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“My Chains Are Gone”: When White Evangelicals Sing About Slavery

Blogger Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an active song leader, researcher, classical musician, and music educator. She is pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Ottawa where she received her Masters of Music in Piano Performance.

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

 

(This is an abridged version of an article that appears in

The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song 72, no. 3 [Summer 2021].)

 

INTRODUCTION 

If you scan the repertoire of a mainstream White evangelical congregation on a Sunday morning, you will notice a range of images used to represent God and one’s own spirituality. Some of these are based in scripture, others in popular culture, and yet others are commonly used poetic phrases. For the most part, these are meaningful, appropriate images. But last year we noticed a trend in imagery that didn’t sit right. In song after song written mostly by and for White evangelicals, there seemed to be an inordinate number of references to enslavement: chains, freedom, captivity, slaves. While not absent from the biblical narrative, the references seemed strange for a population that not only had not experienced enslavement in their history, but largely argued against recognizing the lasting harmful effects of slavery that continue in the the ongoing injustices faced by the African American community. Further to this, we noticed that it wasn’t just in the words of the songs that mentioned enslavement; the music too appropriated the rhythms and sounds of African American culture and experience. So, we decided to study this phenomenon to see how and why this might be the case.

Our first step was to analyze the words of the songs themselves in a more systematic manner. When we analyzed the June 2020 CCLI Top 100 list, we found that 28 of the 100 songs included one or more of the words with the following breakdown:

 

Term

Number of Mention

free/freedom

22

chain(s)

12

captive(s)

5

slave(s)

4*

*Several songs mention more than one of the terms, the total number of mentions is greater than 28.

 

Clearly, the images of enslavement and freedom have sparked the imaginations of White evangelical songwriters and congregations, but why? And how is this language being employed in songs? How is it both contextualized and embodied in particular congregations and performance practices?

 

BUT WHY?

To answer the first question, we begin where most evangelicals start their theological inquiry: the Bible. Enslavement and freedom are indeed used as images of salvation, especially in the letters of Paul (e.g., Rom. 6:20-22). Yet, Paul employs a number of metaphors for salvation, including redemption through sacrifice (Romans 3:21-30); justification (Gal. 2:15-16); adoption (Romans 8-9); reconciliation to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20) and each other (Eph. 2:11-22), and clothing oneself in newness of life (Col. 3:10-14). So, why do CWM songwriters seem to be drawn particularly to the language of enslavement and freedom?

In addition to the Bible, another major tenet of evangelical theology is the centrality of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross for humanity’s salvation. Yet, it is a subset of substitutionary atonement—ransom theory—that perhaps best helps to explain the prominence of enslavement and freedom metaphors in CWM. In this atonement theory, sinners are enslaved to sin, death, and evil (or Satan himself) until Christ ransoms us by taking our place and our rightful punishment and freeing us. So, when White evangelicals look at the Bible through the theological lens of the ransom theory of atonement, it is quite understandable why the enslavement/freedom motif of salvation with its language of chains, bondage, captivity and freedom would gain prominence over the other salvation metaphors that Paul employs. Like looking at the back of a cereal box with the 3D glasses uncovered at the bottom of the bag, these particular theological metaphors jump out while the others recede to the background.

 

MUSICAL ANALYSIS

Beyond just being represented textually, some songs even embody images of enslavement and chains musically. Take, for example, the song “Sing It From the Shackles” by Irish folk band Rend Collective. If you listen to the video below, you will hear musical characteristics that embody the sonic quality of sounds associated with oppression, through a percussive beat that is reminiscent of chains being thrown or a whip being cracked. In each verse, the singer poses a question: “Can you hear that freedom sound?” The premise of freedom having a sound draws us to the underground railroad, where spirituals contained coded language that instructed enslaved people on how to escape to freedom. 

The ensemble’s introduction of darkness in opposition to praises in the bridge contributes to the problematic use of language: “Let the darkness hear our praises.” The equation of darkness with sin or an absence of God is problematic in all contexts, but is particularly concerning in a song that is so clearly situated within narratives of enslavement and imprisonment.

