A Closing Hymn

A few weeks ago some folks were upset about Cee Lo Green’s turn on John Lennon’s “Imagine” lyric, which he performed during a televised New Year’s Eve event. Cee Lo took a liberty with Lennon’s vision of a world united through release from the ties that divide us, “religion, too,” instead imagining a world where affirming “all religions true” might bring acceptance and peace.

I’ve followed the viral popularity of Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” spoken word piece. While it struck an expected chord with many friends and online acquaintances at first, there has been backlash against Bethke (apparently a member Mars Hill Church, Seattle) as some wonder whether you can authentically separate the two, or throw out the former and still honestly understand the latter.

The closest I’ve come to a student walking out of class was when I suggested Lennon’s “Imagine” owed more to a Christian vision of renewed humanity than a more detached version of unity based less in purposeful, individually held dreams. I don’t know if I buy it now, either, but the incident said something about how close to heart we hold our ideas about not just spirituality, but religion (and, as the Cee Lo story corroborates, John Lennon).

I brought Lennon’s song into the class to help us talk about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and, more broadly, King’s dream. When you listen to King’s most famous speech, the whole thing, you hear something we sometimes downplay: MLK was an American Baptist preacher. King’s vision for the world was radical, and was radically particular, historical, religious, and cast universal.

The Lincoln memorial is a hefty place to put a pulpit, and an awfully broad altar for the closing call. What King does at the close of this speech sounds – and I would say, because he’s just that good – a little hard to pin down, religiously:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

If you looked in the pew at King’s church, you’d find the same holy book Jesus found in the pew of his. Jesus’ “platform speech,” the sermon at Capernaum that announced his ministry, comes from Isaiah. In this passage, the prophet has just relayed God’s promise that the kings and nations and their goods would come to the light God was about to bring about among God’s people. The vision was always that the scattered, and strangers, and even enemies would be brought into the promises God was making to Israel. Jesus announces that this time has come: the “year of the Lord’s favor.”

In other words: Psalm 67

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face shine on us—

2 so that your ways may be known on earth,
your salvation among all nations.

3 May the peoples praise you, God;
may all the peoples praise you.

4 May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you rule the peoples with equity
and guide the nations of the earth.

5 May the peoples praise you, God;
may all the peoples praise you.

6 The land yields its harvest;
God, our God, blesses us.

7 May God bless us still,
so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.

The psalms weren’t the only scripture sung (maybe Jesus sang Isaiah 61?), but they’ve been sung for millennia. Few religious folks are not singing folks. At our worst, sometimes singing is when we’re at our best. Sometimes folks who can’t stand to be in the same room together for differences of opinion, taste, politics, or doctrine still know and sing the same songs. Sometimes it even helps. Sometimes those songs get a hold somewhere near the heart, and eventually we come to believe our Amazing Grace is their Amazing Grace, too. In King’s vision, we are all so changed that we come, just as we are, and the same old song suits us in a brand new way.

We carry our songs deep. It’s no surprise that we’d care so much about keeping Lennon’s lyrics straight. It’s not unusual that an impassioned rhythm could make a viral video of a theological argument (or vice versa).

And it shouldn’t surprise us that a vision of the world redeemed is not an image of people joined around a national symbol, charismatic wunderkind, unflinching manifesto or any shared social or political identity. It’s everybody come, while we stand and sing.


4 responses to “A Closing Hymn

  1. What a great MLK day meditation. Stand and sing, indeed. We are in Heidelberg, Germany, where–I am told–the only European chapter of NAACP exists. Consequently, there is an observation of MLK this week (not today, but Saturday). It’s significant that in a society that is so secular, the MLK observance in HD is being held in a church.


  2. “The vision was always that the scattered, and strangers, and even enemies would be brought into the promises God was making to Israel.” — Reminds me of Paul’s discovery of “the mystery” in Ephesians 3. On the long arc of history, we were always meant to be united in one body. Thanks for the intriguing MLK day thought (and the excellent Blind Boys video)!


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