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)
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!