A second example to consider is “Slave to Nothing” by Zach Williams. In a YouTube video describing the song, Williams describes the writing process: “This obviously is a song that we had a lot of fun with… There’s been a lot of things in my past that I’ve been a slave to, from addictions to fear, and I’m sure there’s a lot of things that everybody else struggles with, that they’ve been a slave to.” 

If you listen to the song, you will notice that “Slave to Nothing” pervasively uses enslavement imagery and draws on clear musical influences of blues and gospel, influences that draw on experiences and histories that are not those of the songwriters. White artists have a history of appropriating the blues music of Black artists through imitative and adaptive “covers.” Both blues and gospel have their roots in the experiences of enslavement and life after slavery, and White artists must be responsible for how these genres and their histories influence their music. When White North Americans appropriate other cultures, it contributes to exploitations of dominance.

Textually, Williams presents the perspective of a prisoner on trial, offering cries of innocence and defiance over guilt. The use of slavery language to describe imprisonment is problematic particularly when considering the American history of enslavement and the high rates of incarceration of Black people in US prisons. Williams’s preference for language of enslavement and imprisonment exemplifies the way White evangelicals adopt the experiences of Black people as if they are their own.

 

SINGING, BUT NOT TALKING, ABOUT ENSLAVEMENT

All of this textual and musical analyses raises a particularly pertinent question for White evangelical communities singing about enslavement and freedom in the United States: What does it mean for mostly White congregations to sing songs about enslavement and freedom in the context of a nation with a long and bloody 400-year-history of subjugating Black people through the literal chains of the Middle Passage and chattel slavery, through the terror and abuse of lynchings during the Reconstruction era, through the segregation and suppression of the Jim Crow, to the present-day era of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration? Certainly, singing about spiritual slavery and freedom should call us to contend with physical slavery and freedom with its long and deleterious effects.

Yet, just as the evangelical theological imagination is formed to emphasize images of enslavement and freedom as primary metaphors of salvation, it is also formed to ignore the systemic nature of injustice or the lasting effects of historic oppression. In Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s seminal Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, they note that White evangelicals are much less likely to view racism as a pressing problem that needs to be addressed and are more likely to blame African American individual effort as the source of disparities rather than structural systems. While written almost twenty years ago, more recent studies have upheld the basic argument that White Christians generally, and White churchgoing evangelicals particularly, tend not simply to downplay racism, but support racist policies. 

 

THE WHITE EVANGELICAL TOOL KIT 

To explain this phenomenon, Emerson and Smith argue that White evangelicals have a limited “tool kit” that tends to focus on individual free will (“accountable freewill individualism”) and personal relationship (“relationalism”) while being suspicious of structural influences on society (“antistructuralism”) and the lasting impact of historical injustices on the present (“ahistorical”). So, when White evangelicals sing CWM songs about chains or slavery or freedom, this tool kit leads them to ahistoricize and decontextualize slavery and instead individualize and spiritualize captivity and freedom to refer to one’s own personal salvation story. Thus, chains may be interpreted as an alcohol or pornography addiction—because these can be viewed as an individual struggle outside of a larger historical narrative—but not actual slavery or the ongoing legacy of White supremacy—because that is both corporate and systemic with historical antecedents and influences. This is perhaps the central irony of White evangelicalism’s continued use of these images: those whose theology leads them to sing the most of enslavement and freedom as the central metaphor of Christian salvation are simultaneously the group most likely to downplay the significance of slavery’s lasting impact on the people of the United States and promote (or at least not oppose) policies that do harm to African Americans—the one group that knows the ongoing injustice and traumatic effects of enslavement.

We believe this irony is inherently problematic and calls all churches to a more critical approach to writing, singing, and choosing songs for corporate worship. For all White churches—evangelical or not—this might ask us to approach these types of songs with a hermeneutic of suspicion, questioning why communities that have such little historical or contemporary experiences of oppression are drawn to language of oppression and freedom. It at the very least calls our White churches to engage in the work of naming, confessing, and dismantling the historic and contemporary forms of oppression in our churches and society if we are to sing these songs with any integrity.

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?       

