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White Supremacy and Me, Part 2: Music

In the previous post, I about how White Supremacy has impacted my theological views. In this second post, I address how White Supremacy has similarly impacted my views and tastes in music, both individually as well as in the corporate worship life of the Church.

First, a story.

About 11 or 12 years ago, I attended a New Years Eve celebration in Old Town Alexandria, VA. This event had a number of special events throughout the evening until late into the night.

I stumbled into one event by accident. An older African American man, alone with his drum, was singing and explaining the Black Spirituals tradition to the audience. I don’t remember much of his presentation, but I do remember my own sinful response to it.

At one point he began singing and explaining the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” The pace and melody of the song was completely unfamiliar to me. The beating of the drum seemed odd. The man’s low (low!) voice sunk deep down into my stomach in a way that made me uncomfortable. 

I concluded that this song and style of music wasn’t just odd and unfamiliar, but it must also be poor musically. I responded to my conclusions by mocking the man and his music – both in my heart, and to my friends who were with me.

This moment still haunts me. Lord, have mercy on me.

I became a Christian about a year or two later. Since then, the churches I’ve attended have exclusively played hymnody and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). The conferences I’ve attended have exclusively played hymnody and CCM. The lectures I’ve attended have exclusively taught hymnody and CCM.

In nearly every one of these cases, these decisions about music and teaching were justified with ideas and language that suggested hymns (both classic and contemporary) represented the best worship music of God’s people since the Psalms were written; they are the most biblically faithful, the most musically inviting, the most theologically engaging… Put simply, they are the best songs for corporate worship in the Church!

How tragic that such views are taken to the neglect of other traditions, such as the Gospel and Spirituals. Not only do such views neglect these other traditions, but they communicate (quite condescendingly) that these other traditions are inferior – and even invalid. 

How tragic for me that I accepted and held such views until only a few years ago. In my sin, I not only believed my music was superior, but I believed the worship music of other cultures was inferior. In the case of my views toward the must of the Black Church, such views cannot be adequately described without using the uncomfortable but necessary language of racism and White Supremacy.

Why is this the case? Three reasons. First, because the music of the Black Church is representative of a particular race and culture in a way that hymnody is not. As Bob Darden of Baylor explains, the Gospel and Black Spirituals tradition goes back to one of “the richest of the lavish gifts Africa has given to the world” (Gates, The Black Church, 120). To mock or view this tradition as inferior says something not only about the music, but about the people who gave that music to us.

More than that, viewing this music as inferior is racist toward an entire ecclesiastical movement. Within the typical White church, the sermon and sacraments are the center and highpoint of the worship service. If the music were removed from the service, something would certainly be missing but the service would go on. 

Not so in the Black Church, where the music and the sermon are like partners in a dance. We might even be able to say that in the Black Church tradition, the music is in the sermon and the sermon is in the music. As Shirley Caesar says, “If you take music out of the church, preaching is going to cease” (Ibid., 124). To describe this worship tradition as inferior or unfaithful is to say something about the entire ecclesiastical movement.

Finally, to mock or view the music of the Black Church with condescension is to ridicule the centuries-long oppression and experience of African Americans in the United States. The Spirituals were often written in the context of and response to oppression. It was a means not only of spiritual uplift and joy for the people singing, but also a means of instruction for seeking freedom. 

As Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. has explained, “There are a lot of songs that had double entendre—they would mean something about the kingdom, and they would also have something to do with this life in terms of freedom.” For example, consider “Wade in the Water,” the song I was so quick to mock all those years ago. This song not only provided a means of connecting the experience of the slaves to those of the Israelites, but it was also instruction for those slaves in pursuing freedom (Harriet Tubman famously used this song as instruction for getting off the trail to go in the water so that slavecatcher’s dogs couldn’t sniff their tracks. Incredible.).

When my previous post first went live on Twitter, I drew some criticism for trying to blame my culture for my own individual sin. I never said anything of the sort, and such conclusions are indicative of the very mindset I am trying to respond to. Nevertheless, I want to clarify what I mean here in a way that I hope is instructive. 

In his 1952 essay “Corporate Responsibility,” Reformed theologian John Murray explained how there is a level of responsibility that bears on individuals that are connected to corporate entities. The successes of corporate entities bears on the individual as “due credit,” and the failures are counted as “corporate guilt” and “delinquency.” Murray explains that “the corporate credit or guilt, of which we have spoken, never exists in abstraction and cannot be conceived of as existing apart from the individuals who compose the entity.”

He further explains how we must not confuse corporate and individual responsibility as if they are one in the same. A distinction must be made, but not one which “absolves the individual from responsibility” and simply blames the corporate entity, but one which “must devolve upon the individuals and become individualized in a way distinguishable from strictly individual responsibility, but not in a way that relieves the individual of responsibility.”

In other words, there is a kind of individual responsibility that bears on us from our participation in corporate guilt or delinquency that is different from exclusive individual responsibility. 

This is why, in the case of sins like racism or White Supremacy, we cannot speak of them in exclusively individualistic terms. We must address them as sins of individuals that are situated in racist and White Supremacist cultural and corporate entities; not to excuse individual responsibility, but to better describe and see our sin and responsibility for what it is. 

I take full responsibility for my racist and White Supremacist views and actions. I mocked that man, I dismissed the tradition, I looked down on the Black Church simply because it was the Black Church. However, my own individual views and responsibility (both for the sin, and any repentance and repair for my sins) do not make sense without discussing the broader culture and traditions (ex. the White Reformed Church) of which I am an active participant. 

Here are some of the steps I’m taking for my repentance and repair. First, I’m making my sins, story, and repentance public. I hope this might inspire others within White ecclesiastical tradition to do the hard work of introspection and repentance. Let us beg the Lord to expose our “hidden faults” to us (Psalm 19:12-14), and assure us of his unending grace in the process.

Second, I’ve been listening to and reading a lot of Spirituals (my, my, how much I’ve learned!). I’ve also been studying the history and theology of the Black Church. I know that much of this tradition, especially the music, is both oral and experiential. But learning the history and theology couldn’t hurt!

Third, I am trying to explore the ways hymnody and Spirituals could inform the worship of a local church together, rather than one to the exclusion of the other. This is a means of discipleship, and I’m still looking for those who might disciple me further in this direction.

Fourth, I am changing the way I speak about my own tradition, such that speaking highly of my tradition doesn’t come at the cost of degrading another. I love the Reformed tradition, but that doesn’t make it “the Best.” It’s good. But we don’t need to talk about it in a way that is condescending toward others, right?

Thanks for reading part of my story. I’m trusting God to finish that good work he’s started in me (Philippians 1:6). May He give us humility to be open an honest about our sin so that we can repent and seek repair together.

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White Supremacy and Me, Part 2: Music

by Ben Hein time to read: 6 min
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