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He Has No Power?

2011 November 3
by Julie Clawson

At a conference I attended recently we sang a worship song one evening with the repeated refrain “He has no power.” The song was a South African freedom song and the cantor explained that the “he” in the song refers to Satan. Knowing how songs of liberation work, the reference to the oppressor Satan here serves as a place-holder for the actually physical oppressors which in this situation would be the white Apartheid government (for more on this in songs see James Cone’s work). In instances of such extreme oppression, it is safe to sing hymns about freedom from Satan, but not so safe to sing openly about the desire to be liberated from the racist forces of the white government.

So there I was in a room full of a few hundred older, very reserved, and 99.9% white Christians who were singing a South African freedom song as if it were a 17th century hymn. It was in the middle of singing the song that I was stopped short by the thought that what we were doing there was the exact opposite of what we were proclaiming in song. How could we truly believe that the powers of oppression have no power if we weren’t embodying any visible sign of it? Beyond the oddity of having someone conduct our singing about freedom so as to ensure we hit the right pitches, the dissonance of the entire situation was unsettling. I couldn’t help but wonder if the act of appropriating a song of liberation from another culture and subduing and anglicizing it was not in itself an act of oppression of the song’s very power all for the sake of allowing us to feel multicultural an affirming of the “other.” Where were the acts of liberation? Where were the faces and voices of those others? Where in our midst was the struggle to turn the world upside-down, destroy the segregation of our churches, and humbly sacrifice our vision of how a worship service must function in order to make room for the hallelujahs of others?

These thoughts stopped my voice in the moment; I couldn’t finish singing the song. I did hear others grumbling about the song after the service. Either they had missed the explanations of the “he” referring to Satan and were upset that we would dare sing that God had no power. Or they were upset that they had to sing about the person of Satan since we all know he doesn’t actually exist. But I was met with blank stares when I suggested that I was uneasy singing a song of liberation in an unliberated space.

I am fully aware that no one there, especially not those who planned that liturgy, had such motives in mind in choosing that song. In fact I am sure they assumed that the choice was one for diversity and inclusion that challenged assumptions about what constitutes proper hymns. But as I reflected on the moment my unease remained. It made me wonder how often in the church we make that promise of freedom into a hollow platitude. Like when we spiritualize the call to release the oppressed and free the prisoners into being simply about overcoming our personal demons. Or twist the call to love our neighbor as ourselves to really be about just loving ourselves. Or preach that Christians shouldn’t be distracted by politics, or economics, or corporate greed (since addressing those issues might require us to live counter-culturally…). We speak of liberation and freedom as if they are facades. They make us look great on the outside, but are so impotent of concepts in our theologies that they do nothing to affect who we actually are. But the veneer of liberation only serves to further hide away the oppression still inside. The most empowering thing for racism is for people to believe it has been dealt with. But that isn’t true freedom.

Liberation cannot be just a guise. Inclusion cannot be trivial. Freedom from oppression cannot be spiritualized away. I had to stop singing because I felt like I was participating in the very act I was claiming to have overcome. There were voices missing in that space and I knew I couldn’t say Satan had no power in the midst of that absence. But even so, all I could do was not sing.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011

    Hey Julie,

    Great analysis, as always.

    Sometimes it’s not possible to be comfortable in a room full of white social justice folks, no matter what you do.

    And sometimes it’s even difficult to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, as a white activist. But we must.

    Peace,
    Jeremy

  2. November 3, 2011

    Julie,
    Thank you for giving words for an experience I’ve had too many times to count! The idea that our form must reflect the content of our theology is essential in the work of embodied justice. Whether trying to break down walls of race, gender, socio-economics, language, denominations, etc…

    The contrast between “making us look great” and actually being impotent to change (a carefully chosen specific phrase no doubt) was a good challenge to me.

    Several questions:
    What would an embodied visible sign be in a situation like that?
    Is it viable to justify a meeting such as you describe IN ORDER TO equip us for a vision such as you embrace? In other words, I hear and have used that excuse before (“Well, yes this is wrong, but we can’t get so and so to show up so this is the best we can do”), feel uncomfortable with it, and am clueless how to change it.

    Again, thanks!

    Marty (The Peace Pastor)

  3. November 3, 2011

    Is it always the case that we need to fulfill the liturgy in advance? Sometimes, the role of worship is to work on changing us. To me it sounds like it did it’s work on you and hopefully for the good of others as well.

  4. November 3, 2011

    Julie- really appreciate your vulnerable heart and good questions here. I am wondering if this may indeed have been an entirely appropriate song BECAUSE liberation has not taken place. Just as the song was originally sung by those under oppression – declaring that satan and an evil physical manifestation do not have power over us – so too we must say the same now. It is a song of resistance. We continue to tell satan that he has no power – be it through unjust systems, corrupt governments, media manipulation, etc. Perhaps it would have been better for the song to be framed in this way – can this also be our song?

    Not sure how this would go over with the crowd you mention. Sometimes we take songs from other places in attempts to [patronizingly] appreciate different cultures and arrogantly miss that they might be true for us too. I live in South Africa…

  5. November 4, 2011

    Just catching up on a backlog of blog reading, and really enjoying your thoughtfulness here, as always. Thanks for taking the time to let the rest of us into your musings.

  6. November 5, 2011

    That’s huge folks, though real huge statement dispute here. It’s all important crucial and I can tell you are awesome author. Miss you guy more than words can tell. Lovely piece. thanks!

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