My favorite a cappella group in college was Shades of Yale. The mission of Shades was to celebrate the music of the African diaspora and African American tradition. Whenever they had a concert, students of all backgrounds would flock to the Afro-American Cultural Center to hear their powerful vocals. Shades ended their performances with the song "We Shall Overcome." The rich harmony and lyrics always brought tears to my eyes. The music lifted me up out of the pressure of exams, insecurities, and fears about my future. It soothed my soul and led me to something transcendent.
"We Shall Overcome" struck my heart again recently. Friends, my husband, and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I walked through the exhibits, hearing echoes of the lyrics, "deep in my heart/ I do believe." The song continued in the background of my mind as I looked at pictures of the 1960's marches for racial equality. Arranged by a popular folk singer, Pete Seeger, the song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Though it was a response to the hatred of generations past, "We Shall Overcome" inevitably points to the hope that can be had in the face of spiritual oppression.
The song's supernatural undercurrent has roots in the African American hymn, "I'll Overcome Someday." Charles Tindley wrote and published this hymn in 1901. A son of a slave, Tindley grew up during the wake of the Civil War. After the war concluded, Tindley went to Philadelphia where he gained education informally and independently. Tindley became knowledgeable in Hebrew, Greek, and theology and qualified to enter ministry. The Methodist Episcopal Church ordained him, and he became a minister and gospel composer.
Tindley's "I'll Overcome Someday" is an anthem against the world and our own natures. It exalts the power of God's Word to fight "seen and unseen powers." It glorifies the saving work of Jesus to conquer human fallenness. The song highlights a burden we all face. This burden is sin: sin around us and sin within. Even through Pete Seeger's secular rendition, the Civil Rights Movement, and a college a capella group, the burden of our moral inability is exposed. And the soul wells up with a longing to overcome it.
Do we see our sin and the sin of the world as things to overcome? Or do we gloss over these problems? Songs like "We Shall Overcome" remind us that we are in a spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:12 says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens." Because sin and the kingdom of darkness have conquered humanity, there is a grave threat at hand. Left to ourselves, we commit wrong, disobeying God's command to love Him and others. Joining the world's rebellion, we stray away from God's presence and head toward destruction. We are unable to prevail over sin, but there is victory in Jesus.
Jesus came as light breaking through darkness. John 1:5 tells us that darkness had no hold on Jesus. He entered creation as God in the flesh. As Man, He lived perfectly and obeyed the Father's commands. He defended truth and spoke God's Word to evil. With His righteousness, Jesus went to the cross and died the criminal's death that we deserved. But through this punishment, He made the final payment for sin and broke its chains on us. In John 16:33, Jesus said, "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world." Jesus overcame so that we could overcome in Him.
Through our faith in Christ, we become more than conquers as Romans 8:37 declares. Sin and death are no longer threats. Our moral inability is covered in Christ's perfection. He enables us to live a life of worship and joy to the Father. When problems persist, we can face them with renewed hope.
At the foundation of the song "We Shall Overcome" is the truth of Jesus. Therefore, the music and lyrics ring true in their fullest essence when we identify that the real oppressor is sin and the real victor is Christ. Jesus is the object of our faith when we say, "deep in my heart/ I do believe." He is the foundation on which we sing.