Nathaniel Mokgosi (South African, 1946–), “Come, ye blessed . . . ,” 1980. This linocut is one of ten in a series on the Beatitudes. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 274
Though the world assail me, I shall not be moved, Though the world assail me, I shall not be moved, like a tree, that’s planted by the waters- I shall not be moved.
If you grew up listening to country, gospel, or blues in the house, that’s probably the version of the song inspired by our Jeremiah text that you recognize. This was an intensely popular country gospel tune in the first half of the twentieth century; everyone from the Million Dollar Quartet, of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to Ella Fitzgerald sang a version, and it’s still being recorded today. Rhiannon Giddens sings a beautiful version of it.
Fighting for our Freedom, We shall not be moved, Fighting for our Freedom, We shall not be moved, like a tree, that’s planted by the waters- we shall not be moved.
If you grew up with either protest songs or folk songs in the house or on the streets, that’s probably the version of the Jeremiah text you know. Over the course of the 20th century, it was adapted into a secular labor and civil rights song, sung by Pete Seeger and the Staples Singers, but most prominently by thousands of workers striking for their rights, by black and white Americans fighting for civil rights, and Mexican and Chicano protestors in the Spanish language version, No Nos Moveran, popularized by Joan Baez.
Some folks might try to argue that one version is more genuine or more correct than the other, but I find that to be a false dichotomy. That’s because the song has its origins not in a hymnal, diligently composed and committed to sheet music like so many of our wonderful hymns and tunes we sing in church, but in the African American Church tent revivals in the American South.
Our faith, much like the faith that birthed I Shall Not Be Moved, has its origins not among the comfortable, but among people suffering from poverty and persecution. In those conditions, people needed both individual strength and collective hope. But even if that doesn’t describe us perfectly, we all need something to get us through the day, and to help us imagine a better tomorrow.
Indeed, it would be easy for us to try to confine Christianity into a little box consisting only of individual and personal faithfulness or Jesus as a secularized totem for collective liberation, but I think that would be unwise and untrue. Jesus’ words are both personal and political. The Kingdom of God is inside us, and, Jesus said he came to set the captives free.
True fact: Slave owners would sometimes literally cut out the book of Exodus from the Bibles they allowed near their black slaves. Harriet Tubman earned the nickname Moses, because she liberated hundreds of enslaved folks, including leading an armed raid during the Civil War which freed 700 slaves.
Yes, allowed. For a country that prides itself of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, life in the American South for Black folks was often one of inhumanity and terror. The threat of physical violence through the lash, the gun, or the noose was ever present, from the era of slavery, and beyond. African Americans and their sympathizers felt it through the brutish power of the Klu Klux Klan, the gentility of the White Citizens’ Councils, and state backed power of the local sheriff and his posse. Even if they couldn’t sing it aloud, we know in their hearts they were dreaming “Fighting for our Freedom, We Shall not be moved.”
For Black Christians, an atomized, individual version of Christianity that did not challenge the economic, political, and racial power structures was the only acceptable one in the eyes of the powers that be. But as white folks did not venture into a black church, they didn’t know what was happening behind those church doors on the Sunday morning hour.
They were not aware that black Christians were reaching back to an ancient Christianity that was founded not only on the individual suffering of Jesus, but was invested in their collective liberation.
Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, tells us that endurance, that rootedness requires a source to nourish and replenish it. Deserts are hard for us to conceive of here in Miami, squished between the bay and the everglades, but I’ll do my best.
My ancestral land through my father’s side is in Southern Colorado in the high desert of Costilla County. 9,000 feet up it’s still mostly agricultural, poor farmers ekeing out a living with cattle and some crops. Near the irrigation ditches, the acequias, the trees grow big and strong as anything out east. The roots sink in and the soil, enriched by generations of plants, is beautiful and holds on and nourishes.
But imagine those tall oaks in a scrubland, where there is no water to hold the soil together. They might survive for a time, but in the first storm, they would be blown away as dust in the wind.
Yet it is those who are most immediately and visibly vulnerable to the storms of life that Jesus blesses today. Our gospel reading for today is from “The sermon on the plain”, closely related to but distinct from the more famous “sermon on the mount”.
In a rebuke of the prosperity gospel, that pernicious strain of Christianity that tells people that the wealth is a reward of faith, that the poor are so because they are faithless, Jesus does not say “blessed are the billionaires”, but blessed are the poor. It is not #blessed are the Instagram successful, the great wide receivers, or the movie stars, but blessed are those who weep. It is not blessed are those who have perfect families, but blessed are those who mourn.
What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? I believe Jesus is reminding us that our rootedness, our endurance, the ability to run the race and not be swept away comes not from our inner strength alone or our wealth, but our connections to our God and to one another. Our most important resources cost us nothing but our love.
Whether the whole world is assailing you or you’re fighting for your freedom, I pray that we be like the song; like a tree, that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.