Blessings That Soothe, Blessings That Sting


Still from the movie SELMA

by Jesse Deconto

In a climactic scene in the new movie Selma, it's Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Activists weep and wail, crumpled and bleeding in the street, caring for one another's injuries as best they can after their first try at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Six hundred of them were trying to leave Selma, to march 54 miles toward Alabama's capital, Montgomery, where they aimed to demand the right to vote from Gov. George Wallace. The state police chased them back across the bridge, beating them with billy clubs, spraying them with tear gas.

As they—and the audience—try to recover from the shocking violence of the scene, Martha Bass' version of the old black spiritual "Walk With Me" plays as the soundtrack. The song is a prayer: "Walk with me, Lord … Hold me in my troubles … Hold me when the storm of life is raging… Let me know everything's all right."

It's the same song that Dr. B. Angeloe Birch sang before he and other ministers led us on a march through downtown Durham, N.C., on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday last week.

"I think it's very fitting that we sing this particular hymn this morning," he said.

The implication was that the cause is just, therefore surely the Creator of the universe is on our side. Speaker after speaker had taken the megaphone, urging us to work for justice–to give young men options other than crime, to improve fairness for African Americans in the legal system, to empower every beloved creature of God to live into their full potential.

It was hard not to sing along when the march began and voices joined in "We Shall Overcome." And, yet, at the risk of furthering any racial stereotype, I confess that these African American Christians—and they certainly talked like Christians—seemed a lot more comfortable with invoking God's name than I am. Think about what we were singing in those two songs: God walks with us, and we're going to win.

Surely one can't imagine the long, slow march from slavery toward equality apart from the religious faith that has nourished the freedom fighters. But my experiences of claiming divine endorsement are so very, very different. I remember a female friend at my evangelical college who told another friend that God had told her to break up with him. Then there was George W. Bush, who claimed the interminable war in Iraq was his mission from God. At 19, I even dropped Jesus' name in shaming some guys who were cheating in my fantasy basketball league, for crying out loud.

At a church where I used to lead music, we worked hard at racial reconciliation, and one of the conflicts that came up was around the word "blessing." We whites were uncomfortable talking of our good fortunes as divine blessings, because what about the unfortunate? Was God against them? Were they cursed, rather than blessed? Talk of "blessings" came with white guilt. But some of the African American Christians said, "Wait a minute. That's our heritage. That's how we talk about how God has cared for us."

Why was it so easy to pray and sing with these brothers and sisters on MLK day, when at other times I suspect God-talk is all about advancing your own agenda at other people's expense? I think it goes beyond whether the cause of racial equality is just, because that's the point, isn't it? Everybody thinks their cause is just. God can't take one side against another, right? If there's a Creator, that Creator must be on the side of all creation, no? At the march, the Rev. Wesley Elam even prayed for police because, presumably, God is on their side too, notwithstanding those moments when they get things murderously wrong.

Maybe this is why I could sing "Walk With Me" on MLK day: The civil rights movement, as it continues today, is not a movement of powerful people vying for a little more power, an edge over relative equals, some great achievement to mark one's legacy, nor the feeling of having "done the right thing." It's a group of people simply asking for the same things other people have. If God is on everyone's side, then God has to walk especially on the side of those who want the same justice, peace and freedom that others have. Catholics call this God's "preferential option for the poor."

Maybe "blessing" is a difficult word because if God is an equalizer for people lacking enough power or justice or security, God might also be an equalizer for people who have too much, and that might not sound like such good news. "Blessing" might call as much for loose-fingered giving away of privilege as it does for thankful receiving. For some, God's presence and blessing might soothe; for others, they might sting. But maybe both can lead to the same wholeness for all of us.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He writes regularly for The Christian Century, Huffington Post and The Salt Collective. He records, performs and tours with his brother and sister in The Pinkerton Raid. He is author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. He finds God in old hymns and Beatles songs.

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