I'm gonna talk with the Prince of Peace
Down by the Riverside
Ain't gonna study war no more
Down by the riverside is one of my all-time favorite worship songs. I realized this while standing outside a Primary Sabbath School room on a Sabbath following a particularly violent week in the news. There’s no balm in Gilead stronger than the voices of children singing “we ain’t gonna study war no more.”
I hear so many arguments about music within the church, but the majority of them focus on style (hymnals vs. PowerPoint, contemporary or traditional, drums or organ). This focus wrongly assumes that the purpose of music is entertainment, that singing is for ourselves. Instead, worshipers and worship leaders must recognize the power in the words they sing. Our songs remind us that if we can stand together to sing in one voice, we can stand together to work; to put our backs to the task of tearing down the walls that divide us.
The Civil Rights movement sparked an outburst of new protest music in America, but I’m continuously amazed at just how many of the songs sung during those protests came straight from the Christian songbook. “We Shall Overcome”, “This Little Light of Mine”, “Oh Freedom”, and “Eyes on the Prize” (just to name a few) were spirituals originating from slavery that lived on in church congregations.
The fact that those songs have stuck with us and have been handed down to each generation of children is a testimony that the church has not yet completely forgotten that it serves a Jesus who began his ministry in Nazareth with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18)
The spirituals were born of suffering and they carry the weight of chains and whips. They urge us together and demand that we heed the call of Christ to lift those chains, to end violence and oppression.
This music was used in the Civil Rights movement because its power was recognized. Whether the songs are sung in the streets by picketers or in the pews of churches, they are subversive, hymns to tear down evil and call in a new day. This revolutionary tradition is quickly fading within the Christian faith, but it is one that must not be forgotten.
A gospel of liberation for the oppressed is not the reigning interpretation in these days of the evangelical, prosperity gospel. When I stand in front of a congregation and say that the violence in Gaza is wrong, when I condemn drone strikes, when I preach that Christians should support a living wage, it is met with grumbles about the separation of church and state. Still, I have not yet lost hope, because when I stand in front of a church with a banjo or a guitar, and sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield,” those people open their mouths and sing along. They might not see the contradiction in their singing, but the tradition lives on in the songs.
Now, one of the most important questions a church must ask itself is what is more important: the words our pastors say to us or the words we proclaim to the world? It is important to note that singing is one of the few things we do as one voice. When the people of god sing together they are a unified church singing the gospel at a world that needs to be shaken up. The Rasta movement calls this chanting down Babylon because the power of God is most powerful when it is amplified through the hands, feet, and voices of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
It is true that many of the hymns in our books convey a different kind of metaphor. On violent news weeks, it terrifies me to see children singing the words, “we are soldiers.” It hurts me to sing “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” as if the gospel can be privatized and individualized for one person to own.
It is for this reason that worshipers and worship leaders must take their task seriously. The words we sing aren’t just words, they are our united message to the world. They comfort us in trouble, but they must not pacify. They urge us to change the world, but they remind us to do it love and when we sing them, we tell the world the same thing.
My challenge to all the worshipers and worship leaders whenever they begin to sing is to remember a deeply rooted Christian tradition of subversive song. Remember that the words we sing are more important than the pretty melody lines that carry them. When you raise your voices, let the weak know the church is coming to help. Let the oppressor fear the sound. Tell them you’re marching to freedom.
-Sterling Spence graduated from La Sierra University and is working through his MA program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He plays in the band The Coyote Bandits and blogs for Canvasback Missions.