As I spent a two-month sabbatical on my birth-island Jamaica during spring 2016, I was struck by a thought that has stayed with me. It is somewhat controversial so bear with me as I try to share it in this blog in the most sensitive way I can manage.
During my sabbatical I stayed at a theological college and shared in some of the worship life of the community. I loved it, but couldn’t help wondering why the ‘worship’ felt so Eurocentric even though there wasn’t a white person in sight. I concluded that the Christian heritage still prevalent in European-initiated churches operating in Jamaica exercised a subliminal control through songs, prayers and general liturgy that is not best suited to the descendants of enslaved and colonised people.
Things came to a head the day I was asked to speak on a topic something along the lines of ‘forbearance in suffering’. I thought about the centuries of suffering my forebears underwent and how tough the lives of the descendants of the enslaved continued to be; and could not bring myself to encourage Jamaicans to ‘forebear’. No! I wanted to speak of rebellion, of overthrowing oppressors and oppressive structures, of reparation for slavery and wrongs done historic and contemporary, of a God in Jesus who overthrew the money changers tables, not encourage those they oppressed to learn to forebear. Increasingly I found it hard to say ‘amen’ to some prayers, homilies, or sing some of the songs.
I discovered that Jamaica had an appallingly high national debt that at its height saw the post-colonial independent country paying circa 70% of its national income to service its national debt – imagine if you had to hand over 70 out of every 100 pounds you earned to creditors! Half of Jamaica’s young people were unemployed. The economy was unable to properly resource its national infrastructure such as roads, health and education and was badly in need of economic development to provide jobs and well-being for Jamaicans. Beautiful an island as Jamaica continued to be, it was clear that many saw their economic and future wellbeing abroad.
Every known religion appeared to be on the island, with the Christian Church, of many denominations, having pride of place with a church or two on almost every street corner – I exaggerate to make a point. Yet, one of the island’s foremost gospel singer sang, ‘this island need Jesus’. I wondered where Jesus would find any more room on an island where his followers seemed as omnipresent as God.
Most of the religious entities in Jamaica, including Christianity, seemed to be foreign-originated. This led some to say the church ‘in Jamaica’ was not the church ‘of Jamaica’. Nowhere was this more evident as in the churches’ liturgy. It was as though for the most part Jamaican worshippers spoke the words of their disembodied Europeans former lords and ladies.
I found liturgy that typecast Jamaicans as in need of humility, in need of a generous spirit, or as just plain wicked, unhelpful. Jamaicans past and present were, I thought, more sinned against than sinners. And I concluded that the church in Jamaica needed to become the church of Jamaica and throw its weight behind nation-building: socially, economically, politically, and yes, spiritually.
As we are what we eat, so we are what we liturgise. There was an urgent need to use liturgy – songs, prayers, sermons – that spoke of abundant life and how it was to be attained working in partnership with each other and with God.
Back in the UK where the African and Caribbean community feature in so many negative indices in education, health, unemployment, housing, etc., I have noticed that the main purveyor of black (particularly Pentecostal) Christian liturgy, our much loved gospel music, seems to be performing a similar role to the borrowed liturgies in Jamaica. Much of UK Gospel songs it speak of submission, surrender, withholding nothing, take me to the king, one touch will change everything, and such like. Our favourite place seems to be at the altar, slain in the spirit, lost in the spirit-world from which we return time and again to little or no change in our community’s circumstances. I speak of the many, not the few who are alright thank you very much!
British Gospel Music has come a very long way. Now I want to argue that it has further to go. Along with other liturgical forms like preaching and teaching, gospel music has a responsibility to not only enrapture the faithful into spiritual frenzy, but to inform and empower all, in churches and communities, to become the best of ourselves by the power of God in us. We need to have less of the submissive, gentle lamb of God Jesus meek and mild look upon a little child, pity my simplicity approach; and more of the conquering lion of Judah Jesus overturning the tables of the oppressive money-changers wolves in sheep clothing – less anaesthetising the oppressed to learn to get used to and bear oppression. I want to hear about our struggles and the tools we need to overcome.
So, come on gospel song writers and performers, throw your weight behind nation building, not just having a good time in church. Please give us some songs of liberation not just from personal sins but the structural sins that snare and limit us and the potential of our children and grandchildren. The sentiments suitable for the descendants of the slave-owners are not necessarily suitable for the descendants of the enslaved. As was asked years ago, ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ In other words, ‘what are the appropriate words to sing when we find ourselves in Babylon?’ We need songs that liberate not keep us bound through forms of spiritual anaesthetising.