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Singing “Lord of the Dance?”: Reflections on Anti- Semitism and Loving One Another

An old controversy among Friends resurfaced this summer on the online Quaker Outreach Forum on Yahoo Groups. One member posted a message saying that while the popular songbook Rise Up Singing is not a Quaker hymnal, it is a great tool for sharing core elements of Quaker faith and practice with others. Free Polazzo wrote in to agree, but shared a concern about the negative impact of singing Sydney Carter’s "Lord of the Dance," a song included in both Rise Up Singing and the Friends General Conference Quaker hymnal Worship in Song. Free explained that a number of Jewish Friends believe that this song’s lyrics reinforce the historic blood libel against the Jewish people as "Christ killers." These Friends thus want to see the song removed from both songbooks—or, at the very least, have the two songbooks publish alternative verses for people to sing at Quaker gatherings.

Free was not confident that Gentile Friends would seriously consider this concern. As he wrote to the 70-member Jewish Friends listserv (http://groups.google.com/group/jewishfriends/) later that day: "I was moved to try and explain (one more time) what had happened to our request to remove ‘Lord of the Dance’ from Rise Up Singing and FGC’s Quaker hymnal." Free also said, "I hope I don’t get slammed too badly. Some of the old wounds are not yet fully healed." These "old wounds" refer to the experience of several Jewish Friends at having this concern downplayed, belittled, or denied by many Gentile Friends in the mid-1990s—including in letters to the editor of Friends Journal. In the May 1997 issue, for example, one letter writer went so far as to characterize this concern as "ludicrous," "paranoid," and "unjustifiable."

Several of the responses to Free on the Quaker Outreach Forum repeated this pattern. Most of those who responded denied that there was any legitimacy to Free’s concern. These writers claimed that the phrase "the holy people," which the song’s third verse says "stripped" and "whipped" Jesus, and then left him "on a cross to die," could not possibly mean "the Jews." They even called Free’s concern an effort at censorship and a thoughtless insensitivity to the majority of Quakers who love this song. One writer called Free "insulting" and "unquakerly" for raising this concern and argued that he belonged to a people "predisposed to seeing their pet peeve in many potential settings."

These claims were made even though Sydney Carter often said his 1963 lyrics for "Lord of the Dance" were inspired by his extensive study of traditional English carols—and the most popular English carol that portrayed Jesus singing about his life in the first person was "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day." That song unquestionably included the anti-Semitic "Christ-killer" libel against "the Jews." Carter’s lyrics in his third verse are more graphic and violent, but they closely echo the eighth verse of the earlier carol, which goes:

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at naught,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

Light Breaking Through

Free’s concern was heard by some Gentile Friends, however. One of the Forum participants was Steve Chase, a Quaker who has long sought to be a faithful friend and follower of Jesus. Steve was troubled by the hostility directed at Free and felt that the responses fell far short of Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbors. Steve also wondered about the validity of Free’s concern, something he had never thought about before.

This question intensified for Steve a few weeks later when he attended a Labor Day weekend retreat of Christian Friends at Powell House in New York State. One night, after extended worship, copies of Rise Up Singing and the Quaker hymnal Worship in Song were passed out and the group began singing together joyfully. Someone eventually suggested the group sing "Lord of the Dance." Steve quickly flipped to the lyrics and read them for himself. Seeing the printed lyrics in front of him, he now agreed with Free about the song.

Steve, however, also remembered the harsh responses when Free raised this concern online, and he sat silently as the rest of the group sang. Troubled by his fearful silence, Steve spent the entire song praying about what to do. After the group finished, he chose to voice his concern and was listened to with kindness and grace. He walked people through the words of the third verse, explained the implications of it, and answered questions. He also listened to people’s responses, and then questioned whether members of the group would be acting faithfully if any of them ever sang this song again—at least as long as it included the lyrics blaming "the holy people" of Palestine for the murder of Jesus.

[Note: Here is the full text of the third verse of "Lord of the Dance": "I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame; the holy people said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high, and they left me there on a cross to die." —Eds.]

