«1 Dry Bones Death as the Context of Preaching... it was full of bones... there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. ...»
The spilling of innocent human blood reveals the vast human need in the world. These human atrocities then and now provide a ministry opportunity for preachers. Preaching is a ministry to serve the needs of those in its hearing. Tragedy provides a context for the human need and challenges preaching to reclaim its function as ministry, service, to those who are suffering in varied ways. Preaching is not just an event or a practice or an art. It is ministry to those who are dying in our midst. Many people in the pews are in an exilic experience, not knowing whether they will be delivered. Exile is no respecter of persons; however, African Americans are in a particular predicament in the United States. Houston Baker asserts that privileged middle-class blacks “are being told paradoxically that if we are to be liked as blacks, we must not only forget the majority of those in the United States who are, in fact, black, but also relinquish all thoughts of an American past where the reality for the entire majority of sons and fathers of blackness was slavery, convict lease labor, menial employment, secondclass citizenship, social death, and immobilizing poverty.”136 Forgetting would betray human suffering and the reality of racism. Yet, one cannot forget the past because pain is still present.
Sometimes we still feel like motherless children due to loneliness or isolation. Little deaths with huge ramiﬁcations still pervade life—driveby shootings, contraction of aids, war, genocide, famine, cancer, family dysfunction, abuse, suffering from those who have just lost a child or those who want children but cannot have any. One does not even need a gun to kill someone anymore; just imprison another “minority” or traffic another child for sex or perpetuate institutional racism. No one, regardless of race, gender, or class, is immune from suffering or the little deaths of life. The reality of death and suffering stares humanity in the face everyday but some sectors of the church attempt to erase or ignore this fact of life to such an extent that death is segregated from theological and ecclesial discourse and action. Life-giving ministry cannot happen without dealing with death and preaching is a ministry to those who are dying little deaths.
Just as St. Augustine’s tears ﬂowed so freely that they formed a pillow for his heart,137 I am suggesting that death, literally and ﬁguratively, is the pillow, the foundation, for Christian proclamation. A denial of death is not only a denial of the spirituals, but a denial of human history. But preaching to the needs of those dealing with death, pain, grief, and loss will have “deep resonances” with the hearers because the sermon will touch their 42 • DEM DRY BONES human experience as it should.138 Suffering is a part of the valley of the shadow of death, the valley of dry bones, thus preaching in a valley of dry bones requires that one remembers human tragedy while preaching.
Spiritual preaching is not sorry for the sorrows of humanity because this is the way life is. As the spirituals did, pain is lamented, thus preaching laments the sorrows without forgetting the joys. The spirituals remind us that death must be dealt with in our preaching and not ignored. Our lives depend on it because, as Shawn Copeland says, “to pass over these sorrows imperils humanity as well as theology.”139 Even Christian theological memory includes a God who suffers.
Remembering God’s Story The second lesson from the spirituals that preachers can learn is that pain is even a part of God’s story. To remember the spirituals reminds us of a God-in-the-ﬂesh, Jesus Christ, who “never said a-mumblin word” as he suffered, bled, and died on a cross. The spirituals intone “Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, surely he died on Calvary.” When one sings the spirituals, one has to deal with the reality of a God who dies because death is no respecter of persons. Even the Christ dies. “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?” The mantra of “Were you there?” brings you there, to the place of suffering and pain. It cannot be avoided even when one follows Jesus “lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,”140 including the memory of suffering and blood.
Our theological memory is washed in the blood of the Lamb. Preaching is not spoiled by tears for at the heart of the proclamation of the Christian church is a bloody death. As I noted earlier, eating the bread and drinking the cup of communion is a proclamation of the Lord’s death. The eucharistic table is a table of death about a “lynched word,” a “lynched black body.”141 Jesus died “gangsta-style,” like all of the cruciﬁed peoples of the world. If the cross is our homiletical lens, then catastrophe and tragedy are at the heart of gospel preaching. He was terribly tortured, pierced in his side, nailed in his hands, and had a crown of thorns crushed on his head.
He was bruised and broken, hung out to dry and die on an old rugged cross on a hill far away. With this theological lens, preaching has drops of blood all over it as preachers proclaim “a Lamb standing as if it had been DRY BONES • 43 slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6). The wounds of the cruciﬁxion are not erased by the resurrection just as the wounds of centuries of brutality throughout the African diaspora are still present in psychological scars, mental slavery.
The presence of death is everywhere, even on the body of Christ, the lame Lamb. This perspective is not popular with the prosperity-gospel gurus nor with those who want to bleach the blood of Christ squeaky clean from hymnals. Through the spirituals, there is a convergence between slain ancestors and a slain Lamb that illuminates the weighty nature of preaching. This will be problematic to those who desire to praise without acknowledging pain. But the spirituals, musical sermons, affirm that pain is a part of preaching, humanly and divinely speaking. The intersection of cultural and theological memory is blood and death. Without the embrace of death in preaching, sermons are cheap. Preaching is costly because it is a matter of life and death. Death keeps Christianity real and connected to the way spiritual life really is. There are no resurrections without cruciﬁxions.
