After the first reading from the Hebrew Bible, the congregation at my church always listens and responds to a Psalm. On Palm Sunday, it is always Psalm 22, all about how badly other people are treating Jesus. It’s a powerful account that always moves me because we have a special male cantor who really helps us feel Jesus’ pain. That person has always been white, but this Sunday, the young black man in our choir (who is also in training to be a choir director and has a beautiful voice) stepped up into the pulpit to be the cantor.
Here’s some of what he sang in a heavily minor key: “All who see me deride me, they curl their lips, they toss their heads… Many dogs have surrounded me, a wicked band besets me. They tear holes in my hands and feet and lay me in the dust of death. I can count all my bones…. They divide my clothes among them. They cast lots for my robe.” The refrain which we all sing at the end of each of the canted verses is “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”
As the black man with the powerful and poignant voice delivered this psalm, I thought I might not be able to stay in my pew because the words from so very long ago suddenly felt like what current black men, often innocent themselves just as Jesus is, might say before they are scorned, assaulted, and quite possibly even killed. I flashed to Ta Nahisi Coates’ memoir for his and his wife’s son, Between the World and Me, in which he keeps emphasizing the centrality of the human body for black people who realize they may lose theirs before the end of any day or week. Suddenly time and place fell away and I understood more acutely than at any point in my long life just how frightened and sad and betrayed Jesus must have felt at this moment in his journey.
Who knows what prompted our marvelous choir director to tap the black man to give us this painful picture, but what her doing so has reinforced for me is this: It is not just WHAT is being said/sung/acted/drawn/danced/proclaimed/advertised/argued in court or legislative halls. WHO performs art or politics or justice or anything else in any culture at any moment clearly matters in major ways.