Won’t you help to sing: Easter is an uprising

It’s Easter season, and that means I’ll get to sing and to hear one of my favorite Easter-season hymns, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”

That title comes, surprisingly, from the book of Job — not a part of the Bible we usually turn to for Easter thoughts. The particular passage, Job 19:25-26, is one I don’t ever remember encountering in all the Bible-memorization classes, programs and contests of my fundie youth, but it will be familiar to anyone who has studied classical music.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though … worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Handel used that passage for a soprano aria in Part III of his Messiah, and it’s a gorgeous thing.

This is what Easter looks like.

But the hymn I mean is the Samuel Medley one from 1775. (Warning: That’s a CyberHymnal link with midi music — the button to turn off the sound is in the top left corner.) It’s usually sung to a tune that came later, in 1793, from John Hatton. That tune was originally called “Duke Street” — a name that just begs for a jazz arrangement.

My favorite rendition of the Medley/Hatton hymn is “My Redeemer Lives” by Mark Heard and Kate Miner on the lovely Easter album At the Foot of the Cross Vol. 1. Heard arranges Medley’s folk theology as something like folk-rock, which seems appropriate. He also skips several verses and rearranges the couplets of Medley’s lyrics to put more of the focus on “my Redeemer” and less of the focus on the I-me-mine at the center of the original lyrics.

I’ve read dozens of essays, articles, books and sermons criticizing modern American evangelical Christians for our shallow, individualistic, me-centered, “therapeutic” spirituality. While I tend to agree with those critiques, mostly, Medley’s lyrics from more than two centuries ago show that this problem isn’t actually a recent development unique to contemporary Christians.

He lives to grant me rich supply;
He lives to guide me with his eye;
He lives to comfort me when faint;
He lives to hear my soul’s complaint.

He lives to silence all my fears;
He lives to wipe away my tears;
He lives to calm my troubled heart;
He lives all blessings to impart.

He lives to bless me with his love;
He lives to plead for me above;
He lives my hungry soul to feed;
He lives to help in time of need.

That’s a stark summary of what it looks like when we reduce Jesus Christ to our “personal Lord and Savior.” The emphasis always ends up on the “personal” part, and for all the talk of “my Redeemer” the song winds up sounding more like it’s about my valet. Those verses above read like they should be Bertie Wooster’s hymn to Jeeves — a psalm in praise of the divine butler who attends our every need.

This individualistic, therapeutic, etc., spirituality is far removed from the defiant demand for justice in the passage that gives the hymn its title. “I call aloud, but there is no justice,” Job wails. Job wasn’t inclined toward the comfort-the-comfortable evangelical spirituality embodied by Medley’s hymn because Job was no longer pampered and thus could not imagine God as the divine pamperer.

Here, again, we see the daunting problem facing people like me when we try to read a book like the Bible. The Bible was not written by people like me, and it was not written for people like me, and people like me will never be able to understand it until we come to grips with that.

Even worse, it’s very hard for people like me to realize that we’re people like me. The “invisible knapsack” is invisible, after all — privilege means never having to think about being privileged. And because it’s hard for us to see that the Bible is going to be such a challenge for us, we tend to miss that challenge and thus to fail it. We misunderstand it without even realizing we’re doing so.

The Bible is a book for exiles. It was written by people in exile and it was written for people in exile. So people like me, who have never experienced exile, are going to need some help understanding this book. We’re going to need help from people like the people who wrote it — from exiles.

So let’s consider another song — a song written by just such a person. As much as I love to sing that Medley hymn, this is a far better Easter song.

That’s Bob Marley singing “Redemption Song,” and that first verse cuts to the heart of what it means to be “redeemed.” The etymology of that word, the biblical roots of it, involve liberation and Jubilee — being set free from slavery, debt, oppression and exile. Marley understands those things in a way that Medley could not, and so Marley’s song of redemption tells us more than Medley’s song of a redeemer.

If people like me, or like Medley, are going to try to understand what it means to sing that “my Redeemer lives,” we would do well to study the first verse of Marley’s song:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

The Jamaican grammar of Marley’s lyric defies translation into any more formal form of English. In the usual grammar, “I” is the subjective first-person pronoun, while “me” should be used as the objective first-person pronoun. The middle-school grammar teacher wants to “correct” Marley’s patois: The old pirates did not rob “I.” The old pirates robbed “me.”

