Saturday, July 01, 2017

How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Back in high school, my friend and classmate, Chandru, had a record player, in which he played for a couple of us who had gone over to his home an LP of a music group called ABBA.  And soon after that, I came to know the music of another group, Boney M.

Those were the days when nobody was ashamed of disco music and were actually joyously singing along.  Among the many Boney M songs was one that began with "By the rivers of Babylon ..."

What I did not know until yesterday--yes, literally yesterday--was that this Boney M song, the opening lines that I was so familiar with, is from "a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137."

It is amazing how ignorant and ill-informed I am.  Every single day, this blog serves me well as a confession booth!

That tidbit is merely the starting point for my ignorance.  The essay begins thus:
On the anniversary of America’s independence, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137 – best known for its opening line, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a centerpiece of his most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.
Douglass told the audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, that for a free black like himself, being expected to celebrate American independence was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem.
Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist; this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African Americans.
Wait, what?

After that essay, I read the New Yorker and David Remnick also refers to Frederick Douglass, this Psalm, and Douglass' speech.  Seriously, am I the only one who is always stumped by own ignorance?

I decided to read Douglass' speech. Or, at least most of it.

It is powerful. It is moving. It is a must-read.  I imagine that if a James Earl Jones delivered this text, tears will flow down our cheeks listening to the words.

It will be a gross injustice to excerpt even a single sentence from that speech.  With all the apologies, and my ignorance as an excuse, I will wrap up this post with the following lines from Frederick Douglass:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. 

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