Walter Brueggemann: God’s Songs of Protest: We Shall Overcome
At a study session in our church, I was expanding on the biblical rhetoric whereby God is a real character and a lively agent who can intrude into the world in effective ways in order to create new futures. A friend of mine, a relentless “progressive,” spoke up to say that she could never say such words that attribute such agency to God, because their claim clearly violates her Enlightenment reasonableness in her faith. (Thank goodness Methodists include “reason” in the “quadrilateral of authority.”)
Then it occurred to me my friend sings in our church choir.
She sings of angels at Christmas. She sings of a rising at Easter. She sings of the rush of the Spirit at Pentecost. She sings such claims without batting an eye.
My friend and all of us: “We sing what we cannot say.” We sing such words and make such claims in our singing because lyrical poetic discourse that can tease, contradict, and exaggerate, is porous and elusive. It is not bound by the strict rules that govern and contain our prosaic speech. In what follows I will reflect on my recent learning that we sing what we dare not say. I will consider three dimensions of that singing.
After a successful foray against the Philistines, the women in Israel welcomed their men home with singing:
Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (I Samuel 18:7).
The first line of the song is celebrative of King Saul for his prowess against the Philistines! The song must have pleased the king. Or at least until he heard the second line of the song that credited David with ten times as many killings. What sounded at first like a salute to King Saul is in fact a set-up to make a bigger claim for his rival, David. When King Saul heard the second line of the song by the women he was angry, for he recognized the threat implied to his stature and position:
Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?” So Saul eyed David from that day on (I Samuel 18:8-9).
Saul could do the numbers! The song that appears to be celebrative of King Saul is in fact a subversion of Saul’s royal authority and an affirmation that David would be a more effective king. Thus the song subverts Saul’s royal authority.
The women would not dare to say that, because it would be treasonable. But they could sing it!
While the king is angry, he would not charge the women with treason, because they were only singing, engaged in a clever move that covertly shifted loyalty from Saul to David. We sing what we cannot say because it is too dangerous for saying.
It is like that, for example with many of the Spirituals that sing of escape from slavery. Thus “Steal Away to Jesus” might sound pious to white ears but the “hidden transcript” concerns flight to the North. (See James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts). The lines, however, do not say what the song expresses. Since it is sung and not said, it is possible to give expression, even if barely so. The women in Israel shrewdly sensed what subversion was possible.
In I Samuel 2:1-10 Hannah sings in expectation of the son that the priest Eli has just promised her. Her song is not about the son who is to come, but about YHWH who will give, authorize, and empower her son. We learn from her song that there is no one like the Holy One of Israel (v. 2). Her song tells us of the ways in which YHWH is unlike every other God. This God has the capacity to overthrow all social arrangements. Thus God has the capacity to kill and bring to life. More specifically this God can reallocate the earth’s food supply:
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil (v. 5).
Because this God is Lord of the rich and of the poor, this God with a preferential option for the poor can elevate the poor to places of power and elevate the needy to places of honor. This is nothing less than a social revolution.
The work of this God is at least subversive. More than that, it is revolutionary in a way that upends the status quo.
One could hardly say that in places of power and authority; but one can sing it! We even sing in echo of Hannah in great cathedrals and on high holy days. It may be dangerous, but it is permissible because it is sung.
It is no wonder that this great revolutionary singing of Hannah is reiterated in the story of Jesus. For good reason Luke has placed an echo of Hannah’s song at the beginning of his gospel in the mouth of Mary. Luke, among the four evangelists, is the most radical in remembering Jesus as the one who signaled an immense upheaval in the socio-economic world. Thus Mary, in anticipation of the work of Jesus, sings to “magnify” the wonder of God (Luke 1:46-55). Mary sings of a “Mighty One” who, as with Hannah, can and will enact social upheaval in order to make the last ones first:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (vv. 52-53).
Such an articulation of God’s “preferential option for the poor” soon is to be performed by Jesus and is hardly palatable in many Christian congregations. But we can sing what we cannot say. We sing of a revolution that contradicts and threatens present world arrangements. In our singing we acknowledge this God who is free from and over against our preferred socio-economic policies and practices.
Among the most lyrical words in the Bible is the poetry of Second Isaiah that anticipates Israel’s coming return from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40-55). Because that return from exile will challenge the still regnant Babylonian Empire, this expectation must be sung.
This poetry is filled with ebullient expectation that invites Israel to anticipate beyond present political circumstance even though present political reality is daunting.
In Isaiah 42:10, Israel is summoned to sing a “new song,” a never-before sung song in Israel to point to a divine wonder that has never been seen. The subject of that new song is the arousal and resilience of God who is daringly portrayed, not unlike a pregnant woman who breaks the long silence of exile who now cries out:
Now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant (v. 14).
The imagery concerns the birthing of something new that is not derived from what has been. The newness concerns the lordly devastation of “nature”:
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools (v. 15).
That disturbance of “nature,” however, is in order to announce how YHWH will act to bring Israel home from exile:
I will lead the blind
by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them (v. 16).
That new song about new historical reality will question and delegitimate the Babylonian Empire. It would have been dangerous to say out loud that Babylon has reached the end of its imperial rule. But that is the claim of the song. It is doxology that anticipates well beyond the prosaic language of the empire that is characteristically the language of despair.