For White churches like our own that sing these songs, it perhaps challenges us to practices of disengagement and engagement. First, we must disengage from the practice of singing our songs like we too often read our Bibles: as if we sing without historical, cultural, political, or theological context. This might call us to stop singing these songs of enslavement and freedom—at least for a season—especially if our communities refuse to discuss or acknowledge the history of slavery and the ongoing injustices that continues to create. Positively, it asks songwriters and worship leaders to engage other biblical images of salvation—like reconciliation to God and one another in our songs—in our songs and other worship resources. Not only does this give us a more holistic and biblical account of salvation, but these more relational metaphors may help re-form the White evangelical imagination toward recognizing the powers and principalities of structural sins that have plagued our country for generations. The use of songs like these could then help expand the evangelical tool kit and give communities the theological vision and language to begin engaging in discussions around the many forms of historic and social oppressions that have too often been ignored. Maybe then we can sing, “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free,” and understand the true nature of freedom in all of its height and breadth and depth.

 

 

Guest blogger Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an active song leader, researcher, classical musician, and music educator. She is pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Ottawa where she received her Masters of Music in Piano Performance.

 

The Beginning

In the fall of 2019, a group of women songwriters, poets, speakers, and storytellers began gathering in Nashville. Among those gathered were some of the church’s leaders of worship music: Christy Nockels, Leslie Jordan, Sandra McCracken, and Ellie Holcomb, to name a few. These writers set out to build community while diving into stories of biblical women. They read the accounts of women from Scripture, and imagined the details that weren’t included in the stories until they embodied them as their own.

The gatherings came to be called the Faithful Project, resulting in a full length album, accompanying book, and live-streamed launch concert in Nashville, all of which have become available in the past few weeks. In the concert, the women embodied the fullness of God’s reign: many ages, races, abilities, sizes, and backgrounds worshipping with vigour, conviction, tenderness, and compassion. They enacted many roles, some of which are less common for women: percussionists, guitarists, bass players, and visual artists. Some in dresses and some in jeans, they were united in their love of God and their desire to enliven the stories of biblical women. 

 

The Book & Album

In her introduction to the book, Amy Grant writes,

If it is true that we are surrounded by a great cloud of unseen witnesses, I imagine several of our female ancestors elbowing their way to the front of the circle shouting, ‘Girls, you don’t know the half of it! But we tried.’

By focusing on the stories of biblical women, the songwriters brought new voices into our contemporary worship repertoire; although these women from scripture are not living, their voices are fresh. And embodied by the Faithful Project, they are a powerful testament to God’s faithfulness. 

Each song in the album is based on the story of a biblical woman, and chapters of the Faithful book offer corresponding reflections on these characters. The book describes the writing process, and the accompanying realization that while songwriters often write in groups, rarely are they groups of women. Further, it is even rarer for biblical scholars to be part of the process. The unique act of engaging poets, speakers, and writers in the songwriting process led to profound depth and clarity in the songs that emerged. 

While all of the songs on the album offer profound gifts to congregational singing, I want to highlight several with unique messages that I think are particularly accessible for congregations musically, textually, and instrumentally. 

 

Song – At This Very Time

The second song on the album, “At This Very Time,” based on the story of Jehosheba, from II Kings 11:2 and II Chronicles 22:11, is an assurance that nothing is too hard for God who is steadfast. As songwriter Sandra McCracken noted in the launch concert, it is a message we need to hear over and over again, every day. This upbeat song is a declaration of praise with a catchy instrumental riff that ties the song together. It is easy to move to this song: the chorus demands offbeat clapping or a strong percussive emphasis. As its placement in the album suggests, it works well as an opening song, gathering in God’s children to praise. 

 

Song – Holy Place

“Holy Place,” based on the story of Hannah, is a song about God’s devotion when life feels unfair. In her chapter on Hannah in the Faithful book, Ginny Owens describes some of the obstacles she faced when growing up blind, and the transformation that took place when she brought her challenges to God. She writes, “I began to change though my circumstances were the same. Like Hannah, my heart slowly rose above [the challenges] in a chorus of courage.” The song “Holy Place” calls worshippers closer to God, in a reminder of God’s constant presence, especially in times of struggle. The song is comfortably led by guitar, the chorus inviting vocal harmonies. I dare you not to smile as you sing or strum the phrase “Lead us by the hand,” it is abundantly catchy. 