While everyone listened to him with respect, not all the Friends at the retreat agreed with Steve. One woman spoke to him the next day and said she believed the Jews had killed Jesus and there was nothing wrong with the song saying so. She pointed out how it was reported in the Gospel of John that a crowd of Jewish priests and common people had called for Barabbas to be spared instead of Jesus. Focusing their wrath on Jesus, the Jewish crowd reportedly chanted to Pilate: "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" As this story goes, Pilate, the imperial occupation commander for Rome, reluctantly acquiesced to the Jewish crowd’s bloodthirsty demands and let them take Jesus away and crucify him. Another Friend, in contrast, said the song’s lyrics could not mean "the Jews" killed Jesus because a footnote on page 115 in Worship in Song said that the line about "the holy people" referred, according to this Friend, "to the authorities responsible for the crucifixion, mainly the Romans."

[Note: The footnote referred to here, which appeared in the first printing of Worship in Song, June 1996, and is still widely present in meetinghouses today, was altered in a second printing, June 1997, still being sold. In the latter, the footnote is removed and a historical note, on p. 368, rewritten to remove the interpretation that "the holy people" meant the Romans. The new version acknowledges that the third verse "has been a source of pain" for some "since it seems to reiterate the old church teaching that the Jews killed Jesus. The author, Sydney Carter, writes that this was not his intent." —Eds.]

Most of the retreat participants spoke in unity with the concern, however. Perhaps the Friend who spoke the most powerfully was Peter Blood-Patterson, the co-editor of Rise Up Singing. Peter shared that he had become increasingly troubled by the lyrics of the song over the years and said, "I believe that the verse in question is in fact misleading at best and anti-Semitic at worst." He also questioned the footnote in Worship in Song, because the song lyrics actually makes no mention of the Romans and he felt it was impossible that Carter would call the Roman occupiers of Palestine "the holy people." Peter also agreed with the modern biblical historians and Christian theologians who explain that the Gospel of John was written at a time of growing hostility towards Jews among some segments in the early Jesus movement—and at a time when some Christians were actually trying to placate the Roman Empire for fear of continued repression.

Peter also thanked the retreat for having this dialogue and said it had solidified his own desire to take corrective action the next time Rise Up Singing is revised and reprinted. He noted that the publishers of the songbook were willing for him to "insert alternative lyrics in parentheses and italics when we find some existing lyrics objectionable," as long as he "included the original lyrics as written as well." Peter said that he would rather do this than drop the song completely, as this "provides an opportunity for some reflection on why some would want to sing a given line differently than the original!"

Peter later asked for a letter he wrote about his changing perspective to be shared with the Quaker Outreach Forum and the Jewish Friends listserv. When the members of the Jewish Friends listserv first heard news of the discussion about "Lord of the Dance" that emerged at the Christian Quaker retreat at Powell House—and especially Peter Blood-Patterson’s response—the ripple effects were immediate and intense. Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta wrote about how moved she was, given that when she was at Pendle Hill for the spring 1994 term, she and other students went to a sing-along at the home of Peter and Annie Blood-Patterson, and she had "walked out when they started singing ‘Lord of the Dance.’" Free Polazzo also shared his feelings:

I am crying tears of joy and relief and thanks as I write to you. We have labored so faithfully these many years and shared our pain about how the original verses of "Lord of the Dance" perpetuates a many-thousand-year-old lie about the Jewish people being collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. What a wonderful gift we have all received for Labor Day 2009 to be told that our message has finally been heard by those in our beloved Religious Society of Friends who can perhaps make the changes we have been praying and asking for.

Joy Weaver agreed, but added, "I still find offense in the fact that the song remains unchanged and even defended in Friends General Conference’s own hymnal. There is still work to do." She went on to argue that the tenor of the disclaimer in the first printing of the hymnal, both on page 115 and in the note on page 368, is perhaps as offensive as the lyrics of the song—as it suggests, she wrote, "that anyone who sees the conventional Christ-killer charge against Jews in the lyrics of the song is wrong and should just get over it."

