Monday, January 10, 2011

Get Right, Church

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. (Isaiah 42.6)

Too Late

For days now I’ve been unable to escape an extraordinary slave spiritual built on a deceptively simple lyric: “Get right, Church, and let’s go home.” It’s captivated me for all sorts of reasons, some regarding its origin but mostly for its relevance to our role as the Church in today’s world. I’m mystified that a people sold into hardship could sing such a song. Get right, Church? If we stood in their place, we’d go off on whoever came up with that. Get right, when everywhere we turn we stare wrong in the face? There’s a church that needs to get right, but not ours, not us. This belongs in the whitewashed palace with the whitewashed people—the ones who barter us like oxen, get pious on Sunday and violent on Monday, and say they worship in “God’s House” but lock us out, leaving us to sing our faith while we melt in the merciless sun. And let’s go home? That’s new, too. Home, as in where? We’ve been gone so long we don’t have one. We know what you mean, but we’ve got enough Heaven songs. We don’t need another, certainly not one like this.

The song’s durability proves its positive reception as it spread across the South via hearts of captives shuttled between owners. As America’s first virtual faith community, slaves drew strength from their united pursuit of righteousness. Few knew their age. They measured lifetimes by seasons; the sun’s arc defined their days. Yet primitive timekeeping didn’t impede their urgency to get right—and be right—to get home. Here are the verses, also one-liners:

I’m going home on the morning train.

Evening train may be too late.

Righteousness coalesced their sights on blessings denied: freedom, dignity, identity, and safety. With no expectation of sweeping deliverance, going home was a solitary journey. They believed forsaking righteousness for one second could thwart their passage. If they weren’t ready for the morning train, their best hope resided in the evening train. Still, second chances weren’t assured. And too late would be too late.

Collectively and Subversively

Naturally, we bristle to think a momentary lapse could nullify a life of earnest obedience. Modern fears of failure and rejection distort our view of what slaves clearly saw in the spiritual. It had nothing to do with divine fairness and everything to do with solidarity of purpose. It wasn’t about God. In truth, it wasn’t even about dying. It was about living collectively and subversively—flouting the corrupt politics and culture forced upon them. Righteousness brought them together, held them there, and enabled them to construct an invisible cathedral that towered over their captors’ so-called sanctuaries. Under everyone’s noses, faith raised a home for their souls. Legally, they were owned. Spiritually, they were kept. To their owners, they were commodities—ledger entries assigned a dollar value. To their Keeper, they were a covenant—a precious promise come to life, a nation cradled in God’s hand, a light to pierce blindness and dark dungeons. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, “Get Right, Church” embraced all God vows to us in Isaiah 42.6-7: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” In seven little words, the spiritual presented the proposition and promise, asking, “What will we do?” Its verses answered, “We won’t waste a moment. The first chance we have, we’re getting on-board and going home.”

Where Is the Church?

As concern about current confusion and violence rapidly mounts, a cry goes out: “Where is the Church?” We’ve yet to provide a meaningful reply. “Everywhere” we say, even though the instant it passes our lips its inadequacy chastens us. A Body severed in pieces strewn in all directions has no presence or power. Why do we balk at God’s proposition? Why won’t we get right so we can be God’s promise? What are we waiting for? If we already know righteousness means living in right relationship with God, one another, and our neighbors and enemies—if we’ve heard God’s call—what’s our problem? We’re staring at the morning train. Our chance to board is fading while we squander moments scanning the timetable for a later train. Why? We differ with some of the passengers already on-board. (They don’t like us, either.) Too late will be too late. Second chances are not assured. If we don’t get right, we may not get home. The world pleads with us to pull ourselves together and do as God asks. It’s time the Church showed up.

Proverbs 14.34 nails it: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” God calls us to righteousness to raise a new nation out of nations. We are fast approaching zero hour, when self-cannibalizing politics has devoured its last ounce of dignity, when social activism has abandoned the fight for justice to pummel its adversaries, when human ethics have devolved to basic instincts. God grants us a priceless opportunity to transcend politics, activism, and ethics as one nation in God—the Church truly triumphant and universal, the collective and subversive Body of Christ, God’s breathing, moving, and speaking presence on Earth. It’s ours to be the promise, the light, the invisible cathedral, the home of the soul, the creative instrument of renewal, to be kept by God—not merely owned by corrupt masters. This portion of Isaiah 42’s pledge ends with God saying, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” (v9) What God wants to do through us is more thrilling than we can ever imagine. Seven little words: Get right, Church, and let’s go home. What will we do?

