There Is a Balm in Gilead
Reflection by Corinne Baker
Scripture reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
As we’ve just read, the title phrase in this African American spiritual comes from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8: 22), from Jeremiah’s grieving the destruction of Jerusalem that is to come.
I love the last sentence in the intro to the scripture passage that Pastor Jen wrote:
He experiences what is called “divine suffering” – meaning that his grief is also God’s grief.
Because we know that a slave’s life was filled with suffering and that spirituals were born of this suffering. And in the spiritual, slaves found a comfort they could cling to – a balm, a spiritual medicine – in Jesus Christ, in his selfless sacrifice, in the gospel and the Holy Spirit. And isn’t that the essence of what we as Christians believe? That God sent his only son to know us, to be with us and like us in human form, and yet still sacrifice himself for us.
I was drawn to reflecting on this particular spiritual based on the healing or comforting nature of the title. I was hoping it would help me understand or at least think through something I continue to find odd, amazing, maybe even uncomfortable.
Has anyone seen the movie, 12 Years a Slave?
There were so many moments of disbelief and horror for me in this movie, scene after scene after scene depicting in more clarity than I’d ever painted in my mind’s eye, the incredible cruelty and torment humans can inflict on other humans.
And amidst the scenes of violence, some of which I couldn’t watch, there was another scene of revulsion for me. The scene was of the white slave owner and his family and his slaves at an outdoor worship service on the plantation. Reading the Bible aloud, completely oblivious to the hypocrisy, the sin. I’ve never seen Christian worship as I know it look evil, but this looked evil to me.
So the question I’ve turned over in my mind for a long time now, even before seeing 12 Years a Slave, tho that certainly crystalized it for me is:
How did slaves come to have faith in and find comfort in, receive a balm from the god of their oppressors?
I found several passages in my research that speak to this that I’d simply like to read.
First from Pamela Crosby, a freelance writer and producer and the executive director of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Nashville, Tenn:
The slave’s acceptance of Christianity, while experiencing the conflicting behavior of slave owners, is a testament to the power of the gospel. Often slaves believed that the salvation and new life of which they learned when “worshipping” with their owners would happen not on earth, but, rather, when they went to heaven. While many slaves understood God’s promises were meant for all people while on earth, they also knew they could not openly pray for deliverance and equality.
Imagine hearing of a God who loves and cares for all, who provides for needs and urges God’s children to ask for their needs, but all the while being afraid to request openly for fear of beating or death.
Imagine that—hearing of a God who loves and cares for all, who provides for needs and urges God’s children to ask for their needs, but all the while being afraid to request openly for fear of beating or death.
In their songs, the slaves named issues and fears they could not express publicly. Meeting in the woods or arbors, out of the sight and hearing of slave owners and overseers, the slaves were free to worship and praise, to express their true feelings and to offer unbridled prayers and requests to God. They could lay their burdens down and find strength to face another day.
As he grieved over the sin of the Israelites who had turned their backs on God, the prophet Jeremiah posed the question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” In their new religion, enslaved Africans found the answer in Jesus Christ. (1)
This passage, again from Pamela Crosby, weaves together the slave’s origin, the land and customs they were torn from, with the astounding power of our God, to reach into hearts filled with such fear and despair and plant seeds of faith and hope that continue to astound, amaze and inspire me to this day:
African-American spirituals emerged from a mix of the brutal institution of slavery, Christian influences and African culture. The songs expressed a yearning for a better life, claimed identification with the children of Israel, named the slave owner’s deceit and hypocrisy, underscored the need for a closer walk with God, identified the reality of Satan and emphasized the slave’s hope for freedom and the future. Love, grace, mercy, judgment, death and eternal life are among the themes enfolded in these songs. (1)
And this passage from Connie Ruth Christiansen:
The melodies and rhythm sound of Africa. The words tell of hope mingled with despair, with faith in the midst of great trial, and strength to rise up against all odds. The haunting beauty of the Negro Spiritual stays with us as a reminder of people who suffered a terrible injustice, and of a God who is bigger than the greatest human plight. (2)
(1) Part of History, African-American Spirituals Still Heal by Pamela Crosby, a freelance writer and producer and the executive director of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Nashville, Tenn:
(2) There is a Balm in Gilead, the Song and the Story by Connie Ruth Christiansen: