I saw the Oscar-nominated movie Selma during opening weekend in my town, back at the beginning of January. I was deeply moved by David Oyelowo’s performance as Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. The film captured the cultural tension and the attitude of the continued battle for civil rights and distilled it down into one story about one particular campaign in Selma, Alabama.
The part of the movie that managed to reach out and touch most of mainstream culture, however, was a part that doesn’t even appear until the end credits – the song “Glory” by singer John Legend and the rapper Common. The song has won several awards, including a Golden Globe and the Oscar for best original song.
I heard the song at the screening of Selma I attended. I heard about the song numerous times over the next two months, but didn’t sit down to actually consider it until the Oscars ceremony last Sunday night. And I’ve not been able to get it out of my head, and for good reason – but maybe not reasons many people would pinpoint.
Lyrically, “Glory” is a worship song. It is a psalm of lament, a psalm of victory, an African spiritual, and a call to arms all in one. It is a theological heavyweight, challenging the positioning and the crowning of glory as something that is part of the already and not yet kingdom. It’s is possibly one of the most Christian songs in existence right now. And I guarantee you it’s not getting played on popular Christian radio, in part because it’s performed by two black men speaking about another black man.
Much of the song is, quite literally, about the Martin Luther King, Jr. But it is also a song in which King’s life functions as a Christ figure to explain the liberating force of glory and grace and passion. When Common says, “One son died, his spirit is revistin’ us,” he isn’t just talking about the civil rights leader who was murdered in the early evening on the balcony of a hotel in 1968. This imagery and conflation becomes much more explicit when, later on, Common declares “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory.”
Many white, conservative Christian critics would likely object to this metaphorical association of Dr. King as a Jesus figure. To many in still conservative denominations, the history of the white American church affects the reading of Dr. King’s life and death. In truth, of the white leaders in the church today, either they themselves or their forebears stood against King. It is still hard, nearly 50 years after his assassination, for many to understand and respect King not only as a great proponent of civil rights, but as a black man who specifically centered the black experience in his approach to the Lord.
King wasn’t some kind puppet who shouted nice aphorisms like “I have a dream!” when someone pulled his cord. He was a man hated by many, a non-violent protestor who took abuse and beatings, and who spent much of his adult life facing crowds of people screaming for his head.
And he spoke of the glory to come, of actively bringing the justice of the Lord to the streets of America. He was motivated, in his essence, not by white orthodoxy but by the idea of a liberating Jesus who identifies with the oppressed in their struggles, who calls on the black man to stand for justice and for the white man to put down their arms and to stand in solidarity.
Many theologians clinging to their white forefathers and their orthodoxies will surely reject the King as Christ figure because he was imperfect. He cheated on his wife, numerous times. White people never stopped reminding others of that when King’s more challenging theological views are brought to bear. True, King is not a man we should worship as a God – no man but one is.
But the stories we tell and the lives that we live can point to Christ, and this is where “Glory”-as-hymn comes into play. The stories we live out can challenge others to see God in different lights, to look at the ways in which God acts for the oppressed, pulling victory into the daylight, step by step as we march on.
White people in the church are terrified of centering blackness, because it challenges their notions of what the Kingdom of Glory looks like. The Kingdom is not some fluffy cloud-like land where we all play harps and walk around in white robes. The Kingdom is a reign of radical justice, where the black man may speak without fear of retribution from his white sister, where black women may walk down the street without fear of harassment from her white brother, where trans women of color can co-exist with their cis brethren without fear of attack.
That Kingdom is not yet here – the war is not over, victory is not won – but we can still cry glory for those days that will come.