Last Sunday, I preached three short meditations on patriotic hymns. I am usually not a fan of patriotism in worship because it runs awfully close to idolatry: exalting our nation above God. I also feel like many nationalist hymns gloss over the sins of our collective past and present. I chose “Lift Every Voice and Sing” because it does neither of these things. After the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police this week, James Weldon Johnson’s song and my reflections seem all the more timely.
These verses from Hebrews spoke to me in a new way when I read them this week from my office here at Eliot Presbyterian Church. I have often thought that Christians should regard ourselves as Abraham and Sarah did: as people passing through this land that God has given us, always keeping our sights set on that heavenly kingdom which is our true homeland. Other great Christian thinkers of our time have reflected that Christians are “resident aliens” in an American culture that claims some Christian identity but has drifted a long way from the path of Jesus. This year, though, I read this text with you in my heart and mind, mindful of just how many of you are or have been resident aliens. That status is not a spiritual experience but an everyday reality that often comes with great hardship and discrimination. What does it mean to say that all Christians – even those of us who enjoy a great amount of privilege in this country – should live like “strangers and foreigners” on earth? What especially does it mean to say that in a multi-cultural congregation as our nation celebrates the 240th anniversary of our independence?
Perhaps the best way is to ask you. For those who have come as immigrants to the United States, what does it mean to be a “resident alien”? Would you be willing to share a story, right now, of a time when you have felt very much like an outsider here? Or, for those of you who have been in the United States for many generations, if you have ever lived in another country, would you be willing to share a story of a time when you felt very much like an outsider there? (Members of the congregation shared stories about: not feeling at home either in the USA or his native country; being harassed by the police in his own driveway; having difficulty connecting with other students in school because of her thick accent; being rejected as a child welfare worker either because of his skin color or accent.)
For people like me who enjoy a great deal of privilege in this country, relating to Abraham and Sarah and the author of Hebrews is to hear these stories of foreignness. For those who know all too well what it is like to be a stranger, we need to hear your stories, and I thank you for the courage to tell them. The more the church grows in our solidarity with the “strangers and foreigners” in our midst, the more we are able to live out the call to remember that this land – as wonderful as it is – is not our true home. We are citizens of another kingdom for which we must continually long for and work toward: the kingdom of heaven.
That is also the reason we sing hymns like Lift Every Voice and Sing. This is a hymn whose lyrics and tune were written in 1899 by African American brothers – James and Rosamond Johnson – to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. In 1919, it was adopted by the NAACP as the “Negro National Anthem.” It became a freedom song of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s (1). Race is never mentioned explicitly, but you can hear the cries of the enslaved under the bitter chastening rod. The blood of slaughtered African American youth like Emmett Till and Michael Brown still cries out from the second verse. If Christians are going to embrace the call to travel through this land as strangers and foreigners, we have to say that this song is our song and the stories of the marginalized are our stories. This is not the cultural appropriation of imperialism but the enactment of the claim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We live in the spirit of Hebrews when we listen to the voices on the margins or when we speak out from the margins. We do it when we share our bread with the last and the least. We do it when we rally for the rights of immigrants. We do it when, with James Weldon Johnson we lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.
May it be so.