I have long been uneasy with a recent practice among Unitarian Universalists of singing changed words to a particular song in Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Granted, we are always changing words to make them more palatable and therefore singable in our congregations. We free original hymns of their sexism and God-talk, for example, in an effort for our worship to be more inclusive.
The changed lyrics I am thinking of are to the old African American song, “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I have heard it sung by UUs as “There is more love right here.”
And as much explaining as I have done from the pulpit about understanding and respecting the history and context of the song, I field questions from congregation members who protest the song’s words when we sing it as is.
There is much to be troubled by this, and not merely annoyed that, yet again, Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing.
People who have everything they need don’t understand why they would sing about love and hope and joy being somewhere else.
People privileged enough to not want for many of life’s blessings can be incapable of hearing the yearning of those who go without.
Lament is a misunderstood and unappreciated form of prayer. We can be grateful for what we have, we can ask for what we need, we can admit when we’ve made mistakes. To cry out “Why? How long must I endure this?” does none of these things, yet is as authentic a prayer as any.
Longing for what is not yet, yearning for what is absent ultimately affirms hope. Not optimism, hope. Happiness and love and joy and peace are attainable, even as they are not yet attained.
Expressions of aching desire do not merely allow us to wallow. It is not an admission of defeat. Calling out for what is missing is ultimately an affirmation of resolve and expectation: “I’m going to keep on till I find it.”
“There Is More Love Somewhere” is among that repertoire of African American songs from the time of slavery. Spirituals give voice to the experience of slavery, the African American experience of survival and resilience. These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.
Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?
Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.
There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.
Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings. We have hymns of thanksgiving. Can’t we sing them, instead of this awkward revision?
It’s been my experience that Unitarian Universalists shy away from sharing experiences of loss and suffering, and are uncomfortable with needing or wanting or asking for help. I think many UUs don’t like to publicly admit that we are anything but autonomous, self-determining masters of our own destinies.
In the public privacy that is worship, can we admit that we are sometimes in need? Can we pour out our desire for what is lacking in our lives?
We look upon the misery of the world but don’t always see. We look at the misery of the world and see what we are going to do about it. This laudable desire to improve the world, to make our social order more fair and equitable, to build an environmentally sustainable and just economy is to be celebrated.
And the practice of compassion must go with it, or we become clanging know-it-alls and a sounding cymbal of self-righteousness. Compassion, as the word’s Latin roots suggest, is the ability to suffer with. To enter into the suffering of another is to acknowledge and accept their subjectivity. To attempt to understand what it feels like, to feel their pain.
Can singing a song do all this for white Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps. But not if we erase the words we find uncomfortable. Not if, in so doing, we erase the history and experience—the story—of a people.
Unitarianism and Universalism each began as religious movements grounded in an optimistic religious philosophy. The world, and humankind within it, were imperfect but perfectible. A loving God conquered all.
This theologia gloriae has been the dominant mode in Christianity. (Which is supremely ironic given that Christianity has at its centre a suffering God, a God who suffers-with the world and all its creatures). Uncertainty and ambiguity are pushed to the side. The via negativa, the way of negation, gives up certainty and the positive affirmations of who and what the divine is, in favour of humility and honest questioning.
A theology of glory is triumphalist. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:
“Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting adherents unflinching belief and loyalty. Such a tendency is triumphalistic in the sense that it triumphs—at least in its own self-estimate—over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, as over every other point of view.”
Theologia gloriae is the theological underpinning of American Christian triumphalism, the bright light of rightness that allows for no shade or shadow, no ambiguity or doubt. Stumbling around in the dark, crying out for light, is not the American Christian way. Our God triumphs and the anguish of the world will be conquered.
The Unitarian Universalist gloss on this theology of glory which we inherited, is that we ourselves are the source and power of the world’s redemption. We ourselves are capable of putting an end to suffering. Racial and economic injustice, sexism and homophobia, climate change and other evils will be vanquished by our advancing guard of yellow-shirted UUs, marching as to war.
Can we take time to acknowledge that we are not there yet? That we are powered by our love for the world and our compassion for those who suffer? Can we take time to lament? To grieve that there is not enough goodness and trust and solidarity in the world? To grieve that there is not enough love in the world?
That there is more love somewhere? And that we will keep on until we find it?
When I sing “There Is More Love Somewhere,” I enter into that inward space of not-yet, of acknowledging that the way things are is often unjust, unkind. But justice and kindness will be ours. Peace and joy will be ours.
Knowing that what I am singing is the hope and yearning of people whose traumatic and brutal circumstance I can only imagine, when I sing this song, I lament for the way things are. I lament the current social order.
I lament my present circumstances that are incomplete. I long for more love, more joy, more peace and I lift that longing up in an act of worship, an act of prayer.
Will you please join me in singing hymn #95, “There Is More Love Somewhere”?