“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” ― James Baldwin
A gift of the Negro/African Spirituals is that they transformed mutilated lives into lives of vitality and freedom, contradicting their physical and social situation with accountability to self, community, and the goal of life, God.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder;
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder;
Every round goes higher, higher
Dr. Howard Thurman writes: “Have you ever heard a group singing this song? The listener is caught up in the contagion of a vast rhythmic pulse beat, without quite knowing how the measured rhythm communicates a sense of active belonging to the whole human race; and at once the individual becomes a part of a moving host of mankind. This is the great pilgrim spiritual…. There is something in every one of us that tries ever to reach beyond the known, the realized, the given . . . The struggle seems never to be resolved; . . .”
There is something about the Negro Spirituals in general that gives me a profound sense of grounding, resolve, high hope, and connection with the More Than in life, the All Pervading Presence, that which is so fully present in my innermost being and yet beyond all of the particularities of my life. I am held and stretched.
The spiritual, We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, has an alluring sense of dynamism connecting the finite self with the infinite, the personal identity and situation with the universal reality, the contemporary with the timeless. Thurman describes this as the gothic principle; for, it is reminiscent of the Gothic Cathedral with “its pillars grounded firmly in the earth and its awe-inspiring vault reaching toward the heavens.”
He continues: “Every man [person]must come to terms with the ultimate problem…. In one way or another God and the human spirit must come together. Whatever things in life you believe to be true and valid, you and they must sit together in the solitude of your own spirit; and when you do what is on the agenda no form of pretension has any standing there…. The one searching item with which you must deal is, how have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth? …as you turn the corner today in your own road, suddenly it is upon you. We are all climbing Jacob’s ladder, and every round goes higher and higher. All who recognize this as a living part of their experience join with those early destiny-bound singers who marched through all the miseries of slavery confident that they could never be entirely earth-bound.”
This understanding refuses to let me be at ease, especially during this time of coronavirus pandemic revealing huge inequities in our political, social, health, education, economic systems. My peace is disturbed by this question while there are demonstrations calling for a different way of dealing with all the peoples of the earth and the policing and policy making forces that cause so much harm. “How have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth?” It interrogates one’s religious landscape, and one’s moral obligations.
Last Sunday, I participated in a witnessing at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in San Francisco. It was good to have drivers honk their horns in support of the signs many of those gathered carried or the words coming from the speakers. Yes, one driver seeing a sign with pictures of many who have been murdered by policing officers yelled: “What do you expect? They were all criminals.” There was another who stopped to argue his opposing viewpoint. Overall, it seemed that people were pleased to have the opportunity to express their moral outrage, to honk for a new way.
Always there is the towering question of our moral obligation. What is our moral obligation?
Our communal outrage and envisioning a different way forward must be grounded in integrity, trust, and the courage to shape what is into what ought to be. That is the definition of faith according to Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick. Martin Buber adds to this with this insight: “Real faith means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life and which cannot be comprised in any formula. Real faith means the ability to endure life in the face of this mystery.”
The opening statement by Baldwin begins with a troubling word: “if.” “If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now…” That is a huge if. We as a nation have continually faltered. Although there has always been a faithful minority, we as a nation have not had the will to claim higher ground.
The walk together into a new dimension of living is not easy. There must be deep, troubling conversations if we are the achieve our country as Baldwin envisions.
Jane Elliot calls us to such authentic, difficult conversation and journeying.
What is before us is not mapped out. There is no sure way, no easy formula. This is inherent in the mystery. However, we have had examples – seers, sages, prophets – who have taught us and shown us how to walk in the light while there is still light within and among us. They have taught that when human institutions and systems betray the intention of God, subvert what is divine, we have the duty to oppose them. They have instructed and revealed to us to “Render to Caesar the things that are of Caesar but, do not give to Caesar, the state, the nation, that to which Caesar has no moral claim. Do not give unto blind patriotism the things that are of God – my life, my loyalty, my moral integrity, my responsibility to others, my duty to all of creation.
Rabbi Heschel inquires: “Where in America today, do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.” I believe we are all signs that God has not given up on the world and that is why we were born. Therefore, we all have this moral duty as King did to yield our lives to the movement of God.
It almost seems cruel to demand so much from the enslaved. Shouldn’t it be enough for the enslaved to just survive? Shouldn’t it be enough for the enslaved not to return abuse to the slaver master, to destroy his property and even his life. It appears merciless for the slave to be held to such high moral standards, authenticity, resolve, excellence of spirit. What an ethically binding, potentially devasting call to moral integrity this question is: “How have you lived your life in the knowledge of your truth?” In it is a theological affirmation that it majestic and sacred. It is an essential companion of the Way. What must not be missed is that the question is raised by the enslaved community to the enslaved community. Can we impose anything less upon ourselves living with conditions far less oppressive than our enslaved ancestors?
Yes, there has been and will be backlash, heartache, betrayal, and failure along the way.
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter
hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as
much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first
blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last
blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” ― Jacob A. Riis
Within the death and destruction in the land, I feel the hand of God, the breath of the Holy, moving among the peoples of the earth, refusing to go back to old ways, refusing to cram new consciousness into old wineskins.
Even now, I hear the voice of present-day prophet Harry Belafonte and take courage.
“He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” – Paul Tillich
“Each of us speaks to our time with our life; it is all that we have, it is all that is given to us….GIVEN THE FACT OF OUR LIFE, each of us has to decide where we will take our stand, being mindful that all that is given us is a life.” – Howard Thurman