How can I keep from singing? Prayer and Praise as Political Resistance.

I have struggled to regain my footing in the weeks after the most recent presidential election and I know that I am not alone in that. It is not that I did not think America capable of electing a man who rose to prominence and power by brandishing blatant racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and gas lighting as political weapons.60+ million Americans looked at this reality and decided none of that was disqualifying; rather, people of color, women, Muslims, immigrants, queer people and other marginalized and minoritized communities were the price some were willing to pay to “Make America Great Again.”

In the interceding weeks I have struggled to find words to encapsulate the fullness of my grief, my fear, and anger, and my dismay. That is, until I started singing.

One day as I was in my kitchen washing dishes, I began singing,

I shall wear a crown,
I shall wear a crown,
when the trumpet sounds,
when the trumpet sounds,
I shall wear a crown,
I shall wear a crown,
I shall wear a golden crown.

I started singing it and I simply could not stop. Maybe I knew it, but there was something about the unabashed boldness and defiance of this song that spoke to me. I was introduced to this song through the lineage of black hymnody – a corpus of sacred music that was created or adopted by disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people. Worshiping the “King of Kings and Lord or Lords” was an act of political resistance against the powers and principalities that demanded obedience and compliance in the face of dehumanization. Despite what Jim Crow told them, they knew deep down that “a golden crown” was their inheritance. I sung it until I got happy, until I believed that, despite all evidence to the contrary, “a golden crown” would be mine too.

In the wake of a bruising presidential election in which vulnerable and marginalized people were and continue to be brutalized in the name of political power, perhaps it is prayer and praise that will save us. By this I do not mean prayer and praise and the “opiate of the people;” rather, I am referring to “prayer and praise” that function as political resistance, that assert a holier reality, that scatters “the proud in their conceit” and casts down “the mighty from their thrones.”

I think there is a temptation among the younger generation to deny the amazing emotional power and fortitude of our ancestors. A shirt that has circulated the internet in recent months states, “Dear Racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, These Hands.” Ostensibly the shirt proposes a more militant approach to racial justice; but, what the shirt does instead is obfuscate the emotional tenacity of men and women – many of whom we will never know – who resisted dehumanization at every turn. One Op-Ed piece from Ivory A. Toldson says, “the shirt reflects flaws in the way Black people are taught about themselves. Mainstream education subconsciously and deliberately omits aspects of Black history that make white people feel uneasy, resulting in Black children receiving an uninspiring education that reduces their ancestors to the casual pedestrians of American history.” Justice-seeking people of color and their allies are not now nor have they ever been “casual pedestrians of American history.” In the face of rampant White Supremacy which seeks to eradicate anything not deemed within the scope of White Christendom, resistance and survival are by no means passive. Simply surviving is an act of political resistance. So when black women and men and their allies locked arms in the 1960s and endured being spit on, beatings, jailing, police dogs, and fire hoses while singing “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,” they were asserting an agency over their own bodies that the powers and principalities were seeking to deny them.

What black Christians in early U.S. history did with Christian faith is nothing short of miraculous. They brought life out of the very thing that was supposed to kill them and found freedom in the very thing that was fashioned to keep them bound. They saw God as the Great Liberator who would judge the sinful nations for abhorrent acts of dehumanization. They ascribed power, riches, and glory to themselves and to God that far exceeded that of their earthly masters. They found (s)kinfolk in biblical characters like Moses, Poor Man Laz’rus, Mary and Martha, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Joshua who “fit the Battle of Jericho.” They referred to God as “sir” and “master” not to reinforce patriarchy, but to undermine the emotional control their earthly masters claimed over them. They would “steal away” to worship by the “cricks” and rivers, singing and dancing until the Spirit fell down. They fashioned a new world through song and then passed this powerful lineage down through the sacred vessel of the Black Church. Their music was worship. Their worship was political. Their politics was resistance.

In a country where racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, ableism, and other reprehensible forms of speech and action are now ostensibly acceptable, perhaps the Church needs to reclaim prayer and praise as acts of political resistance. We must claim “golden crowns” for every person of color, every woman, every immigrant, every Muslim, every differently-abled person, every human being caught under the heel of America’s delusions of grandeur. We need affirm personhood and dignity to people who are being denied it in the name of “greatness.” We must soundly and completely denounce hate-speech because the brown-skinned, colonized, poor, lynched, Palestinian Jew we claim as Lord commands us to love our neighbor and loving our neighbor in a context of growing unneighborliness means asserting the humanity of our neighbors in the face of powers and principalities that would have us think, feel, and believe otherwise. Our prayer and praise to our Risen Lord is an assertion that our true allegiance belongs to another Realm, one based not on hate but love, not on acquisitiveness but generosity, not on divisiveness but on sweet communion.

Perhaps the words we will rediscover during this time of our common life are words that have been bequeathed to us by tenacious ancestors who could sing “the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” when they had every reason to be afraid. We can allow their words and courage to sustain our pilgrimage going forward as we continue to search for meaning and grace amidst the tempestuous seas of our contemporary world. While I am unsure about a lot of things, I am confident in this: the God who was made manifest in the “music in the air” throughout history is still there, singing grace and love into being in the face of the transient kingdoms of this world.


Photo: Alvin Ailey’s Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham in Revelations.

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