Nat Turner and Worship Songs Black People Can Sing

[One Room: Two Worlds]

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend an early screening of Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation, depicting the life of slave-preacher-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner. It seems like hundreds of reviews and think-pieces have been written, questioning whether the movie and its problematic creators are worth defending; but this is no such think-piece. This is article is about how black and white Christians can be gathered in the same room for worship, but sit a world apart from one another.

There is a scene where Nat is asked to say a blessing over the food at one of his master's dinner parties. This is just as Nat is getting "woke" to the theological problem of slavery. He already must have known that the predicament of he and his people was heinous and evil; but, after reading the sections of the Bible forbidden for slaves (like the part where God dramatically ends slavery in Egypt), Nat understands that the "peculiar institution" of the South is a damnable one, as are all who are complicit in its survival.

And so Nat prays, among other things, "...we thank you that you have promised to be an enemy to our enemies..." His master and the other white guests hum and nod in agreement, not realizing that Nat is not claiming that particular promise for them. I gently shook my head at that scene, as I recalled the many ways that white and black Christians continue to live, and move, and have their being on two completely different planes.

That scene flashed through my mind as I sat behind a piano last Sunday morning, to lead an entirely white congregation in singing worship songs. I don't have any animosity toward white people, and am not planning any bloody revolts. But I was dressed in my funeral clothes.

This is an early picture of my funeral jacket, just as I was starting. This jacket is full of names now.

This is an early picture of my funeral jacket, just as I was starting. This jacket is full of names now.

Just two days before, my neighbor Ronald Sterling, Jr. (mostly known as J.R.) called the Pasadena police for help. He was depressed and afraid that he may hurt himself. But J.R. never made it to a mental health professional. The 8 officers who responded to the call hog-tied him, tased him, and beat him to death. So I was dressed last Sunday to mourn for all victims of stories like these, in a black suit and tie (which I almost never wear), and the names of victims of police violence written all over my blazer. The back of my suit jacket read "Stop Killing Us".

[Why Am I Stirring Up Trouble?]

"Why would you stir up that kind of trouble?" some of you may ask.

Well, first, let me tell you that I didn't want to do this. I sat up in bed before 5AM, praying to God saying, "Do I have to?" I especially thought the statement on the back was a bit much. There was not a person in that church, at least that I knew of, that had personally killed anyone of any color. And the answer that came to me was, "You are free to not wear the jacket, if you are okay with feeling guilty for not doing it." And so I did what I was compelled to do.

Secondly, as a worship leader, I am convinced that God does not ask us to leave our emotional baggage at the door of the sanctuary: consider all of the psalms that are marked "to the choir director" before the first verse, but the psalms themselves contain complaints and demands that summon God to attend to the specific real-world problems of the psalmist:

My enemies cannot speak a truthful word.
Their deepest desire is to destroy others.
Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
Their tongues are filled with flattery.
O God, declare them guilty.
Let them be caught in their own traps.
Drive them away because of their many sins,
for they have rebelled against you.
— Psalm 5:9-10

Thirdly, I will see your question and raise you another: Why isn't the stunning prevalence of police violence as--or more--troublesome than the public grief it provokes from its victims? The funeral is the problem, but not the killer?

[Leading Worship in My Funeral Clothes]

So, I put on my funeral clothes and reported for duty--with J.R.'s death, and the grief of the neighborhood, and the weight of all of the racial tension in our country weighing heavily on my mind. I didn't choose the songs, and I found myself being ministered to, as I led the congregation in worship. 

We sang:

Our God, a mighty warrior
You’re a consuming fire
In victory You reign
We triumph in Your Name
Jesus the Great Commander
You conquered death forever...

I was deep in thought as I sang and played. I thought about how many in some circles dislike war imagery in worship songs. But, considering that bullets are used so easily against people like me, I needed God to be a mighty warrior. I need to know that amidst the political violence that people of color suffer in America, that God's Divine Conscience will not keep God from saving me. I need to know, that in the war on black people, God is not a pacifist (click here to tweet this).

We sang:

Our God is greater
Our God is stronger
God, You are higher than any other

Tears welled up in my eyes, because the struggle seems so impossibly hopeless at times.

Will racism every be solved?

Probably not in my lifetime.

I will probably continue to witness racially charged socio-political, economic, psychological, and physical violence leveled disproportionately against people of color until I die. I will probably continue to battle denials of racism's existence and effects until I die. I will probably continue to go through the cycle of hope, grief, anger, resignation, grief, hope, anger, resignation, etc. until I die. But does that mean that racism will ultimately win? Is our proclivity to sin stronger than God's ability to redeem?

We sang "And if Our God is for us, then who could ever stop us?" and I thought of those everyday people--single mothers, gang bangers, advocates, protesters, local rabbis, seminary professors, and students, gathering to light a candle or give financial help to J.R.'s family. I thought of all of the people seeking justice, and God's promise that they will be filled. I needed to sing these words, to remember that the work that we do is not in vain. We are participating in God's victory.

We sang:

This is my Father’s world.
The battle is not done
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heav’n be one

And I thought of how the Genesis 1 describes God building the world, in the same way ancient people describe the construction of a temple. Yes. This is my Father's world, and that has implications for how we live in it. This is my Father's world, and so it matters if I recycle or not. It matters if the poor are fed or not. It matters if the innocent are killed or not. Because this world, and all of its furniture, belong to God. God cares about what's going on here, that is what the Bible is about: that God loves the world, and is willing to enter the flow of history to restore it.

On and on we sang, and I couldn't help but wonder--as I sat there singing in my funeral clothes, thinking of how God might show up in these very specific historical situations--what this worship experience is speaking to for someone who can't identify with the grief and frustration of so many people of color. I wondered what battles they needed God to fight. I wondered what do they need to know that God is greater and stronger than. I wondered what conviction must have arrested their hearts as they realized the implications of singing "This is my Father's world".

I don't have answers to those questions. 

What seems clear to me, though, is that my experience was very different from the others in the room. As we sang about war, I was in the minority thinking of actual bullets.

Feel free to leave any comments below.