 

Song – We Are One

“We Are One” is perhaps the album’s greatest offering to the church’s worship, offering a call for radical oneness. In her introduction to the song at the launch concert, Ellie Holcomb described how Jesus draws us together: “… I love what Jesus does. He breaks down the boundary lines, he goes across borders, and he brings us all together. And when we come together, in Christ, who brings us all together as one, telling all our different stories, we shine in a way that we could never shine on our own…” The chorus proclaims that “We are all sisters and brothers, at the feast of our Father’s love.” Holcomb notes that the song was designed to be accessible and easy to sing, goals that were achieved through a catchy melody and simple structure, with harmonies easily improvised. The invitational and uniting lyrics make it an appropriate choice for gathering or communion. 

 

Faithful Witnesses To The Resurrection

In the conclusion of the book, the Faithful team recalls that when Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, and he asked her to go and speak of what she had seen. They continue: “We don’t believe that Jesus has stopped asking women, His friends, to speak of what they have seen.” The refrain of the first song of the album, and the message of the whole project, is to go, and speak. As we explore the Faithful project and sing the songs from the album, may the girls and women of our communities be empowered, too, to go and speak: as songwriters, worship leaders, poets, sound technicians, instrumentalists, preachers, drummers, producers, and artists. We are one. 

 

Guest blogger Anneli Loepp Thiessen is an active song leader, researcher, classical musician, and music educator. She is set to begin her PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Ottawa in September, 2020, where she received her Masters of Music in Piano Performance.

 

 

The Rise of “Way Maker”

On February 17, 2020, the massively popular megachurch and conference Passion released a YouTube video of their worship leaders singing the song “Way Maker.” In this video, white worship leaders move around a large stage, energetically leading thousands of worshippers in an impactful anthem. In their description of the video, Passion wrote: “Official Live video for “Way Maker” by Passion ft. Kristian Stanfill, Kari Jobe, & Cody Carnes.” If the 3 million people who’ve watched that video don’t know better they would likely assume it was written by the leaders of Passion. They might be surprised when they find out who really wrote it.

Over the past few months, “Way Maker” has become an anthem for white, North American evangelicals. In that time, the song has received many accolades: it reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart, it appeared twice in the top 10 of the Christian Airplay chart for two different recordings (one by the band Leeland and one by Michael W. Smith featuring Vanessa Campagna and Madelyn Berry, which has ranked at #1), and it peaked at #2 on Praise Charts list of songs most downloaded since COVID-19. The song is sung in contemporary worship services across the continent, with covers routinely emerging from mega-churches. In many ways, its success is comparable to other hit anthems that have taken the church by storm. And yet this one is different.

 

Representation

If you, like me, have paid even a small amount of attention to who is writing the evangelical church’s song, you will have noticed that it is mostly white men. My recent study of Christian Copyright Licensing International’s Top 25 charts from the past 30 years revealed that the majority of songs sung by the American evangelical church today are written by collaborations among men. Big names produce top songs, which are marketed by publishing companies to make a large impact. The Billboard Top Christian Songwriter charts reflect this: names of white men routinely make the list, with a small number of women and people of colour appearing alongside them. In a blog post for the Center for Congregational song, David Bjorlin argues that consumerism has marked congregational song: only two companies, Capitol and Bethel, are responsible for administering the majority of the CCLI Top 100 lists. Congregational song is curated to promote only certain voices.

Here’s where “Way Maker” stands out: rather than being composed by a group of white Americans, “Way Maker” was written by Nigerian female songwriter Osinachi Okoro, stage name Sinach. She is an award winning songwriter and vocalist, has recorded 9 albums, and serves as an international worship leader at her home church, Christ Embassy (Loveworld). She lives in Lagos, Nigeria, with her husband and child. In addition to “Way Maker,” she has written many other hit worship songs that are sung around the world.

