I’m standing in the big house at a plantation in Nashville. It’s an impressive structure. Big white pillars. A long, wide porch is dotted with wooden rocking chairs—all of them filled now with tourists like us, people waiting for a tour guide to walk them around the grounds and recount the day-to-day life of a slaveholding family’s massive operation—all 5,400 acres run by 136 enslaved Black men, women, and children.
Still, inside the grand house, a tourist’s hand goes up and a wearying question gets asked. “But weren’t some slave owners good?” The room grows quiet. I pull my little grandchildren closer. But the tourist persists: “Didn’t they take good care of their slaves? After all, they’d invested in them.”
I’ve heard such questions before—perhaps we all have. Still, I stifle a groan. To feel better perhaps, some still yield to the common impulse to look away from horror, to sanitize history. To diminish the reality of evil.
But were you there?
This year, Passion Week will likely find our same tone-deaf singing of one of Christianity’s most boldly convicting songs. Most of us may sing it—with its piercing questions—without a lick of context or historical reflection. Sadly, some may sing, too, without deep pondering of the visceral realities of the Cross.
Yet it’s at the Cross, when we dare to look, that we see Jesus most needing us to be fully there. Except for his mother, Mary, and a few other faithful, stalwart women—who stayed during his entire ordeal—Christ comes to history’s most pivotal moment joined only by mocking Roman soldiers and two convicted thieves.
Just days before, he was hailed by “a very large crowd” who spread their cloaks on the road or cut palm branches from trees and laid them before him, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:8–9). But at his crucifixion, Jesus would face its cruelty as a reviled outcast, with even his disciples fleeing.
What irony then, that to recall his passion and suffering, we blithely sing a song born from slavery’s most disgusting pains, so often forgetting what it deeply asks—both about Jesus and the first singers of the song—when it whispers, “Were you there? ”
It’s a profound question, one easily sidestepped because of the song’s haunting, awful beauty. As a child, in my humble Black church, we leaned into its minor chords with our actual bodies—folks throwing back their heads, groaning out the song’s pleading Ohs.
It didn’t have to be Good Friday or even close to Easter. After a rousing sermon or maybe during the altar call, a determined preacher—or some man or woman just sitting on a church pew—might stand up and start to sing. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
As a child, I heard the question but didn’t understand what it was asking. Nobody unpacked the inquiry, not even in my Black church. As with so many of us, I just loved the music. At some point in my childhood, I realized it was Negro music—and, thus, to me, a little Black girl growing up during the draining insults of Jim Crow, the music meant something important, even if I didn’t try to articulate what or why.
By then, at age 12, I’d given my life to Christ, heard Black preaching every Sunday of my life, celebrated a dozen Easters, heard the Seven Last Words sermonized the same number of times, taken part in Easter plays, stood under rude wooden crosses in fellowship halls portraying one of the women at the cross.
But was I there when they crucified him? Understanding all that his sacrifice meant? Let alone appreciating all that the iconic Negro spiritual song, with its repeated refrain of questions, means to any believer?
What it asks should convict, indeed, the deepest recesses of our souls.
The Double Message
As with many slave melodies, the song presents a double, hidden message—in this case, a brash challenge to the institution of slavery, particularly to those owning and selling humans as property. Therefore, it asks: If you were there for this Jesus you preach about all the livelong day, why do you chain me up? Whip and rape my sister, mother, and daughter? Rip apart my family? Work me without mercy? Feed me dregs? Insist that I’m a brute and inhuman? Refuse me the right to read, write, and study? Live in your fine home with carpets and rugs but house me in a shack with a dirt floor? Then demand I sing about the Savior you claim to love?
If you can’t answer, is it because you were not there? When they crucified “my” Lord?
It brings chills, indeed, to consider the hypocrisy that the song confronts. Thus, it’s not so different than what Christ himself told the hypocrites of his day. In fact, the lie that you live, as Jesus told teachers of the law, is so abhorrent, says this song, it causes me to tremble.
Thus, there’s no place to sit in comfort when singing this song. No matter our views on injustice or other sources of sorrow, the song offers no respite. It’s about suffering. And for most, our relationship with suffering may be half-hearted and tentative. Suffer like Christ? Do any of us deliberately choose such pain?
Choosing to Remember
For answers, I can read scholars who’ve developed the theological insight, wisdom, and guts to enter the reality of both Christ’s crucifixion and this song we choose to celebrate it. Theologian David Bjorlin, a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, writes precisely and bravely about the anamnesis of “Were You There”—pointing to the Greek word meaning “to remember”—challenging those who sing the song to “re-member the past to the present, to bring these historic events to bear on the now and make them part of our story.”
But instead of remembering, some push back. We live in a world ruled not by anamnesis but by a deliberate amnesia. Efforts across history to ignore the past, to bury racial history, to even outlaw the speaking or teaching of it, still ignite the sad support of fearful, denying hearts.
Seeing these developments gives fresh urgency to the Lord’s Upper Room command not to turn from pain but to remember it—by remembering him, celebrating what his passion, suffering, and death daily gives to us. Thus, after he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, he said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
In a similar way, the song “Were You There,” as Bjorlin puts it, “is meant to bring the past events of Christ’s suffering and death into the present and transform us in its light.” Otherwise, we too easily forget. Likewise, we’d rather not hear poet Langston Hughes’s own withering question—because a Black life may be filled with laughter and “deep with song,” do we not think that soul hasn’t suffered after holding pain “so long”?
Or maybe we’d rather not think at all about suffering, neither Christ’s nor the slaves’ who sang spiritual laments. Across the years, the song’s lyrics have been tweaked, seemingly to fit certain racial sensibilities. Thus, some churches sing, “Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?” Others, more boldly, sing: “Where you there when they nailed him to the tree?” An undeniable reference to lynching, that lyric seems to signal exactly how a singer interprets this song that arose from slavery’s communal horror and burden. Those words suggest a solace or connection with Jesus’ suffering, as well, and how it brings mysterious comfort to believers in our own suffering.
Still, were some slave owners “good”? To those still asking the question—still looking for individual exceptions to an institutionalized system—Frederick Douglass spared no discomfort describing the “flesh-jobbers” of his day, driving their victims by the dozens, chained, usually in the darkness of night, wailing from their “bleeding footsteps,” beaten bodies, and torn family ties.
But were you there? The song invites us not to sing it without answering, refusing to let us forget what happened, and what still goes on in sorrowing places. Thus, may we tremble as we sing it—in gratitude to the Christ who died for every one of those lashed, starved, maimed, and dehumanized, and for those still facing injustice, near and far, waiting on us to respond.
But were you there? Was I? If not, our lowly Lord’s passion requires that we understand this: He died for us all.
Patricia Raybon is a writer who explores the intersection of faith and race. Her books include the recent mystery novel All That Is Secret and her nonfiction work My First White Friend.
This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.
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