So many of the hymns and songs that I grew up with were of similar topics:
“And He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” Or “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.” Or “I’ll fly away oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” Or “In the sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
They were comforting songs. Peaceful songs. Songs about me and Jesus. Jesus as my friend. And, of course, the promise of a better world waiting for me when I died.
As I left the church of my youth I became more and more uncomfortable with those types of songs. Okay, so Jesus is my buddy but what about all of the injustice in the world? Sure, I get to go to Heaven when I die, but what about here and now?
The other day I was listening to a vinyl of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She’s an electric guitar playing, wailer of a singer who was popular in the 30’s and 40’s. She mostly did Gospel music, but her Gospel music is just stunning to listen to; it’s like nothing else I’ve heard.
And as I was listening to her music I realized that those old Gospel songs, the ones about the “sweet by and by” and “flying away” weren’t meant to be sung by privileged rich white cis straight people. These songs were written by people who were poor, marginalized. Who were enslaved and brutalized. Who needed the promise of a better land because the one they were inhabiting was total shit. And not only was it total shit but they were pretty much deprived of every single opportunity to make it better.
So when rich white people sing these songs and then go home to their suburbs they are singing blasphemy against the Gospel. These songs are meant to provide hope and comfort for the outcast and the marginalized.
The songs that rich white folks should be singing are ones begging for fogginess for the ways that we keep people in bondage. We should be singing about tearing down systems of oppression. We should be singing about the end of war right now. Because that’s the role of people with privilege.
Singing those songs of hope and comfort created an entire generation of evangelicals who are sitting on their hands waiting for Heaven. Who believe that their highest calling is simply to get a bunch of other people to pray a prayer so that they too can go to Heaven. Who believe that there is nothing to be done about this old world full of sin and they just need to hang on until Jesus comes back.
But here’s the thing: there’s a lot that can be done about this old world of sin and it needs to be done by those very evangelicals who are saying nothing can be done. Because they are the ones who are sitting on the money. They are the ones who are sitting in the seats of power. They are the ones who are creating laws and systems that are oppressing marginalized people. They are the ones who are voting for racist, homophobic, and transphobic lawmakers. They are the ones who are in favor of building walls and deporting immigrants and setting up conversion therapy and denying trans people health insurance.
So when I sing “I’ll Fly Away” it’s because I am being oppressed by a very specific group of people, the same people who are claiming that song as their inheritance. But instead of singing about flying away, I wish they would clean up the mess that they continue to make because they have the power to fix this sin riddled world. It’s just that they don’t want to.
And so those songs will continue to be sung by people who need them. Those songs will be lifelines for the oppressed and the marginalized. Just, the next time you’re in an all white, straight, cis crowd singing those good old hymns remember, they were never meant to be sung by you. Not while you are actively involved in systems of oppression. Not while you are actively discriminating against people.
These songs are for the oppressed. The marginalized. The promise of hope and peace and joy is ours. Just like the Gospel.