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Power and pow’r

Power and pow’r October 23, 2018

Richard Beck has me revisiting some bloody hymns.

“I know these blood-themed hymns are currently out of favor,” he writes. “They are theologically ‘problematic’ for many.”

Well, yes. But the biggest problem with some of them is that they’re not a much bigger problem.

Let’s look at my favorite of the bunch — “Power in the Blood.” This is such a well-known and well-loved hymn that Michael Gerson and George W. Bush worked into into a classic dog-whistle for Bush’s white evangelical base: “There is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.”

The hymn was written by Lewis E. Jones and first published in 1899. It’s soaked in biblical imagery. But Jones was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, so that biblical imagery is all wrenched weirdly out of context, conscripted into service of something very different, and repurposed to mean something far, far different from what the original scriptures meant.

Start at the beginning, with the first verse and the chorus:

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the blood of the Lamb.
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

I love singing all of that. You can slow it down reverently, or you can crank it up and do that campfire sing-along thing where you try to stick as many “pow’rs” as possible into the first and third lines of the chorus without tripping up the rhythm. (For those new to this song, the only thing you can’t or shouldn’t do when singing it is pronounce “power” as more than one syllable.)

And the theology here — as written — is terrific. Albeit also terrifying. It’s straight out of the Bible. You’ve got your people being crushed under a burden of sin and longing for a victory over evil, and you’ve got your promise of deliverance and salvation for those people “in the precious blood of the Lamb.”

Where in the Bible do we find all this? Two places, mainly. The big one is from the book of Revelation — that’s where you have to turn when you’re dealing with a capital-L Lamb. The Lamb That Was Slain is the deus ex machina hero of Revelation. The Lamb is the opposition, the only alternative, and the ultimate conqueror of the Beast, whose empire of sin and oppression defines life for everyone trapped within and beneath his beastly, imperial “burden of sin.”

The Beast — the enemy and counterpart of the Lamb — is portrayed in Revelation as something like the second coming of Pharaoh, and John’s Apocalypse portrays the Beast being overthrown by something like wave upon wave of the Plagues of Egypt.

That story, of course, is the other main place in the Bible that we encounter a story like the one Lewis Jones has had us singing for the past century. The people of Israel were not free, they were trapped under the burden of sin, crushed by an evil they were powerless to resist. Their salvation came through the wonder-working power of God, who plagued Pharaoh with a host of opportunities to relent before ultimately sending an angel of death to settle the matter with some finality. Death visited all of those who were part of the imperial system that made up the crushing burden of sin, but the people of Israel were spared because the angel of death passed over the homes of those who painted their doorways with — yes — the precious blood of a lamb.

These stories — the Apocalypse and the Exodus — are bloody, bloody stories. Such blood-themed, blood-soaked tales of liberation and salvation are, as Beck says, “currently out of favor” for most white Christians because we’ve accustomed and accommodated ourselves to life under Pharaoh and the Beast. White American Christianity is Vichy Christianity. We’ve built ourselves nice homes here under the burden of sin, and burning that all down so we can go off to live in tents eating manna doesn’t seem like an improvement in our situation.

“Would you o’er evil a victory win?” Well, look, evil and I have an arrangement, let’s not go creating conflict …

But of course none of this is what Beck means when he talks about this hymn being viewed as “theologically problematic.” Because none of this is what Lewis E. Jones meant despite the fact that it’s the only meaning afforded or allowed by the passages he explicitly cites in his hymn. And none of it is what white Christians have understood the hymn to mean as they have sung it here in America for the past hundred years.

The “problematic” aspects of this bloody hymn Beck refers to are the ways it is understood to teach “penal substitutionary atonement,” twisting all of that stuff about Pharaoh and the Beast into nothing more than a milquetoast metaphor for an exclusively individual and exclusively individualistic, otherworldly “salvation” that is utterly pow’rless to change anything or to mean anything in this world.

The burden of sin? That’s just a metaphor. Victory o’er evil? Also just a metaphor. The Lamb that was slain? The Beast? Pharaoh? Just more metaphors — more flaccid, impotent metaphors for something not imagined or discussed in any of the passages Jones’ hymn directly cites.

Consider the third verse of this hymn:

Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Sin stains are lost in its life giving flow;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Doesn’t that refer to a biblical promise of individual deliverance from the stain of sin? Isn’t that what the Bible says in the passages Jones alludes to here?

Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

Well, let’s look at that passage in full. It should be a familiar one for American readers because it was a favorite passage of Frederick Douglass, who is being recognized more and more for the great work he is doing. It’s from Isaiah 1:18, so come now, let us argue out the full passage.

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity” God says here. There’s your burden of sin. Would you be free from the burden of sin? In Isaiah 1, God explains how that can happen. But first God explains how that won’t happen:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

To be fair, we could turn to many biblical passages that can be read to make a case for something very much like the abstract theological theory of “penal substitutionary atonement.” But this ain’t one of them.

This passage in Isaiah addresses that idea directly and, in the voice of God, describes the whole idea as exasperatingly beside the point. (“Who asked for this?” God says. “Where did you get the idea that this was what I wanted?”)

In Isaiah 1, it is God who finds all this blood and bloody imagery “problematic.” The blood of lambs, God says, is not delightful to God.

So if God isn’t out for blood, then what does God want? We’ve got God talking here, God personally and directly answering our personal and direct question: Would you be free from the burden of sin?

What is God’s answer?

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

Step back and squint. Move closer and inspect each word. Rub your eyes for a bit and then read them all again. But try as you might, you won’t find any way to make this passage mean what this hymn seems to want it to mean. “Seek justice” is not a metaphor. The oppressed, the orphan and the widow are not metaphors here for the crippling burden of personal sin in your personal life.

Richard Beck notes that this song is particularly moving for the incarcerated men he meets and sings and fellowships with. “They live in a world of blood. And these songs speak to them.”

This song should speak to us Vichy Christians as well, but what it ought to say to us shouldn’t be nearly as reassuring.

Let’s close with a different hymn — a song we never refer to as a hymn even though the title seems perfectly apt. This is a hymn that visits all of those same biblical passages — Pharaoh and the Beast and the words of God’s own mouth in Isaiah 1. But this song lets those passages say what they say and mean what they surely mean.

Would you be free from the burden of sin? Listen to Nina Simone.

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