A few years ago, the Spiritual, “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” captured my imagination. I cannot recall the exact day and time, or if I experienced this new hearing during corporate worship or a private moment of prayer. I just remember that it spoke to me in new ways.
I’m gonna lay down my burdens down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside. I’m gonna lay down my burdens down by the riverside and study war no more.
I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside… and study war no more.
I’m gonna put on my long white robe down by the riverside… and study war no more.
Spirituals like “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” alongside other genres of music in the Black Church, have long nurtured my sense of religious identity and experience of God. They are the lyrical expressions of an enslaved people, articulations of life that bind me to my ancestors. To sing the Spirituals is to recall the lamentable conditions under which enslaved women and men of Africa stitched each line together, a poetic medium through which they gave public expression to their sorrow and articulated their hopes and dreams.
I appreciate W.E.B. DuBois’ characterization of the spirituals as “Sorrow Songs” in The Souls of Black Folk. They are the melodic laments of “an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment [that] tell of death and suffering, unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways” (DuBois, 157). Each line of “Aint Gonna Study War No More” is tinged by sorrow’s echo, as enslaved women and men make known their war-weary existence. Slavery had become a course of study, a pedagogy intended to teach them the futility of imagining a liberating reality for themselves and for future generations. ‘Things will always remain the same,’ they were to believe, ‘unchangeable and devoid of new possibilities.’ But the women and men who surrendered their bodies to the ferocity of chattel slavery refused to surrender their hearts to futility, reminding us through their Sorrow Songs that the time will come when we will “study war no more”.
That’s why “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” captured my imagination. Sorrow’s echo had become so familiar that I almost missed the tones of Hope resounding between and beneath each line. Drawing upon the biblical imagery of the prophets Micah and Isaiah, the people who first sang this song hoped against hope that they would cross the river that led to freedom; a place where the battle would be over, where swords, shields and slave garments would be discarded, and they would learn a way of being alternative to the embattled existence that encompassed their lives. Hope flowed from the inside out, from the depths of their being and self-understanding, inspiring them to infuse their Sorrow Songs with tones of restoration and new life.
The repetitiveness of the lyrics give testimony to Hope’s inside out flow. With each “I’m gonna…” and “Ain’t gonna…,” Hope’s infusion in “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” reassures them and us today that a hope-filled future is in the process of becoming and we are already moving toward it. I imagine the first singers of this spiritual breathlessly dancing, singing and testifying in the hush harbor or some other hidden space, determinedly negating the permanence of the present and articulating an emerging future. This is not to suggest that they were somehow anesthetized or numbed to the physical and psychic pain they endured. It is rather to remind us that, despite the dehumanizing conditions of their lives, those who first sang “Aint Gonna Study War No More,” and other Sorrow Songs, were animated by Hope.
Hope is an aspect of God’s animating presence within each of us. A personification of God’s Spirit assuring us of God’s presence, power and fidelity. Hope evokes yearning for wholeness and wellbeing and beckons us to lend our hands to God’s loving, just and restorative work in the world. We recognize Hope as a sensate experience and disposition of heart and mind to which we endeavor to give expression, a something-within that theologians, philosophers, religious practitioners, and everyday people try to make intelligible through our language, practice and artistic expression. Hope is a word spoken and an invitation given. It is the spiritual tug that we sense, the holy indignation that we feel, the righteous anger that compels us to speak, the dream of justice that confronts us as truth. The Spirit’s presence within reminds us that the Creator who spoke the celestial and terrestrial worlds into the existence, the One in whose image we are created, the Divine Sculptor and Giver of Life has already said ‘yes’ to the wholeness and wellbeing of human community and of all that God has created. Will we also say ‘yes’ and lend our hands to God’s restorative and redemptive work in our world today?’
We make God’s presence known when we say ‘yes’ to God’s ‘yes’ for creation and for our lives. This, I believe, is what it means to live with Hope, to live a life in which Hope flows from the inside out. My ancestral mothers and fathers demonstrated this inside out flow through their Sorrow Songs, each sister or brother reminding another and themselves of the liberating future toward which they lived, even in the most chaotic of times. Hope’s animating presence aided them in bridging the dissonance between the life of suffering that they endured and the warless future for which they yearned. They, in turn, made Hope’s presence known through their Sorrow Songs, echoing with their voices the always-speaking voice of God’s Spirit as an enduring testimony against violence, suffering, and oppression.
I stand in awe of their courage, ingenuity and ability to live with Hope as the horrors of slavery ravaged their lives. I marvel that they were able to dream generations unseen into existence, gifting us and the world with Sorrow Songs infused by Hope. I carry these gifts with me, and invite each of us to do the same, as a reminder that the animating presence of Hope is still calling us toward God’s best for our lives and for the world today.