A few years back, I went into a deep internet dive on Kanye West. A video of him in TMZ’s studio had just gone viral after he got into a verbal altercation with an employee. Twitter and various tabloid-like websites taught me that Kanye had these types of interactions regularly. There were ranting videos, humorous memes, and witty twitter lines. And I was HOOKED. Next thing I knew, it was 3am and I was still reading articles about this guy. It was not my proudest moment.
I had a similar binge this week on the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” This content consumption was slightly less embarrassing because I was supposed to look into the song for a work project. Yet I was still stunned to find myself engulfed in the topic at 1am. The internet is a crazy place.
The lyrics to the popular children’s hymn go like this:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
RED! and YELLOW! What?
Hearing that song now, my skin crawls. The words we sang without hesitation as kids are so blatantly racial slurs. How have we been singing this song for so long?
On my internet dive, I found that the use of color terminology for race has a long-standing history in rabbinic literature often referencing the descendants of Noah in their categorization of race. In the late 18th century, the Gottingen School of History coined the five colored races (Red, Yellow, Black, White, and Brown) based on this biblical terminology.
It is no secret that there is a huge race problem in the Church. Many people speak out about churches being segregated but do not know their own history. They don’t know that the Southern Baptist Convention was started to uphold slavery and white supremacy. They don’t know that evangelical Christians have used the story of Noah’s descendants to oppress people of color, particularly black people. Racism is deeply embedded into the Christian culture but we aren’t learning that inside of the church walls. So the divide between Christians and the rest of the world grows.
State supreme court justice Roy Moore used the terms white and black, red and yellow to refer to the racial divide in America and it sparked a huge controversy. For obvious reasons, non-Christians were appalled by his use of these slurs!
Evangelical Christians, however, spoke out in support of the old song that they grew up with. They focused on the intent of the song, arguing that the words were acceptable because they referenced a song meant to encourage racial inclusion. Others cared more about the modern day significance of using racial slurs, arguing that the intent behind the song was irrelevant.
Words are so important, especially in the church. Every sermon preached or song sung is shaping the theology of the ones hearing it. As kids sing along to old hymns, they are forming an understanding of God. As they see their mentors speak to others, they are forming an understanding of Christian behavior.
As white Christians, it is easy to shrug this off as political correctness but if we’re being honest, its actually pretty easy to change the lyrics too.
There’s that old saying about the chicken and the egg. No one knows which came first. I hope that doesn’t prove to be true about our theology. I hope good theology and thoughtful scripture interpretation shape all the things we do. For when we do things with love of God and love of neighbor, we won’t question for a second whether we should change racist song lyrics. Our theology will answer that question for us.