 

Grassroots

 

Rather than rising to popularity through sponsored advertisements, “Way Maker” emerged in the most grassroots way a song can these days: a YouTube video. Sinach’s original YouTube video of “Way Maker” (video above) has over 150 million views, and in May 2020 she made history as the first African to top Billboard’s Christian Songwriter chart. It is also important to note that while white evangelicals are just adopting the song now, it has been loved by black churches for several years, as evidenced in a 2017 video of Benita Jones leading it (video below). Sinach’s ministry was meaningful long before the white North American church sang her songs, and her music is powerful with or without its affirmation.

 

The reception of “Way Maker” by American evangelicals is an outlier on all accounts. For a church that has thrived on predictably produced music, it is surprising that the song speaking to us the most during a global crisis is not from our most familiar sources, but from a Nigerian songwriter in a moving music video. In an interview with Medina Pullings on May 22, 2020, Sinach addressed her rise to the top of Billboard’s Christian Songwriter chart. She said: “I didn’t lobby for it, I didn’t promote it to be like that. It was the Lord that put it there. So He wants to make a statement, and let him make it.”

I draw your attention to the story of “Way Maker” because I believe it represents a significant moment in evangelical church history. For hundreds of years Europeans and Euro-Americans have been at work colonizing other parts of the world. We have forced or cajoled the world to adopt our religion, infrastructure, cultural traditions, and practices. Our way of relating to others has been informed by the idea that we have all of the answers, and it is our job to share them with the world.

Our worship has not been immune to this practice. North American worship language has been globally adopted: top worship hits from Euro-American songwriters have been translated into countless languages and are sung all over the world. We are so comfortable with our own voice that our worship rarely brings in music from other cultures. But now, we need language that is not our own. We need the voice of a woman in Nigeria who is able to talk about a miracle-working God in a way that we will not. The tables have turned: instead of offering our voice to the world, we are gratefully receiving.

 

A Beautiful Moment

We are witnessing a beautiful moment: the American evangelical church has received a song that it desperately needs, but I’m afraid the way we have received it has caused harm. I fear that most of our pastors, worship leaders and congregants assume that “Way Maker” was written by Euro-Americans. The vigour with which the song has been covered by big name artists like Passion has meant that the identity of the song’s original writer has been lost in translation.

By removing Sinach’s name and story from the song, we are claiming it as our own without crediting the vibrant context it comes from. Unfortunately, this is a common theme throughout history: white artists have long been covering songs written by black artists without giving them credit. This is a systemic problem that is much larger than just the worship music industry, although it is clearly evident here. This occurrence is not only a missed opportunity to embrace our global church, but it overlooks and disrespects the few, brave intercultural voices that have found their way into our worship. When we sing Sinach’s song without crediting her properly, we are bypassing the opportunity for our worship to dismantle oppression, and are perpetuating racism by erasing a black voice.

In light of the global dialogue around anti-racism that has developed since the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota police, many churches are engaging conversations on racial justice in a new way. Megachurches like Passion preached on the topic and posted for #blackouttuesday. But worship and justice are deeply intertwined, and good intentions are lost if our worship continues to drown out black voices. In the first week of June, a video emerged of black protesters singing “Way Maker” as they marched. Rather than ignoring the origins of this song, can we use it to amplify black voices? Can we hold it as an anthem for racial justice?

 

Embrace the Global Church

By experiencing “Way Maker” as a song written by a woman from Nigeria, we embrace the global church to which we belong. We acknowledge that we need voices that are not our own, and we celebrate that all are invited into the church’s song.

The widespread adoption of a worship anthem from another culture represents a rare moment for the evangelical church, and we have the opportunity to acknowledge it in the right way. This song is not ours to own, we are receiving it as a gift. So say thank-you. Subscribe to Sinach’s YouTube channel. Follow her on social media. Tell your church the story behind this song. Credit her as the songwriter in your covers. Watch her original music video – the one with 150 million views – I can assure you it’s worth it.  Sinach’s song has brought Christians from around the world together, we must credit her with leading the way and sharing her gift.

 

Guest Blogger – Anneli Loepp Thiessen