We’re staring at the morning train, wasting our chance to board because we differ with some of its passengers. Meanwhile, the world pleads with us to pull ourselves together and show up.

Postscript: The Spiritual

This vintage recording of “Get Right, Church” by The Angelic Gospel Singers beautifully captures the spiritual’s optimism and enthusiasm. If while reading the post you heard a slow, mournful slave song, you’re in for a treat!


Grant said...

Wow! Lately I've been reading Greg Boyd (Myth of a Christian Nation / Religion), and Trocme and Wink regarding Jesus and non-violence. Also D. Bell (Just War As Christian Discipline)...

No matter which way the problems need to be addressed, there is a common theme ...Church needs to step up and be the church.

In my country (Canada), part of this "getting right" is to take a page from the gay community and come out of the closet. We've been hiding inside church walls (literally & figuratively) for too long.

Tim said...

Closeted Christians! It's so true--not just in Canada, but around the world.

There was this moment in gay history, after the big "We're here, we're queer, get over it!" splash in the Seventies, when LGBT people started finding one another in typically closeted places, like work and church, social get-togethers and so on. Coming out shifted from "Mom, Dad, there's something we need to talk about" to friends and neighbors saying things like, "Wow! You know it crossed my mind, but you hid it so well I couldn't be sure. I was so afraid of offending you, I decided not to bring it up."

We had also embraced the slogan "We're everywhere"--with it's unspoken subtext: "You just don't know it." Then we realized how little we knew about dozens of gay folks quietly living around us. It was marvelous! So reassuring and energizing. It was, I think, the moment when our community matured and blossomed.

Before that, most of us were content to let the "heroes" do the "living openly" thing. You'd hear comments like, "It's easy for activists and artists and drag queens and so on to do that. They travel in different circles. There's little at risk for them." After which would come, "But it's a lot harder for me, because I'm a teacher... lawyer... doctor... policewoman... fill in the blank." And we said these things in the seclusion of our enclaves, where we could be "out" once we crossed their thresholds. In wider settings, however, such things weren't discussed--even among friends who frequented gay spots together--for fear they'd offend or might be overheard and we'd be outed without our permission.

Once people from less "gay-friendly" walks of life began stepping up, though, it blew the doors off of so many closets! We reclaimed an earlier moniker, "People like us," which we'd shortened to "PLU" as a flag-phrase for those we suspected might be gay. The inhibited discretion associated with "PLU" anonymity vanished and it became a badge of honor. We were becoming what soon was proudly known as The Rainbow Nation.

Before this turning, coming out was either a matter of cultural defiance--vestiges of which we see in the jubilantly flamboyant (yet no longer stridently "political") dress and behavior at Pride parades--or, once AIDS swept our camp, impossibility to hide. The two dynamics, confrontation and consequence, merged into what we now have: confidence.

And, Grant, as I reflect on your astute parallel, I'm astounded. The modern/post-modern Church does indeed appear to be traveling the same arc. We've let those lead who had less to lose by coming out--e.g., unschooled and working-class believers whose flamboyance drew widespread derision, particularly from closeted Christians who confined their faith identities to congregational enclaves. Next came those struggling with personal duress like addiction recovery, sickness, or emotional instability; when their issues reached a place where they overwhelmed their everyday lives, they confessed their faith openly because candor became critical to their survival. Again, within the enclave, we'd hear, "His drinking got so bad he couldn't hide. It makes sense that he'd tell everyone he's found Christ. But I'm a teacher, lawyer, doctor..."

Thus the stage is set for closeted believers to shirk we're-everywhere-you-just-can't-see-us and start finding each other outside the enclaves--the walls we've been hiding inside, as you point out. We need to reclaim our PLU as a badge of honor. Then we will become The Righteous Nation God calls for!

And here I've gone and nearly written a new post. But your comment was so clearly apt I couldn't help passing on what flashed before my eyes the instant I read it. Thank you for this!

Have a most blessed, joyful New Year, Grant.