“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes, it causes me to tremble”
– Negro Spiritual / Traditional
“Just as Christ was a Superstar…
They’ll hail you then nail you, no matter who you are”
– Ms. Lauryn Hill / “Superstar“
What is Good Friday?
Good Friday is the day of the year when Christians turn their attention to the human suffering and divine sacrifice of Jesus on the day of his execution by the Roman Empire. It is observed every year on the Friday before Resurrection Sunday (Easter) to commemorate the day Jesus was crucified. Good Friday is a time for believers to contemplate and reflect on the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion over 2,000 years ago and for today.
What are the Seven Last Words of Jesus?
The Seven Last Words of Jesus, or the Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross, are the seven last sayings of Jesus before his death as recorded in the four New Testament Gospels. The order of the “words” is:
- Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)
- Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)
- Woman, behold your son: behold your mother. (John 19:26-27)
- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34)
- I thirst. (John 19:28)
- It is finished. (John 19:30)
- Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)
More information on Good Friday/Seven Last Words, see African American Lectionary: Good Friday.
WHY THE MUSIC OF MS. LAURYN HILL?
In past RE:BIRTH Good Friday worship experiences, we joined in re-listenings of the musical catalogs of Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and Sade. With Lost Ones, we listen again for the seven last words of Jesus, but this time with music from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
As scholar and journalist Joan Morgan writes in She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, while Miseducation was “routinely lauded for its themes of self-love, empowerment and broken-heart-bounce backs,” L-Boogie was also “a ‘90s kind of black girl” who “came into adulthood watching the police receive passes for brutalizing black bodies,” “saw a million black men march on Washington,” “watched Los Angeles burst into riotous flames,” “saw a lone black woman stand firm against the nomination of a black Supreme Court judge,” and a white president sign the 1994 Crime Bill “that would devastate her community both politically and economically” for generations to come.
Lauryn’s strivings were political, philosophical and very much spiritual. Grounded in her search for truth and love was a deep well of spirituality, seeking God’s grace and power from God to transform the “troubles of the world.” In Ms. Lauryn Hill’s magnum opus, this self-proclaimed “Abyssinian Street Baptist” draws from a deep well of black sacred expressions of lamentation and hope “to change the focus from the richest to the brokest” by the grace of God.
In “Forgive Them Father,” Ms. Hill quotes Jesus’ first saying from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This New Testament scripture has historically been used to encourage oppressed peoples to show mercy to their persecutors “as Jesus did.” Because Jesus “forgave” his victimizers from the cross, black and other oppressed peoples are discouraged from being angry with or holding accountable demented white supremacists who open fire in Black churches during bible study, police officers who kill unarmed residents in their own homes, backyards or in public streets or policies that create and perpetuate gross inequities in housing, health care and education. We are supposed to “forgive” as Christ forgave from the cross “for they know not what they do.”
In the tradition of Negro Sprituals, Ms. Lauryn Hill re-interprets Christian forgiveness in effort to break free from internalized racism, passive victimization and “cheap grace.” For Hill (and for Jesus of Nazareth) to forgive is not to passively accept a sinful, violent and oppressive status quo with assurance that a public execution (crucifixion) is a part of God’s divine plan. Instead, the work of the Spirit is to call out those who have bought in to that system and challenge them to live into Christ’s liberative and revolutionary ministry:
Get yours in this capitalistic system?
So many caught or got bought you can’t list them
Let’s free the people from deception
If you looking for the answers then you gotta ask the questions
And when I let go, my voice echoes through the ghetto
Sick of men trying to pull strings like Geppetto
Why black people always be the ones to settle?
March through these streets like Soweto, uhh
Like Cain and Abel, Caesar and Brutus
Jesus and Judas, backstabbers do this
Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.
In just a handful of lines of “Forgive Them Father,” Ms. Hill correlates the Hebrew scriptures, Shakespeare, the O’Jays and Pinochio with Jesus’ first saying from the cross while sampling Bob Marley & the Wailers and recalling the South African anti-apartheid struggle. In the process, Ms. Hill calls to the light those who have bought into capitalistic greed, social engineering and internalized white supremacy. Forgiveness for L-Boogie (and Jesus of Nazareth) is about not letting a person’s evil acts determine their destiny, but leaving open the possibility of redemption. As with those who shouted “crucify him” at Jesus, those who are agents of oppression now, can yet be awakened, join the struggle for liberation and with Jesus, “walk through these streets like Soweto.”
The Spirit of God that inspired enslaved Africans in America to create and sing “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go),” “I’m On the Battlefield (For My Lord),” and “We Shall Overcome,” still lives. Ms. Lauryn Hill’s freedom songs serving as “New Negro Sprituals” cultivated and curated in hip-hop’s brush harbor. Lauryn’s re-interpretation of Christian forgiveness is a part of a personal and communal endeavor to unlearn oppressive Christian dogma and learn anew what Howard Thurman called “the religion of Jesus.”
As “Were You There? (When They Crucified My Lord?)” is a spiritual that recalls Jesus’ crucifixion to mourn and remember the women and men killed by state-sanctioned violence on lynching trees, Lost Ones: The Seven Last Words of Jesus with the Music of Lauryn Hill, is a worship experience that recalls the loss of Jesus’ life at his crucifixion in connection to the “lost ones” in the struggle for freedom yesterday and today. For Sandra Bland. For Michael Brown. For Ezell Ford. For Atatiana Jefferson. For Trayvon Martin. For Jesus. For the Lost Ones. Let us march on ‘til victory is won.