Were You There? A deeper look into an African American Spiritual

Were you there?

A moving African American spiritual. A daunting question.

The questions this song asks give me pause. Each verse asks if I was there when they crucified my Lord; when they nailed Him to the cross; when they pierced Him in the side; and when the sun refused to shine. These questions are followed by the phrase, “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

This popular spiritual has its roots in the communal slave experience, appearing in 1899 in William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Songs. The lyrics stem from the deep love and appreciation for the cross, common to the African-American slave community.

As I read or sing these lyrics I realize that of course, I wasn’t there, but this is not the point of the questions. The questions are asked so that I can go there in my heart and mind, remembering the sacrifice Jesus gave for me and consider my response to that sacrifice by the way I live today.

These questions function as an anomnesis, which from the Greek means “to remember.” Author David Bjorlin writes, “It calls the community to re-member the past to the present, to bring these historic events to bear on the now and make them part of our story…to bring the past events of Christ’s suffering and death into the present and transform us in its light.”[1]

Author James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, tells of the centrality of the cross to the African-American community. This song, penned in days of slavery, takes on an even deeper meaning for the African-American community as it remembers the slave experience at the root. Cone writes, “In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” This allowed them to have hope in Jesus’ promise that he would be with them because of his resurrection power.[2]

As I write these words, I pause to let them sink in a bit. They are hard to write.

Were you there?

If I put myself there with Jesus, it changes my world view and the way I live each day. This is how I strive to live, though I too often fall short. Also, If I try to put myself there, in the roots of this hymn, it can change my perspective toward others.

In the memoir of African-American pastor and civil rights leader Howard Thurman entitled, With Head and Heart, Thurman recounts his meeting in India with Mahatma Gandhi. Before he and his wife left, Gandhi asked them to sing this hymn to him. Gandhi noted, “I feel this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.”[3]

In the horrific video of the murder of George Floyd, the image of the three officers standing by while Floyd cries “I can’t breathe” haunts my soul. They were there. And they did nothing to stop it.

I pause to ask. What if I was there? Would I have done everything in my power to stop it? I’d like to think so, but since I have not done everything I can to stop racism….it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. And repent.

I think all the way back to times when I was a young girl and saw bathrooms labeled “colored” and “white” and walked quietly into my privileged restroom without a word. Why, when in high school during desegregation and I was caught in an ensuing riot did I worry much more about my own safety than ever seeking to understand the pain that my new fellow students felt by having their neighborhood school, teachers, and all they had known close their doors, to never reopen again?

Immaturity perhaps. But immaturity indoctrinated in a root system of inequality, injustice, and white privilege. I think I must tremble some more.

Before leaving Ghandhi’s tent, Thurman asked him what he thought was the greatest barrier in India to the spread of Christianity. Gandhi answered, “Christianity as it is practiced, as it has been identified with Western Culture, with Western civilization and colonialism.”[4]

Let that one sink in.

Thankfully, a final verse has since been added to the song. It asks, “Were you there when He rose up from the grave?”

How thankful I am for this verse, as Jesus provides the only true source and direction for love and unity. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cones emphasize the victory in the cross as he declares, “while the lynching tree symbolized white power and ‘black death,’ the cross symbolized divine power and ‘black life’—God overcoming the power of sin and death.[5]

Though I haven’t experienced African American history, I, for one, plan to “go there” to better understand the history of systemic racism and ways this shameful past still affects my present. It will likely involve some more trembling and some speaking up.

Thanks be to God there is a way out of the power of sin through Jesus’ willingness to “go there” for me. He went there. All the way to the cross. He was there, giving His life.

I wasn’t there when He rose up from the grave, but because He did, He can now be here with us. Because of this, I can be transformed more into His image each day, holding to the hope He brings. He provides the hope for change. Desperately needed hope.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being                    transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord,           who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:17-18)

I invite you to listen to the Three Mo’ Tenors’ rendition of “Were You There?” Perhaps it will touch your heart just a little deeper.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhGYD1svTM4

[1] David Bjorlin, “History of Hymns: Were You There?” Discipleship Ministries: United Methodist Church, Vol 17, March 2016.

[2] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 21-22.

[3] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart:: The Autobiography of Howard  Thurman (NY: Harvest; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1979), 134.

[4] Thurman, 135.

[5] Cone, 18.

13 thoughts on “Were You There? A deeper look into an African American Spiritual

  1. Thank you Jeanie! This is so moving and full of wisdom. Thank you for bringing out these truths so poignantly. I will be sharing this message!

    You drew our eyes and hearts closer to the richer meaning of the cross as seen through the eyes of our black brothers and sisters.

    With love and gratitude. Marcia

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Like

  2. Thank you, Jeannie. I appreciate your Heart to understand, Your insights and personal realizations. We have so much to learn about the topic of race.
    Thank you for being so thoughtful of others, especially after the so resent death of Wyndham. I know it’s good for your soul but it’s also good for ours. Thank you for setting an example for us to follow.
    Love you,
    Michele❤️

    Like

  3. Thank you, for wanting to gain the knowledge and wisdom from God’s word to get deeper understanding. Proverbs 30:8-9. Speaking up and action

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  4. Jeanie- You have put my heart into words, as always. I am eager to move toward Jesus in regards to this long overdue issue .

    Sent from my iPhone

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