Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 15, 2020 - We Shall Overcome

I spoke with someone recently who informed me that it was considered inappropriate, by their racial justice group, for white people to sing the social justice anthem “We Shall Overcome.” As a sensitive person, who makes a conscious effort to empathize with people's viewpoints, especially as pertains to race, at first I felt that I must somehow be wrong in my view. I was very disappointed.

I have sung this song many times over the years. I have sung it in choirs, I have sung it with my afterschool kids in the mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I even wrote a countermelody to it for church. I have a relationship with this song.

Very quickly after concluding I must be wrong, I started to question that. I also started to question the right of people to exclude others from art. 

But there is something to the point she was making. Our job as white people is to listen. Regarding the issue of racism and bigotry, a majority needs to comprehend the value of listening to the minority voices in the room. Talk less, listen more. Support any and all opportunities at which loving dialogue may occur and history recognized. Use your privilege for that. 

I thought maybe I shouldn’t sing this song anymore and I should just listen to it. So I did.

I have two thoughts after listening carefully to it. One, is that the “we” in the song lyrics refers to the greater “We,” not just the “we” who have had the experience. The reason I know this is because there is no teaching on earth throughout history which claims that anything is ever accomplished without doing it together. 

Which brings me to my second thought. The song is not about the past so it cannot exclude anyone based on their lack of experience with it. The song never once references the past. The past is implied by the words, but not spoken of. This is the grace of this incredible work of poetry and prayer. It is exclusively about a vision for the future accomplished as a group.

To exclude people from singing this song based on their race is not the future the song speaks of. That is an old lyric of the past. And we don’t sing that song anymore. We sing about the future.

We shall overcome. We’ll walk hand in hand. We shall live in peace. We are not afraid. The truth shall make us free. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome someday. 

This is my theology of optimism in song form. It is not something which can be misappropriated or co-opted for darker purposes. It is not something which human tongues can diminish. It is resplendent, and impervious to misuse.

We shall overcome our past because we are already doing it. We’re not there yet, but there’s a provable trend from which to extract some definite hope. Just take a step back and look at the past 200 years and imagine the various categories of civilization, from education to workers rights, especially civil rights, all displayed on a series of graphs. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see the trend. 

We are nowhere near anything resembling a finish line. There’s so much work to be done. But the vast majority of our task to date has been the enormous undertaking of revealing the work we need to do in the first place. It took decades of increasing awareness and comprehension on the subject of race to even get where we're at right now. It’s only with this set of generations living today that we are really starting to understand how deep the roots of the problem go and what our responsibility is in doing something about it. 

But the one certainly is that a society progresses only in direct proportion to its ability to work together. There is no exclusion in the word we. No one can own it. No one can dictate who belongs within the greater We. 

I do believe we shall overcome our past because humanity only ever seeks to know one another better. Is inherently human to be in relationship. We can’t resist it. Even when we are afraid, we seek it. We seek to be at peace by nature. The more at peace we are the less protection we shall need. Only the greater We can make this future possible.  

It’s understandable in this age of heightened social awareness to want to ferret out every way in which we have been careless with our words and actions without thinking. We should be mindful of all ways in which one culture diminishes another by misappropriating and misusing its traditions. We should care about the feelings of others. We should want to know how to be better. But don’t confuse sincerity with overzealousness.

First we have to simply become comfortable with the idea that “we“ is inclusive in the future we seek to create. Seek to be welcoming. Welcome any idea that will not harm you. Turn it over in your hand and poke at it. Ask it questions and have the humility to listen to the reply. If someone is in pain there is a truth to be known. Listen for it. It will make your life easier.  

I will never pretend to understand all the intricacies of the racial crisis or its solutions. There’s only so much I can personally know about the struggles of others. But that is the purpose of humility. Humility first before all action. Humility first before all prayer, all words, all listening. I supplicate myself before the truth. 

I’m sure there’s plenty to be criticized in my words above. Some may think I have no right to think as I do. But I am on the side of love and equality and justice and freedom and prosperity and peace in equal measure for all of humanity. We will all make our mistakes on the road to achieving it, but try to remain welcoming of the intent. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, it is paved with apathy. 

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