Songs of the Cross: Were You There?

Darrell Buchanan, Gravelbourg Church of Christ, April 3, 2022

Most of us have sung one of Christianity’s most convicting songs — with its piercing questions — without knowing anything of its context or historical reflection.
  • This song, which is labelled as “Traditional” in our hymnal (Songs of Faith and Praise) comes from the pain and anguish of American slavery.
  • So, the question that it asks is about the suffering and death of Jesus but also goes back to those who first sang its evocative words: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
The series of questions that forms the basis of the song is obviously not meant to be taken literally.
  • Rather, the questions are meant to function as a form of anamnesis. (from the ancient Greek, to remember”).
But anamnesis is much more than simple mental recall of an event.
  • It suggests the remembering of things from a supposed previous existence or making present an object or person from the past.
  • Sometimes the term “re-actualization” has been used to indicate the force of anamnesis.
As with many slave melodies, the song presents a double, hidden message.
  • The hidden message that most miss is the song’s challenge to the institution of slavery, particularly to those owning and selling humans as property.
  • It asks: If you were there for this Jesus you preach about all the time, why do you enslave me?
This is a song that asks how one can stand at the cross yet live a lie? But many do so, and it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
  • The spiritual re-membered the suffering of Christ and re-actualized it to the suffering of the African American slaves, with its inherent promise of God’s presence and resurrection power.
“To remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.” (Miroslav Volf)
  • Memory calls us to work for a better future.
  • It forces us to stand in the world as Christians and do something to change it.
Where you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
  • Is your solidarity with Jesus and His cross or with those who put Him on the cross?
  • Do we, like the few women, stay and watch and look at what is hard to see – the evil, the hatred, and more that put Jesus on the cross?
Were you there?
The song invites us not to sing it without answering, refusing to let us forget what happened.
  • We may tremble as we sing it in gratitude to the Christ who died for every one who was lashed, starved, maimed, and dehumanized.
  • And in gratitude to the Christ who died for those still facing injustice, near and far, — waiting on us to respond.