Methinks Marley knew that, but also knew that this “correction” would change the meaning of what he was singing. He’s not saying “the pirates robbed me” — that would mean they had stolen property from him. He’s saying the pirates robbed I — they stole him, treating him as property. He rejects the objective pronoun because he is not an object. He is a subject. The pirates and the merchants may say otherwise, but he has the strength of the Almighty on his side and he will triumph. This is what redemption means.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that we turn to Bob Marley for our systematic theology. He was no theologian, and much of what he at times believed was, frankly, flat-out wrong. (Haile Selassie was, alas, nothing more than Haile Selassie.)

But when I turn to many of the best theologians writing today — at least among those theologians who are people like me — I can’t help but notice that the broad outlines of the story they are telling is remarkably similar to the story Bob Marley sang for us. I’m thinking of theologians like N.T. Wright. I can’t keep pace with Wright, who writes books faster than I can read them. But if you look at the grand sweep of everything Wright is teaching us about the story of the Bible, you’ll find it is remarkably familiar to the story at the heart of Marley’s music.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The Bible was written by exiles and the Bible was written for exiles. People like me, who have never been exiles, cannot understand such a book on our own. If we want to understand our redemption song, we need to turn to those who can say it’s all they’ve ever had.

Anyway, here’s the Playing for Change version of “Redemption Song.” And here’s Matisyahu. John Legend. Muntu Valdo. Pink. Jackson Browne. Sinead O’Connor. Cassandra Wilson. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer. Stevie Wonder. And Angelique Kidjo.

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  • Magic_Cracker

    B-b-but if Jesus commands me to help the downpressed, I’ll have to stop downpressing them!

  • Lorehead

    When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. […]

    In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. […]”

    Deuteronomy 6. It’s been on my mind this Passover.

  • Victor Savard

    (((That’s a stark summary of what it looks like when we reduce Jesus Christ to our “personal Lord and Savior.”)))

    You scared me for a moment Fred! Glad Ya made yourself clear as to what YA really believe NOW! Hey! “I’M” hear to make you gods an offer YA can’t refuse NOW! We alien gods have been working on what “I” think we’ll be calling “IT” “Study Drugs”

    Long story short Fred! We’ve been testing “IT” on Victor 2% cells but as Ya can see here, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2013/04/01/the-church-challenges-all-its-members-in-different-ways-over-different-issues-just-like-life-itself/ Victor lagging breath in a sentence, if YA know what “I” mean NOW! We should have known better than to test this on a dead man if YA get my drift NOW?

    Fred time is limited here and a moment of our time is all YA have so please don’t argue about how much time “IT” really is cause Victor dreamed of “The Dead” last night and some of his relatives told him that we don’t really exist in this world… http://www.splendoroftruth.com/curtjester/2013/03/francis-pope-of-a-new-world/#comments

    Fred “I” have no more time to waste on YA so you in or out NOW? Listen and….

    And?? What are YA doing here sinner vic?

    Victor! Honestly “I” was so thrilled by this post of Fred that “I” wanted to contribute this little song to “IT” NOW! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbS8PJJmmcw NO<NO not that "ONE" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAUP8pPJfek

    Very funny sinner vic! Don't Ya know that April Fool ended Yesterday at High NOON?


    Go Figure brothers and sisters!? :)


  • danallison

    My understanding is there there are 3 “sects” of Rasta and that Marley’s is the one that worships Christ rather than Selassie.

  • Right now, even as I read this post, my flatmates are having a noisy screaming argument right outside my door. One of them wants to sing in the church choir, and is not allowed because she hasn’t been baptized into the church. The other is saying that this is right and proper, that she has “no right to sing about the Lord until you’ve accepted the Lord into your life.”

    A lot of good music would never have been made, if that were true…

  • He’s saying the pirates robbed I — they stole him, treating him as property. He rejects the objective pronoun because he is not an object. He is a subject.

    I never thought of it that way – and I’m a little suspicious of that interpretation. It’s an interpretation that seems to imply that using “I” in the objective as well as nominative case has no reason outside of songs specific to the freedom/slavery/”I am not property” topic. (Granted, that supremely worthy topic covers a lot of Marley’s oeuvre.)

