“Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” I love that song. I love it so much, I’m having us sing it today, even though it isn’t in our hymnal. Even though it meant I had to fight with the copier to get the insert printed out in the right size. I love it, because of the depth of meaning that it conveys. Swing Low Sweet Chariot has layers, upon layers, of rich meaning. This morning we read the biblical story of Elijah being taken up into heaven by chariots of fire. It is from this story that the song borrows its religious imagery. Elijah was a prophet of God during the period of the divided kingdom; when David’s kingdom had been split into Israel in the north and Judah in the South. In Elijah’s time the northern kingdom of Israel was wealthy and powerful, but its leaders were selfish and corrupt, in their hunger for power they ignored the laws of their God and paid homage to any God or any king that could aid them in their quest for power. It was a hard time to be a man of God; and Elijah’s life was one of near constant conflict and struggle. At one point it got so bad, that Elijah begged God to end it all, to bring him to death. Go refused initially, commanding Elijah to first annoint Elisha as his successor, but after this had occurred God relented. After a lifetime of faithfully serving God in a sinful world that persecuted him for it, Elijah was swept away by chariots of fire, never to be seen again. His God had taken him home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot is not a Jewish song, it was not composed by Israelites remembering their beloved Elijah. No, Swing Low was created by enslaved African people living in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these people were introduced to the story of Elijah, and of Israel, and to the whole of Christian faith by those who had enslaved them. The white slavemasters viewed themselves as Christians- they read the Bible, they believed in Jesus, they belonged to the church. These slavemasters saw no contradiction between their faith in Christ and their owning and brutalizing other human beings. Quite the oppostie in fact. The slaveowning class in the United States believed that Christianity justified the institution of chattel slavery, and they taught this belief to their children and to their slaves.
As the song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, attests, many of the enslaved Africans learned about the Bible, its God, and about the faith of Jesus Christ. Not only did they learn about it, many became believers. Yet the enslaved did not understand the faith in the same way as their masters. For like all people, they understood the Bible through the lens of their own context. When they heard the story of Elijah, a righteous man of God living in immoral times and persecuted by the powerful, they identified his situation with their own. Despite their faith and piety, the enslaved were made to suffer horrible pain and indignity. Much like Elijah, they too dreamed of an escape from this life of suffering and trial. What is more, they had come to believe, just as Elijah had come to believe, that their true home was not in this world of suffering, but rather with God. Home with God meant a time when their suffering would end. Home with God meant freedom. Just as God had come to deliver Elijah from this veil of suffering, so too would their God deliver them. And so they sang, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home. In the hands of the enslaved this story of Elijah came to be a story about freedom, about God’s promise to deliver the people from slavery. A meaning that the interpretations of the slavemasters had foreclosed. The Christian faith of the enslaved in their God’s deliverance inspired their hunger for freedom and fed their belief that it could be obtained. When they clandestinely made plans to escape the slave holding south, they used songs like Swing Low as coded language. To sing these songs of freedom was to let other slaves know their plans for escape, without the slavemasters knowing any better. This is what I mean by layers and layers of meaning. In the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot one can hear and feel the faith that set slaves free, one can hear the yearning for freedom, for home, one can hear the depth of the faith in a God who frees the oppressed, who will not leave them to their suffering, who will come to carry them home. The deep interwining connection between Christian faith and freedom is perhaps nowhere more perfectly and beautifully present than in slave songs like Swing Low.
From our perspective, one in which chattell slavery has been deemed immoral and unchristian and illegal for over 150 years, it can be difficult to see how our slaveholding ancestors could have believed their actions were consistent with Christian faith. Just this morning we read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How could anyone take a faith with such a profound emphasis on freedom and use it to justify the enslavement of other peoples? I believe that the answer lies in another concept of Paul’s, our slavery to sin.
I was once fortunate enough to take a two week long trip to Ghana, in West Africa. As you often do when traveling, we ate out a lot during this trip. Several times a day I would be asked what I wanted to drink- and after the first day I was already familiar with all the options available to me. If I wanted beer I could have Star or Guiness. If I wanted soda I could have Coke. If I wanted anything else I could have water, or tea. These were the options everywhere we went, options, but limited options. About an hour and a half after returning to Washington D.C. I stopped at a gas station, and went inside to grab something to drink. I was meet with 15 yards of refigerated shelves full of every conceivable kind of beer, wine cooler, soda, juice, sports drink, and energy drink imaginable. The options were overwhelming. I was free to choose any of these, thousands of drinks, and for a second it was paralyzing. I almost longed for the simple Star or Coke choice I had in Ghana.
When Paul writes that Christ has called us to freedom, he means that we are set free from the need to mindlessly follow the laws of a prior generation, from the strictures of tradition, for we have been called to a greater destiny: we have been called to be in Christ. As terrific as this news can be, it can also be overwhelming. There is a moment after liberation, a moment when one has been set free from the laws confining behavior in the past, when one can feel dizzied and disoriented by the infinite options placed before them. What should I choose? Does it matter what I choose? If I am free from the laws of the past, how am I to decide what is best?
Paul believed that freedom from the law did not mean freedom from the consequences of our actions. In fact, he was quite sure that using our freedom to make certain choices would lead us back in to slavery, slavery to sin. Slavery to sin is largely what Paul means by the desires of the flesh. In our freedom we can make choices that will eventually enslave us. Think of the alcoholic who is free to drink as much as he likes to dull his pain, and then no longer free to live without a drink. Think of the free choice to lie, and how it compels you to lie again and again and again. The use of freedom to satisfy sin, is the abuse of freedom, and it results in the loss of freedom and slavery to sin.
When the first slaves were brought to this country, white people chose in their freedom to participate in chattel slavery; to brutalize and abuse an entire race of people for their own benefit. The horrors that this choice brought upon the enslaved is obvious and well established. But this free choice to sin, to refuse to love their neighbors as themselves, also enslaved the slaveowners. It enslaved them to sin. Knowing how they had treated the enslaved, they lived in constant free that one day, should the power dynamic shift, the enslaved would do the same to them. This fear is well attested by the fact that the most brutal slave owning societies were also the ones in which the enslaved outnumbered the slaveowners. This fear and its corresponding desire for safety through cruelty and oppression is what Paul would call a desire of the flesh.
This is all ancient history of course. Slavery ended nearly 170 years ago. Yet as William Faulkner stated, the past is never dead, its not even past. In the United States we live with these two historic understandings of the faith are still very much alive. There is a strain of American Christianity which firmly holds that God chooses to liberate the oppressed, to set them free so that they can live with dignity in Christ. There is also a strain of American Christianity in which the presence of fear compels those with power to treat the powerless as less than human as undeserving. The good news is that in Christ we have been set free from blind allegiance to either of these strains of Christian faith, just as we have been set free from the law and tradition. The question for us is how will we use our freedom? According to Paul we have but two choices we can use it to serve the desires of the flesh and enslave ourselves again to sin, or we can use it to walk in the Spirit and produce the fruits of the Spirit. Our criterion for choosing is simple- does this faith, does this choice, increase my love for God, for neighbor, and for self? If it does it will be accompanied by the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we all have the courage to choose freedom in Christ, over slavery to fear and sin. May we find ways to choose faith over fear, love over oppression, and Christ over all things. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast