I am currently teaching a class at my church using material created by Eric Gentry, a minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis. While the concept I present here isn’t original to me, I have expanded upon it considerably.
In 2013 James H. Cone published a book titled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“. One aspect of this work suggests that one’s life experiences impacts the way we read Scripture. In particular, Cone argues that the closer one’s proximity to the lynching tree the more that person identifies with the suffering of the cross. This extends to the point that the cross is viewed as a lynching tree (Galatians 3:13) and the thousands of lynchings the African-Americans experienced throughout the U.S. are regarded as a “uniting with Christ in his death” (Rom. 6:5).
For white Christians comfortable with a well-established historical understanding of the significance of the cross, the idea that a community’s shared history can lead to a different perspective of the cross may create some discomfort.
Similarly, African-American culture has often viewed baptism through a different lens. White Christians commonly regard baptism as a moment that a divine transaction takes place; it’s a physical representation of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a moment of commitment, of forgiveness, of new life and orientation. It is a mental and emotional undertaking to trust one’s future to God and to make changes to live in harmony with God.
Within black culture baptism has often held dual hopes: an immediate hope of physical rescue and the spiritual hope of forgiveness and eternal reward.
In my mind, these different perspectives (and yes, I know I’m painting in broad strokes) are well portrayed in three songs written around the familiar Gospel theme of “the river”.
This traditional spiritual has a catchy tune that disguises the gravity of the lyrics. There are at least three ways to understand this song:
- The song speaks of baptism and putting on the long white robe down by the riverside. However, the lyrics don’t view baptism as addressing a sin issue. Rather, there’s the immediate connection of “studying war no more” and “laying down my sword and shield”. It demonstrates a view of baptism that relates it to the immediate physical need of escaping or ending violence. Sadly, that hope seldom came to reality in this realm, but it reminds us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and thus condemns those who make their living through violence.
- While this song doesn’t name the river, Gospel music often refers to the Jordan River as the point of transition from life to death. This image draws from the Old Testament account of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. According to this darker perspective this song declares that the slaves Promised Land and only escape from life’s burdens and violence is death.
- When I played this song in class an older black member quickly commented that the spiritual language was a metaphor for slaves crossing the Ohio River to reach the relative safety of the non-slaveholding states.
Each of these understandings stresses the immediate hope of peace and escape from oppression.
Eric’s class notes pointed me to a more recent (2015) song by Leon Bridges simply titled “River”.
Bridges describes his motivation for writing this song in this way,
I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother. I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality. The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.
Bridges’ iteration of the river theme has a darker melodic feel and the video captures the daily struggle of life. While the lyrics turn hopeful the links between the river, baptism and hope for a new life in the present remain intact.
Finally this contemporary Christian song titled “The River” was also released in 2015 by Jordan Feliz.
Writing for a predominantly white audience Feliz describes his journey to the river more in emotional and spiritual terms than the concrete realities of the previous songs. On his website Feliz reflects,
“Musically ‘The River’ is my own personal happy place. It’s a great driving groove that just feels good to sing. The song itself is an invitation to anyone who hears it—whether they’re stuck in pride and legalism or wallowing down in the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s an invitation to take whatever we have and to run to Jesus. It’s an invitation to go down in amazing grace and to rise up being made new.”
The first two songs regard the river as a place of hope, peace and freedom. However, the suffering still experienced in the present prevent it being the “personal happy place” that Feliz describes.
This contrast of emphases regarding baptism does not make one view right and another wrong, but the songs demonstrate a diversity of perspective even regarding a Christian sacrament at the core of our faith. They remind us that our way of viewing the world is not the only, or best, way. They remind us that we are all interpreters of Scripture seeking answers to our questions within its pages.
For multi-ethnic churches we’re reminded that we need to hear diverse voices in our teaching and within our congregations, because no single voice will speak into each hearer’s life. The way we express and apply our faith will have different points of emphasis to different cultures. We can’t be so arrogant to think that any one person can cover all the cultural bases. Diversity is not just different skin colors or even languages in one room. Diversity involves accepting different ways of thinking ans seeing the world.
(If this post brings other “river” songs to mind, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below along with any other reflections you may have.)