In Isaiah 54:1, exilic Israel is addressed by the imperative, “sing.”
We might expect that exilic Israel would say that it is much too dismayed to sing. The poetry, however, not only commands Israel to sing. The poetry tells Israel why it must now sing. The imperative is addressed to “barren Israel” with the imagery of a woman who has no children and no prospect for pregnancy (see Genesis 11:30).
This disappointed woman had no reason to sing or rejoice. Except now, by the imperative of God, this barren woman will give birth, receive futures, and will have more children, (a greater future) than the Babylonian Empire that had been so arrogant and is now fated to despair. History has turned! The exiles will have more of future wellbeing than anyone could have expected!
This barren, hapless woman in exile, Israel, will have so many children, so much future, that she will need a bigger tent. The place will be crawling with children, so much so that the tent stakes and ropes will need to be reinforced to cope with the burgeoning population that will occupy the future. The summons is to sing in order to boast, celebrate, and acknowledge that hopeless Israel has a wondrous future because of the faithfulness of God.
The counterpoint to be sung is that the empire has no children, that is, no future. Imagine a song to declare an empire is without a future! This is dangerous talk. It is always dangerous to anticipate a future that contradicts and overthrows present reality. Thus Israel is an anticipation of Martin Luther King’s assurance, “I have a dream.”
It is a dream that overrides the present nightmare of displacement. The only way to do that is by singing.
We might judge that this singing in exile is an early version of “We shall overcome.” Long, loud, bold singing of that song was the prerequisite of its bold use by Lyndon Johnson as the conclusion to his earnest Civil Rights speech before Congress. It had to be sung long, loudly, and often. We sing because we anticipate that by the power of God all present social reality can be overthrown.
The furthest reach of such singing in the Book of Isaiah is in 26:1-19. The poetry is introduced in this way:
On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah (v. 1).
There will be a time for singing. In that time there will be a new wave of God’s rule. But first the song must acknowledge that Israel was pregnant with possibility, only to fail:
Like a woman with child.
who writhes and cries out in her pang
when she is near to her time,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
we were with child; we writhed,
but we gave birth only to wind.
We have won no victories on earth,
and no one is born to inhabit the world (vv. 17-18).
But then in verse 19 the song does a mighty reversal. Now Israel is to “Sing for joy.”
Your deed shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! (v. 19).
At the edge of the Old Testament, Israel sings that “dust” will be overcome; corpses will rise. This is Israel’s ultimate anticipation.
And if we consider that “dust” takes many forms including exile, poverty, greed, violence, and fear, it may mean anything lethal. The song of faithful Israel trusts that the God of life will override and reject the negating power of “dust.” This is the ultimate song of Israel. Such faith cannot be said, for the flatness of prose will miss the celebrative joy and amazement of this stupendous claim. It must be sung! That is why our best singing is at Easter when we sing what we cannot say about God’s power for life in every circumstance of death.
If we try to say our faith in the reasoned cadences of worldly logic, our best claims are empty and lifeless. Our gospel faith is subversive, revolutionary, and anticipatory. But when it is said and not sung,
Subversion becomes conformity,
Revolution becomes romantic nostalgia, and
Anticipation becomes silent acquiescence to the status quo.
Thus our work is to practice singing and to school the church in its singing.
But a caveat is in order. Many people in many Christian congregations are so inured to an anemic civic religion and so are narcoticized against the demanding, dangerous dimensions of our best singing so that its thickness goes unrecognized. It is necessary that pastors and other song leaders among the faithful must do the work of critical awareness that Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) has termed “conscientization.”
Or in more popular expression, that we should be “woke.”
Without such critical awareness, the markers of subversion, revolution, and anticipation go unnoticed as we mouth the words. But think of it: our faithful singing is the embrace of subversion, revolution, and anticipation that bring life.
That is why we sign of angels at Christmas, governing messengers who make Herod quiver;
That is why we sing at Easter,
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun (Public Domain).
That is why we pray for breath at Pentecost in a society where we hear too often, “I can’t breathe.”
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do (Public Domain).
That is why in glad obedience, we march in our faith, “We Are Marching in the Light of God” (Siyahamba)(multiple hymnals)(See Walter Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing).
Did you know that in 1985 the government of South Africa banned Christmas carols in the townships?
A candlelight procession along Cape Town’s sea front by about 600 people, mostly white, combining favorite carols and religious hymns with anti-apartheid songs and chants, was broken up by police using whips after they had declared it an “illegal gathering” and ordered the marchers to disperse within five minutes … Police, wielding long whips, fired tear-gas grenades and wrenching candles from the hands of participants, have broken up vigils all around Cape Town during the last month. (“S. Africa City Cracks Down on Christmas: Caroling Banned as “Emotional”: Church Services Restricted” by Michael Parks (December 25, 1985).
Songs were said to be too “emotional.”
By that they meant too subversive, too revolutionary, and too anticipatory.
Singing threatens the status quo when sung properly. We sing what we cannot say. When we say and do not sing, we end in despair that leads to violence and death. Happily my friend at church is fully “woke”!
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.
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