is ‘strong as death’, for the love which can’t be drowned by floods, and which is worth more than anything else, even the wealth of one’s house. This is the love for which we’re all made and yet from which we fall short. It’s for that reason that this prayer of the African American slaves can also truly be ours: ‘O when I am alone, when I come to die, when I want to sing, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus.’
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