I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of creating something and at the same time not feeling worthy of it. In this instance, my sense of unworthiness isn’t due to a lack of time, effort, or wrestling with this song, but instead is due to the heavy nature of the subject. I am Irish by birth and upbringing. I was not raised in American culture - and so I am in many ways ignorant and insensitive to the complexities of this subject, and certainly do not have a comprehensive understanding of the impact that lynching had in America. I have however witnessed injustice in various incarnations in my life, and so was able to draw on those places to try and gain some sense of commonality. All that said, I’m aware of my need to ask for grace as I share this song. I trust you will extend that courtesy.
The vision behind the song ‘O God Arise’ was to write something that would highlight some of the similarities the cross and the lynching tree. The song began as a creative response for a class I was taking at Northern Seminary which coincided with the heightened racial tension in the spring and early summer of 2017. One of the things I’ve appreciated most about my time as a student at Northern is the diverse required reading list of our classes which are full of ethnic minorities and worldviews that I ordinarily wouldn’t read. Once such voice is that of James H. Cone and specifically his book ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’. Cone states that we will miss something of the cross if we fail to compare and confront it to the history of lynching in America. He states:
“The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree.” [Cone 161]
Hone is a difficult read, this book was hard to stomach, but well worth the wrestle in confronting my own ignorance and indifference on the subject. This song is merely a response to the book, most definitely an ill-informed, incomplete one - but it’s the most honest that I could muster. Madeleine L’Engle writes:
“Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”
For me of the most powerful scenes in the bible is when God confronts Cain after he murders Able.
“And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
I’ve often celebrated how the blood of Jesus cries out from the ground pleading freedom and forgiveness for the believer - I’ve even used that concept in a bridge of ‘Your Power is Greater’:
“His blood avails
It covers every stain
He bore my sin, the debt is paid
His blood it pleads
And cries out from the ground”
More recently however I’ve been haunted by the thought of the blood of murdered black innocents that rises from graves and church yards all across America and cries out for justice. I’ve been heartbroken over the recent stories where hatred and injustice are put on display in the headlines. And I’ve been forced to look inwardly at the places where pride and fear still exist that would lead me to hate another human being. I’m reminded to confront the injustices of our day in myself.
Henri Nouwen writes, “The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words, and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood…but if the catastrophic events of our days...are kept outside of the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remains no more than a pious emotion.”
In a time where racism seems to be more belligerent and bigotry has become emboldened, may we never forget the narrative of our past. As a people who follow the ultimate victim of injustice, may we remember and grieve those who have also suffered under the yoke of injustice. May we continuously confront and repent of the evidences of hatred in ourselves.
O God Arise
The crowd surges and thunders
The righteous are howling for blood
My dignity is quartered
Death chokes the breath from my lungs
O God, are your hands idle
Or worse do you strengthen our foe
Why is evil left to prosper
Breaking our backs with its yoke
O God arise, how long will you be silent
The watching children linger
Innocence stripped from their souls
Forsaking their own brothers
They’re ready to cast the first stone
How can we plead mercy and crush our fellow man
How can we cry freedom but live like no one’s bound
How can we preach justice, with these rope burned hands