Black History Month Reflections from Fr. Brown: Knowing Christ Crucified

By Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J.

Knowing Christ Crucified—The Witness of African American Religious Experience by M. Shawn Copeland is a stunning account of African American spiritual history. I recommend it.

Reading this extraordinary book of essays became, for me, a contemplative prayer experience. I began to follow this slave history as I would follow the Stations of the Cross.

By the time I got to Chapter Three of the book, I found myself falling into the path of the suffering and wounded Christ.

I  soon begin to recognize why African American religious life would center on the experience of the tortured Christ on the cross.

Take up your cross—follow Jesus.

Take up the book and enter into the story of American slaves.

King Jesus, Friend of the Enslaved

Lovell states that the Jesus of the spirituals “derives” from the Son of God, the Christ who lived, died, and was resurrected, and is identifiable with the Jesus of basic Christian doctrine. At the same time, this Jesus walks out of the pages of the Bible and makes himself “available for services of every kind, on earth and in heaven, in life and death.”

From the vantage of the spirituals, Jesus could do anything, and the enslaved people were not hesitant “to make very unusual demands of [their] friend Jesus.”

Meet me, Jesus, meet me,
Meet me in de middle of de air
So’s if my wings should fail me, /
Meet me with another pair.
or
Gwine to roll in my Jesus’ arms,
Gwine to roll on my Jesus’ breast.
and
Fix me Jesus, fix me
Fix me for my long white robe
Fix me for my starry crown
Fix me for my journey home
Fix me for my dying bed.
With confidence the inspired singers of the spirituals cried out
Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel / Didn’t my lord
deliver Daniel
Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel / And, why not
every man?
The moon run down in a purple stream.
The sun forbear to shine
And every star disappear,
King Jesus shall be mine.
Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel / Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel
Didn’t my lord deliver Daniel / And, why not
every man?
I set my foot on the Gospel ship,
And the ship it begin to sail
It landed me over on Canaan’s shore, /
And I’ll never come back anymore

Crucified Lord

These types of punishment were not uncommon. It is not too much to assume that the descriptive realism of the spirituals regarding the suffering and death of Jesus draws on the very torture that the enslaved people endured. In the following spiritual of lament, the enslaved folk pour out an empathy for Jesus that transcends limitations of time and space. They stood with Jesus in his sufferings, as he stood with them in theirs.
They nail my Jesus down / They put him on the crown of thorns
O see my Jesus hangin’ high! He look so pale an’ bleed so free:
O don’t you think it was a shame / He hung three hours in dreadful pain?
And, there is this spiritual about the crucifixion:
They crucified my Lord / They nailed him to the tree
You hear the hammers ring / The blood came trickling down . . .
Those cruel people! Hammering!
Here is the prayer of another spiritual about the crucifixion and death of Jesus:
Dey crucified my Lord / An’ He never said a mumblin’ word.
Dey crucified my Lord / An’ He never said a mumblin’ word.
Not a word—not a word—not a word.
Dey nailed him to a tree / Dey pierced him in de side
De blood came twinklin’ down / He bowed his head and died
An’ He never said a mumblin’ word. / Not a word— not a word—not a word.
Finally, there is this well-known sorrow psalm:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
A man known as Praying Jacob was held in bondage in the state of Maryland by a master of exceptional cruelty.

Jacob’s rule was to pray three times a day, at just such an hour of the day; no matter what his work was or where he might be, he would stop and go and pray. His master has been to him and pointed his gun at him, and told him if he did not cease praying he would blow out his brains. Jacob would finish his prayer and then tell his master to shoot in welcome—your loss will be my gain—I have two masters, one on earth and one in heaven—master Jesus in heaven, master Saunders on earth. I have a soul and a body; the body belongs to you, master Saunders, and the soul to Jesus.

Read other Black History Month Reflections by Father Brown

The Warmth of Other Suns

Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture

Central Park Five

A Lucille Clifton Poem

A Langston Hughes Poem

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