People Get Ready: Advent With Curtis Mayfield II
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3: 21-23 (emphasis added)
Sisters, Brothers and the Whities Blacks and the Crackers Police and their backers They’re all political laughters
Hurry, people running from their worries While the judge and his juries Dictate the law that’s partly
Cat calling love balling fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing For peace no one is willing Kind of make you get that feeling
Everybody smoke Use the pill and the dope Educated fools From uneducated schools
Pimping people is the rule Polluted water in the pool
And Nixon talking about don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry
But they don’t know There can be no show And if there’s hell below We’re all gonna go
Everybody’s praying And everybody’s saying But when come time to do Everybody’s laying
Just talking about don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry – (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, words & music by Curtis Mayfield
As we move through this Advent season with our guide, Curtis Mayfield, we should take a moment and consider the usual or “traditional” appellations given for each week. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, is usually considered the Sunday of Hope. So it was we considered what “Hope” means to a people who continue to live as strangers in their own land. We heard Mayfield offer to the African-American community a vision of themselves as the “people who are darker than blue”. It is a call to name the community’s sins one by one; only a voice from within that community would have either the authority or power to do so. As is usually the case, however, a call to repentance carries with it the promise of redemption. Why else name one’s community “darker than blue” is, in the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, one is beyond all hope?
Last week I also noted that it was precisely the specificity of the song – it was not addressed to everyone; it was addressed to the African-American community at a particular time in their history – that opened it to all. Had Mayfield written a call to repentance to everyone, how might that have worked, exactly? How would it be possible to list the collective sin of all the various groups in the United States? Hearing Mayfield’s call to his people however, opened to those with ears to hear the possibility of considering their own people’s sin. It opens up hope for redemption to all.
The Second Sunday is usually named “Faith” Sunday. Yet, what “faith” is proclaimed? In what are we professing our faith? Nothing less than that the God who has created the Universe will not leave us to wallow and die in our sin. The coming of the Messiah is first, foremost and always for a particular people; again, it is only because of that specificity that we can make the universal claim that the Savior to be born, to come to us today, the return of the risen Christ to bring about the final consummation of the New Creation, is something for all of us.
A popular question is always, “Why do we need a Savior?” It’s a good question. It is part of our faith that we profess our need for salvation in part by talking about something called Original Sin. In this song, Mayfield moves from the specific hardships of the African-American community, their need for salvation and the hope of redemption to the declaration that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just anyone can make such a claim with authority. In a world divided by nationality, by race, by class, by religion, it is only the voice of those who suffer at the hands of history’s victors who have the power to say that all face the prospect of eternal judgment. As James Cone noted decades ago, it isn’t up to the white power structure, secular or religious, to tell African-Americans what they need to do to change. It’s up that community, as Cone writes, to get their shit together. In doing so, however, they can pronounce judgment not only upon themselves but upon all precisely because of their unique perspective.
Many people are turned off by the idea of Original Sin. It just seems to violate our contemporary sensibility, our belief in our fundamental goodness. We reward ourselves by saying that “sin” isn’t meaningful; only “sins”, individual or collective acts, are that which need forgiveness. Curtis Mayfield, however, isn’t buying it. The world isn’t just filled with people who do bad things; those people aren’t bad because they are powerful political actors (Nixon, judges, police and their backers, people on drugs, the pushers, the pimps). People do bad things because all have sinned and face the ultimate judgment not for their acts but because they refuse to see the fundamental brokenness that leads them to commit these acts.
“Don’t worry,” Mayfield says, turning the words of the powerful around not only upon them but to all, “if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go.” Hell isn’t something that awaits bad people who do bad things. Hell isn’t the reality in which the oppressed live right now. Hell is something that awaits everyone. Our faith this Advent has to include a profession of our need for salvation, otherwise the need to prepare, the need for this child to be born, the need for a Savior is meaningless.
As we prepare, we need to remind ourselves not only to hope for the possibility of redemption; we need to declare this redemption is redemption from something. And it is a call laid upon all of us. No one escapes the final judgment. No one is so blessed that they can escape the promise of eternal separation from God. If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go. Only Faith can give us the strength to hear this Word. Only faith could give Curtis Mayfield the power and authority to declare this judgment.