A few years back, Caleb and I took a trip to see Christiane while she was living in East Africa. There was a lot about this trip to hold onto, but our visit to the UN Refugee Camp in Kakuma stands out. This was a first step into a world that I knew only from Hollywood and headlines but the real treat was finally connecting with people that Christiane had been talking about for years. The Mabaan are South Sudanese, but many of them have moved their families to refugee camps looking for more stability than they can expect to find back home.
We were able to cart along a box of books and the church held a service to celebrate receiving these materials (and us!). It was a great day but what I want to point to is a vivid memory of a song by the youth choir. A key refrain was: “Satan go away, Jesus come to me.” The choir does not do short songs and as I heard this line again and again it struck me that this not a theme I really sing.
Growing up in Sunday School we had a few songs that fell somewhere along these lines. When we pledged to let our little light shine, we said that we would “not let Satan blow it out.” I also remember singing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” (bonus points for everyone who just involuntarily said “where?”) and one of the verses chimed: “If the devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack.” There is a camp song with the words: “Dig a hole and put the devil in.” This last one feels closest to the immediacy of “Satan go away…” but I also remember that our ‘devil’ songs were shut down sometimes by leaders who felt like they weren’t quite the thing.
In Mabaan this is not kid stuff. Take a look a page from the Mabaan songbook. Christiane has given it a pretty strict, word-for-word translation so that we can get a good sense of the content:
I was gripped by spirits and sin My heart felt really terrible I heard Jesus Christ calling The words grabbed hold of my heart
I heard Jesus and I came His blood is sufficient for me My sin was taken by Him to the cross My heart is happy because of Jesus
And now I am finished with sin I am truly released I stay in peace with Jesus He is in my heart
When spirits keep coming to me I run to Jesus Jesus' wrath is great towards spirits So quickly, the spirits run away
Some of this has a familiar ring, but the distinct bits should stand out immediately. Jesus’ wrath is great towards spirits? We barely sing about Satan and we really don’t sing about spirits. The closest thing in my mind is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Here we have Satan our ancient foe whose “craft and power are great.” We sing that the world is “with devils filled” and that it “threatens to undo us.” But we have to admit that this anthem of God’s truth and kingdom abiding still is a German import from the Late Middle Ages. I am not in touch with a great deal of new church music, but while I’m sure there are exceptions to my point, I also expect that they are just that: exceptions.
The Mabaan are singing along with Paul in a way that we are not. As they gather this Sunday in Gasmalla, Doro, and Jamam they are in some ways closer to what Paul’s churches sang than we are. If you’re not sure about that, take a look at Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae.
Colossians 1:15-20 is recognized to be an early Christian hymn (your printed Bible might even indicate the poetic frame by setting the lines off from one another):
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth on in heave, making peace by the blood of his cross. (RSV)
Did you catch the part that resonates through the Mabaan song? Paul’s church sang that Jesus is the creator of all things visible and invisible. This ancient Christian song celebrates Christ as the maker of thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities. When I hear that Jesus is the creator of “all things” I tend to go to a pretty specific place. And that place tends to be narrated by David Attenborough. I think about wonders in what we would call the natural world. I picture vast, deep blue oceans and cavernous rainforest canopies teeming with wonderful creatures. I see Rocky Mountain sunrises, but Paul and the Mabaan see spirits.
Michael Bird suggests that the four categories of beings listed in Colossians 1:16 “most likely refer to hostile angelic powers associated with the bondage of the present age that hold parts of the world in the sway of their dark grip.” These beings were a particular concern of the Colossian church. The Mabaan song is even more a reflection of the later statement that, in Jesus, God “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (2:15). Jesus’ wrath is great toward spirits / So quickly, the spirits run away.
A Gap in our Theology
A good first step is to recognize that we have a gap in our sung theology which the Mabaan help us to fill in. But we must go beyond that. If we recognize that our songs are a reflection of our actual living faith, then the gap immediately becomes more ominous.
When I read that Jesus is the creator of all spirits it is a bit like an electric blanket. I can see that it would be nice given the right circumstance, but it is not strictly necessary. For the Mabaan, this truth is more like a screwdriver in an electric socket. They are facing spirits and they need to know who these beings will bow to.
It doesn’t move me that that Jesus created all spirits because I just don’t see them as an issue, let alone as a threat. But the Mabaan do. And in that feeling they are in tune with the church at Colossae, with Paul, and with the whole of the New Testament in a way that I am not.
Does it bother you that we are not singing the full gospel? Take a look again at the song from Colossians. It is pretty sparse. These lines are about pulling together the essentials and so these statements about spirits are keeping some pretty heady company. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, first-born of all creation, before all things, holding together all things, head of the church, first-born from the dead, in all things pre-eminent, in Him the fulness of God dwells, through him all things are reconciled…and the creator of all spirits. There is no fat here to trim away. Attributing the creation of all spirits to Jesus belongs at the heart of what Christians believe.
An immediate benefit of singing as a Global Church is that it puts pressure on our blind spots. We have a lot to gain by listening to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World. I cannot tell you exactly what the music sounded like in Colossae when Paul was there, but I am quite confident that he would happily sing along today in South Sudan. Would we?
 Colossians and Philemon, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009), 54.