I’ll never forget the first time I heard the spiritual, “Give Me Jesus.” It was at Furman University, and one of my good friends, Benjamin Moore, sang Moses Hogan’s arrangement on a recital program. I had likely heard the song at some point in my life, but this was the first time I truly heard it. It was a time in my life when I struggled to reconcile the fiercely loving and inclusive Jesus that captured my imagination and heart with the often exclusive and shallow Christianity I witnessed around me. I was taught to place a high value on participation in the Body of Christ, but I watched with disappointment as the church failed to live up to its calling to love as Christ loves. So when Ben sang “you may have all of this world, but give me Jesus” it struck a deep chord in me.
I was studying music and I knew the history of the African American spirituals. I knew that the people who first sang that line were singing from a place of profound suffering and disillusionment. I knew that my disillusionment paled in comparison. What depth of faith to be able to sing those words and that melody while white “Christian” people abused you and told you that you were meant to be a slave! It seems enslaved African Americans also knew that the person of Jesus went beyond the people who claimed to represent him—that no matter how cruel and death-dealing the world was, Jesus stood in the breach offering love and life and continually calling his people to do the same despite their failures. I knew I would never be able to grasp the depth of the hope and faith conveyed in the song, but at the same time, as I listened, the song seemed to give me a measure of that hope and faith. As Ben sang, I felt my own spirit longing for that Jesus in the midst of my wrestling with God and faith.
"Give Me Jesus" has been critiqued by well-meaning theologians, along with much white and Black gospel music, for over-emphasizing the afterlife at the expense of living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed here and now. While I, too, am concerned about that overemphasis, in this case I believe that to be a shallow analysis that doesn’t take into account the history and meaning of the spirituals or the multiplicity of meanings available in the singing of the song. “You can have all this world” does not necessarily imply a giving up on the world. It certainly reveals a justified frustration with the way the world functions, the systems and people who oppress and crush God’s beloved children. But if you dig deeper, you may discover the profound hope and faith that I did, and be propelled back into the world to love it more fully than you did before. We will sing it this Sunday in worship and whether you know it by heart or it is your first time hearing it, I hope it will be as meaningful as it was for me that first time.
Click here to listen to a moving performance of Moses Hogan’s arrangement on Youtube.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Stephen Stacks