This divine and human suffering, which is an aspect of God’s story, is critical because it is the context of preaching. God enters the world and takes on its suffering, “not just regular suffering of all creatures that grow old and die, but the suffering of the innocent persecuted by the unjust, the suffering of abandonment and seeming failure, the suffering of love offered and refused, the suffering of evil apparently triumphant over good.”142 To avoid this kind of suffering is to ignore what it means to be human and what it means to serve an incarnate God. If memory is taken seriously for preaching, in the broken black bodies of the bards, one will discern the broken body of God on the cross, the heart of preaching. Christ’s bones were crushed in his Golgotha valley of death and if the heart of preaching is the cross of Christ, the homiletical heart is a broken and bloody body. I can say, like Copeland, “These broken black bodies lie beside the body of the cruciﬁed Jesus on the altar of my heart.”143 Preachers should have an empathic heart toward death and suffering because of human and divine history; yet, this conversation about preaching and death does not mean that preachers need to bore people to death with their dried-up-like-a-raisin sermons or kill parishioners with judgmental ones. It does mean, however, that in preaching, we remember death and its reality honestly.
Remembering God’s story via the spirituals also points us in more hopeful directions, as later chapters will emphasize. For now it suffices to note that the biblical literacy of the spirituals also suggests a God who 44 • DEM DRY BONES delivers for the purpose of life. The spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, Why Not Every Man?” remembers God’s past action to empower individuals in the present. If God did it for Daniel, why not us? The spirituals were a way of affirming God’s present action through affirmation of his past action. Through remembrance, one received a word of promise. In remembering Daniel, in this case, hope is discovered, intertwining memory and hope. Preaching that remembers the spirituals will ﬁnd this hope in the past for the present, too. As the spiritual notes, “God is a God! God don’t never change! God is a God an’ he always will be God!” What God did in the past, God does in the present because God “don’t never change.” “He’s jus de same today, Jus’ de same today, an’ de God dat lived in Daniel’s time is jus de same today.” This latter spiritual also replaces Daniel with Moses in one of the verses, which points to what has been called the “paradigmatic memory” for preaching—the exodus.144 Foremost (or at least close to the passion memory) in remembering the spirituals is the memory of the exodus. Indeed, this memory points to the pain of slavery and bondage in Egypt but it also gestures toward the liberatory actions of God who tells Moses to “go down” and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Thus remembering the spirituals is not solely about death but also life, the life given to us by God. Yet, in our contemporary context, life is not on intravenous medicine because “life” is stressed at least in theory. It is death that is ignored and death is the starting place for preaching hope. Furthermore, appropriating the story of the exodus as their story allows African Americans to view themselves as God’s people, the children of Israel. This memory provides a common history of death and hope.
Africans Americans are a people who possess a collective identity even as revealed through the spirituals. The spirituals show that the experience of death (and life) is a communal embodied experience.
Remembering the Collective Body The third lesson that the spirituals teach preachers is that tragedy, pain, struggle, and death are felt in the body of Christ, the entire community.
Spiritual preaching includes everyone in the joys and sorrows. The fragrance in the valley of the “very many” dry bones is of an entire “slain” people (Ezek 37:9). Ezekiel paints the picture of a collective death and resurrection. If one suffers, all suffer. If one rejoices, all rejoice. A people endured much shame, sorrow, and death in the valley of oppression.
Some suffer from cultural amnesia but an antidote to this amnesia is DRY BONES • 45 remembering the spirituals, the musical sermons that represent a miraculous response to the unjust setting of enslavement. Remembering slavery highlights that a group of people, individuals within a community, endured pain, which is why Allen Callahan can say, “Much of slave culture would be the keloids of collective consciousness.”145 A collective memory of the spirituals reminds preachers that all experience suffering on some level. The scars of the past remain in the present for a people as memories are passed down from one generation to the next. As humans we belong to “communities with histories,”146 thus so-called individual experience is really a part of a larger communal narrative. The performance of call and response in the spirituals reveals the communal essence of African American communities, that when one suffers, all suffer. All engage in the pain because of what Paul Gilroy calls the “ethics of antiphony” that permeates the black Atlantic.147 Moreover, in this collective recollection, what is most important is the inclusive nature of community. These old songs carry a community’s hope for freedom and justice. Preaching should occur out of the womb of a community’s ideals. The community, the body of Christ, is the starting and ending point of a sermon so artfully depicted by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, when she writes, “Saying no more, [Baby Suggs] stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while others opened their mouths and gave her the music.”148 Others provided the ending sermonic music for the preacher, Baby Suggs, who herself was a member of this ailing community. In this case, the wounded community ﬁnishes the sermon, preaches despite its pain, through its pain and agony. There is a rich intersubjective dynamic in a preaching community that goes beyond the performative dimensions.
As mentioned already, Johnson’s “O Black and Unknown Bards” implies a communal creation of the spirituals with its unknown authors and origins. There are no speciﬁcs about the composer or lyricist because they are the community’s sermons. Inherent in these songs is an opposition to an overly individualized contemporary culture that is more concerned with individual prosperity than community uplift and justice in society.
The growth and health of a community is more signiﬁcant than one’s own maximization. The common good is more important than selﬁsh individualism, which is why the unknown ones matter. The black bards created and led songs that were for the common good and not the gloriﬁcation of the self. They themselves, according to Johnson, were “forgot.” The ﬁfth
stanza of “O Black and Unknown Bards” reads:
46 • DEM DRY BONES
These singers, preachers without portfolio,149 preach “far better than they knew” because their sermons sing on today for the life of a community.
They did not preach for fame or fortune but for the survival of a people.