Oh Charles Wesley, I sort of love you and dislike you deeply all at once. Though I tend toward Wesleyan and Methodist congregations out of preference, I always come to little bits of un-comfort in the writings of the Wesley brothers.
I wanted to write about “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” because I love the build up in the song, it is just a really triumphant sounding piece especially if you are at a church with an organ and an organist who really knows how to jam. Wikipedia tells me that this tune is by Carl G. Glaser, and the one they sing in the UK is a different tune… which if Wikipedia is to be trusted makes me wonder how much I’d like the song with a different tune.
Doing my research on this piece, it seems it was written by Wesley to commemorate the year anniversary of his renewal of faith. I had no idea it was a 10 verse poem originally, or that it had the verse with the very problematic imagery of:
Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the AEthiop white.
See, this is what I’m talking about. I’m all into the triumphant nature of the song and the freedom of belief… and Wesley uses the imagery of washing an Ethiopian white.
Now, I get that he lived in a time that was super racist. I get that the missional statement of the time was that brown people needed God because they were savages. I get the socio-political and cultural context of the poem. It still makes me upset. It still makes me feel like it alienates a bunch of people from the song. Most hymnals agree, and don’t include that verse… in fact, you usually get only 4 to 6 of these verses (and if you are Wesleyan you probably only sing the first and the third anyway, haha). But now I know it’s there. You might say to me that the imagery is saving an African, not whitewashing them, but I think you will find that contextually that’s Saving An African, not sharing the gospel with a human who happens to be from Africa, and has way more whitewashing than a poem with imagery of whitewashing, and oh man I’m not sure how equipped I am to really address that level of Patriarchy all throughout recent Christian history in a quick blog about a hymn.
And here is where we approach the hymn as a piece of art, a religious poem as a poem. Is it good to just throw out the part that is racist to save the rest of the piece? Have we missed an opportunity to talk about religious leaders as fallible people? Should we address the idea of being Clergy as a career path and the pitfalls that come along with that? Why should it get a free pass because of time and place? Am I holding it to a higher standard than I would another piece because of it’s use in worship and is that a good thing?
As a poem, I find it fascinating to delve into. As a hymn, I find the truncated version beautiful. As a human, I find the inherent racism troubling. As a Christian, I find the historical context embarrassing. As a white person, I have the privilege if I want to skip the verse, pretend it never happened as my place in the song’s internal world is secure… but I don’t think that is a good use of my privilege. What do we do with the huge swaths of our culture that were inherently passively racist? I mean, I’m asking.