    I always assumed the Jamaican grammar was important here because “correcting” the lyrics with respect to standard US English would be to alter the character of the narrator beyond recognition; it would be to take this story and tell it about someone else. Which is, come to think of it, exactly what a lot of well-off white US evangelist Christians do when they take a book about and for exiles and turn it into the story of Jesus as Personal Valet (ROFL! spot-on!) as Fred illustrates here. But that’s a reason for Marley’s use of that dialect to be important in all of his songs, not just this one or ones like it. (Granted no. 2: I have not listened to all of Marley’s songs. For all I know, he could have quite a few songs with standard US English and another couple more in Swahili.)

  • arcseconds

    awlright, this is an opportunity for me to torture you all with the terrible joke I just heard!

    How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts?

    Jam in.

    And he hopes you like jam in, too!


  • David S.

    To say that the Bible is about exiles and written by exiles seems reductionist. Large parts of the Bible are written by and about invaders (Joshua, etc.) and by and about the rich and powerful (Chronicles and Kings).

  • Ursula L

    To say that the Bible is about exiles and written by exiles seems reductionist. Large parts of the Bible are written by and about invaders (Joshua, etc.) and by and about the rich and powerful (Chronicles and Kings).

    This is a good point. The Bible isn’t one book. It is an anthology. And it is an anthology that is put together in a way that doesn’t fit with how anthologies are generally created, to fit along genre lines. It isn’t “The Best of World History” or “The Best of Middle Eastern History” or “The Best Theology” or “The Best Science Fiction” or “The Best Spiritual and Religious Poetry.”

    And it is particularly dangerous to read it as just about the oppressed, because that lets one look at the parts that are about justifying the powerful as being about justifying you when you are powerful and others are powerless in regards to you.

  • MikeJ

    To put it more succinctly, “You didn’t build that.”

  • Mitch Conner

    Actually the scholarship on Joshua, Chronicles, and Kings is fairly persuasive that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem during the Exile. So, while the subject is the rich and powerful, the perspective is of one looking back from ruin to a golden age. Of course, complicating this is the fact that many scholars are divided over the authorship within these books…so, some verses could reflect various epochs of the history of the Hebrew people. In any case, I think Fred’s larger point still stands, the main thrust of Hebrew Scripture is written from the viewpoint of exiles. It would be difficult to argue that Israel/Judah could ever be considered “rich and powerful” in light of the politics of the Ancient Near East. Don’t forget that Kings ultimately ends in the destruction of Jerusalem and the humiliation of the monarchy.

  • reynard61

    One thing that a lot of people tend to forget is that Messiah was originally composed more-or-less as a “theater” piece, not for the Church.

  • I grew up on more classic rock than reggae and only learned later in life that “I Shot the Sheriff” was Marley and not Eric Clapton. I don’t think that one’s meaning changes much (I don’t have either with me and don’t know if Clapton had to change the grammar or not.)
    And the deputy did it, and shot himself to blame the singer.

  • christopher_y

    Ha. I know that tune to a completely different hymn – Isaac Watts’ “Jesus Shall Reign”.

    Haile Selassie was, alas, nothing more than Haile Selassie.

    The name translates as “Power of the Trinity”, nothing more. Just Saying.

  • Foreigner

    “He was no theologian, and much of what he at times believed was, frankly, flat-out wrong. ”

    So he was just like everybody else then, including theologians.

  • I’m kind of disappointed in this post for one reason: calling the Rastafarian religion “flat-out wrong”. I realize that, as a Christian, you don’t believe what Marley did, but that doesn’t make it “wrong”. Would you say the same thing about Buddhism? Or Wicca? Their theologies clash and contradict modern Christianity on many points, but I don’t see you singling them out. C’mon, you’re better than this.

  • The_L1985

    OK, how many comment threads are you going to post this to? I’ve read this exact same comment from you before.

  • The whole “I” instead of “me” bit is actually a tiny part of the Rastafarian religion. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastafari_vocabulary

  • KevinC

    Yes, let’s celebrate our freedom from oppression by exterminating the people who built the cities and houses, dug the wells, and planted the vineyards and olive groves. Another way in which the Bible was not written by, or for, people like Fred.

  • EllieMurasaki

    “*I* replaces “me”, which is much more commonly used in Jamaican Englishthan in the more conventional
    forms . *Me* is felt to turn the person into an object whereas *I* emphasises the subjectivityof an individual.”

    So Fred’s point, if not necessarily the reasoning behind it, holds.