Singing With the Damned

This week I had a conversation about the hymn "I'll Fly Away." My conversation partner, a progressive/liberal Christian, was expressing disdain for the song.

Given their concerns about social justice in this world, "I'll Fly Away" is routinely criticized by progressive Christians as being other-worldly and escapist. And it's easy to see why when you look at the first verse and the chorus:
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away.

To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away;
when I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away.
I understand the criticism progressive Christians level against these lyrics. As I've written about before on this blog, where in "I'll Fly Away" is the whole "may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Where is the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth in Revelation 21-22?

It does seem like "I'll Fly Away" is pointing us away from this world in anticipation of the next. The song suggests that the goal and aim of the Christian life is to "fly away" from this world to the next.

But as I've written about before, here's the interesting thing...

Each week out at the prison I sing hymns with the inmates. And "I'll Fly Away" is one of their favorite songs. And it's not all that hard to see why. From the second verse:
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away.
I think it's obvious why the inmates like this song.

Sung on the inside of a prison--sung by the damned--"I'll Fly Away" is a song longing for release. Sung by the damned "I'll Fly Away" is an anthem of liberation.

Songs, like theology, depend on social location. Some theology in some locations is obscene. Like the prosperity gospel in rich American suburbs. But the prosperity gospel in the third world? Maybe not so bad. Penal substitutionary atonement for children? Not a good idea. But for murderers? Maybe not so bad.

Same for song lyrics. From the outside, on the outside of a prison, yes, "I'll Fly Away" seems escapist. But on the inside of a prison "I'll Fly Away" is an expression of liberation theology.

When you're singing with the damned "I'll Fly Away" becomes a song of resistance.

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