The Role of Creed in the Development of Christian Liturgical Music

By way of introducing this section, I don’t seek to explain why creeds developed as they did, but to understand the circumstances at that time that likely contributed to the development of those creeds.

What one of us has not, when facing a recent significant health challenge, or loss of a loved one, a hope or a sense of trust dashed, asked why?  If that tragic loss is very much in the eye of the public, how much more do we protest, “But why?”  Or, when facing some tragedy, as the unexpected loss of a loved one, a serious accident, or a serious criminal violation of our person or that of a loved one, asked, “Why?” Or, “What if?”

That was the atmosphere that the disciples and other followers of Jesus experienced following his crucifixion. They had such high hopes for Jesus. Jesus was a remarkable, loving, courageous person, a friend of all who were oppressed and an outspoken opponent of all social powers and persons who oppressed them.  During his lifetime, Jesus directly confronted those who burdened others with petty rules of religious practice. He and his disciples violated them in ways that did no harm to others in order that they might do good for others. But, Jesus became a threat to the then-existing religious authorities. He was committed to the Truth in a way that Gandhi would have appreciated.  He was committed to loving all and excluding none; he pursued Truth, whatever the cost; and he comforted the dispossessed, the oppressed, and all those who suffered.  He saw and taught that to do so was God’s will, and he was committed to such acts of love even though it resulted in violating the oppressive laws, which, in Jesus time and in his society, happened to be those of the religious authorities.  I recognize it as Civil Disobedience. When I see the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or another who violates openly an unjust law for Truth and Justice, I think of Jesus’ loving example and commitment to Truth and Justice, whatever the consequences.  And I think that each one of these people was killed by someone or some group who felt threatened.

I have not always seen things that way. I grew up in the North East of the United States, Rhode Island, at a time of civil unrest known as the Civil Rights Era in the mid-20th century. “White Anglo-Saxon society,” which was my environment, became frightened of the social unrest caused by the boycotts and civil disobedience led by Martin Luther King.

At that same time, the Black Muslims became dramatically prominent. In the mid- to late 1960s, I was attending a national church conference where a film was played which highlighted the hatred of the Black Muslims for whites, including the reverse racist, hate spewing Malcolm X.  In truth, when those who have become fearful of losing what they have, or even having to share it, too often their response is to react in fear to keep their hold on it. Not until many years later, about 1990, when the movie of Malcolm X came out did I discover that his own father was a Christian minister who suffered great racial hatred and violence from white people.  That, understandably, embittered Malcolm and he reacted in hatred. That hatred led to crime, for which he was imprisoned. While in prison, he was introduced to the Black Muslims who shared his hatred. He embraced them and their ideology and they him.  Malcolm was not only driven by hatred, but he also had great verbal and charismatic skills to articulately and dramatically express it. The Black Muslims fanned the flames of his anger and hatred, and they used him for their own political agendas. In time, as I recall, Malcolm became disillusioned by the hatred of the Black Muslims, and he went to Mecca, as all good Muslims intend to do, where he discovered, not a hateful Islam, but a loving Islam where vengeance had no place. There, he also discovered forgiveness.  That was an inclusive religious society in which color did not matter at all.  Whether black or white, all were included within the circle of love that warmed the heart and healed the soul. It was a peaceful society.  I discovered, when watching the movie of his life, that when Malcolm X returned to the United States, he was a converted Muslim, who, so far as I could see, embraced a loving and peace-making religion that, on an ethical plane, was little different from that of Jesus.  Indeed, the Black Muslims, with whom he was previously so strongly identified, became threatened by this man of peace who had abandoned their agenda of hate for an Islamic religion of love; the Black Muslims became the religious authorities that Malcolm dared disobey for a higher purpose, the Truth.  Ultimately, the Black Muslims were so threatened by his message of peace and love, quite like the position that Jesus was in with the religious authorities of his day, that they  conspired to kill him, as did the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. As the Pharisees conspired with Judas, who was one of Jesus’ disciples, so did the Black Muslims.  They secretly infiltrate a religious service that Malcolm was leading, where they murdered him as he preached his message of love, forgiveness and peace.  I recall no news of that murder at the time that it actually occurred, and I was utterly unaware of it until I saw it depicted in the movie.  I am sure that the followers of Malcolm X were asking questions similar to those asked by the followers of Jesus: Why? How did it come to this? What meaning does his life have, if any, after his death?

Those who looked to Malcolm X as their hope for the future did not have the resources that Jesus’ disciples had to redeem the memory of Jesus from his ignoble end.  Jesus’ disciples had both a Jewish tradition and a pervasive Greco-Roman civilization and myth to aid them; the followers of Malcolm X had no such staple of resources to draw upon.  They were originally brought here as slaves where they served their “masters.” Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, describes their deplorable conditions and treatment.  Even upon their emancipation, blacks did not have the same opportunities that whites had for education, financial or social improvement;  nor did they have the leisure time required for reflection and the arts. Although they were “freed,” yet they were oppressed, excluded by mainstream white society, and treated in various degrees as less than fully human.  Although, during slavery, the Blacks had great hope for a better day, that day was “In that great getting’ up morning, fair thee well,” they sang during their toil; but they had little if any hope of that in their own lifetimes. Nor did they have leisure time or the education to reflect upon their plight or their hope, to write about it, or to devote to artistic expression about it, except so far as they were able sing as they toiled.  That contributed to the one great artistic and expressive form available to them: the Negro spiritual. While that may have been some consolation and eased to some small degree the pain of slavery, it did not provide a tradition that the Blacks in the Civil Rights Era could draw upon to console, reinterpret, encourage, and give hope to Malcolm’s followers after his death. They had no means of explaining how a man committed to Allah and spreading news of forgiveness, peace and love, could be gunned down in the prime of his life, when he had given so much hope to so many.

The Jews, on the other hand, had a rich heritage of prophecy looking to a time to come of peace, when the lion would lie with the lamb, when there would be no more war.  But the time when the prophecy was made was also a time when both pagans and Jews sacrificed animals to their gods (the Jews to God) to please him, to ask a favor, or to ask for forgiveness. That continued into the first century.  You may recall that Jesus, upon his entry into Jerusalem cast over the tables at the temple where merchants were making a profit selling animals for sacrifice.  The disciples also had an example of the Paschal lamb which was a lamb without blemish that was sacrificed according to a prescribed ritual. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korban_Pesach.    The Jews of the Old Testament had another rite in which the sins of the community were symbolically placed upon a goat that was then punished in the place of the people to cleanse them of guilt: the “scape goat.”  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamb_of_God.   They had the example of the Passover which originated in the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt when the lamb’s blood was smeared on the posts of the door to protect the occupants so that the Angel of Death would pass over them as it passed through Egypt, killing, we are told, the first born of both human and animal. Jesus’ disciples and followers had a great tradition of praise, thankfulness, forgiveness, and hope, with many vehicles for each available to help them understand how this innocent man, so full of love for God, and so caring for all could be crucified as a common criminal.

See, also, The Need for Creeds at http://www.onbeing.org/program/need-creeds/211 and the evolution of religion and the benefit of writing at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions

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