Back to the Future?

Among the participants of the Jewish Friends listserv who discussed this breakthrough were 14 Friends who 12 years earlier had sent a jointly written statement on this issue to Friends General Conference’s Central Committee and then published it in the May 1997 issue of Old Foundations, a Quaker newsletter that eventually evolved into the Jewish Friends online listserv. These Friends included members of seven yearly meetings in the United States and a member of Canadian Yearly Meeting. They also included a Holocaust survivor and many others who had personally experienced both verbal and physical abuse because of being labeled "Christ-killers" by their Christian neighbors—something that is not uncommon for Jews in general or for Jewish Friends. As Ahavia Lavana recently explained on the Jewish Friends listserv, "Having been hit with a Bible by my teacher when I was in third grade—as she told my classmates that the Jews killed Christ—I have always had a bad feeling listening to this song." Based on personal experiences like this, the 1997 statement’s co-authors noted that what was most important was not Sydney Carter’s intent in writing the lyrics, but the song’s actual impact on Jews. As their statement put it:

Just as we should not visit blame for past Christian anti-Semitism on today’s Christians, we must equally avoid visiting blame on the Jewish people for an act committed by Rome 2,000 years ago. The "Christ-killer" label has caused immense pain and suffering to Jews over too many years for Friends to accept these words simply because they enjoy singing a catchy tune.

These Friends were not alone in their concern. As noted in their statement, San Jose (Calif.) Meeting discussed the concern and decided to print up labels to be glued onto the "Lord of the Dance" page in all of their FGC Quaker hymnals. The labels posed two questions: "By singing this song, do we validate an anti-Semitic sentiment? Why have some people felt hurt by this song?"

Two years later, in 1999, New England Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Prejudice and Poverty approved an even stronger minute in support of these Friends’ concern. In that minute, the New England Yearly Meeting committee declared:

We do not believe that anti-Semitism was Sydney Carter’s intention in writing these words, nor that this is the intention of the hymnal committee or Friends who sing "Lord of the Dance" today. However, we are concerned that Friends do not adequately appreciate the damage, pain, and force that the words of this song can carry for people of Jewish heritage. The conception that ancient Jews killed Jesus has led to the Christian domination, persecution, and genocide of Jews throughout history. Indeed, this mindset was manipulated by the Nazis to fuel the Holocaust. To this day Jewish children are still taunted and sometimes beaten by Christian children for being "Christ-killers."

There is certainly truth in what this committee said about Hitler’s use of the Gospel account attributed to the apostle John. This Gospel downplays the role of the imperial Roman occupation authorities in the crucifixion of Jesus and—in most translations—repeatedly blames "the Jews" collectively. This is why Hitler encouraged German Gentiles to watch traditional Passion Plays based on the Gospel of John, like the one performed every ten years at Oberammergau. As Hitler said on July 5, 1942, "It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans" (quoted by Noam E. Marans in "Make Sure Oberammergau’s Passion Won’t Inflame," Jewish Daily Forward, Dec. 11, 2009). Indeed, the traditional interpretation of the Passion of Jesus, which projects collective guilt onto "the Jews" instead of the imperial Roman authorities, was seen by Hitler as one of the best ways to encourage hatred, oppression, and violence against the Jews in Germany and Europe.

This painful history is well known to most Jews, but much less widely known among Gentiles, except the few who have studied modern biblical scholarship about who killed Jesus and the centuries- long history of Christian anti- Semitism. It is important to note that this painful history includes several hostile references in the writings of George Fox about "the Jewes" as the killers of Christ. Fox even called his Puritan enemies "Jewes" as a way to discredit them (see Clay Javier Boggs, "’The Jews’ and ‘the Pharisees’ in Early Quaker Polemic," Quaker History, Fall 2008).

The core conviction of all these concerned Quakers is that regardless of the conscious intent of the lyrics of the song, Gentile Quakers need to come to understand, and take full responsibility for, the impact of their words among Jews, including Jewish Friends. This responsibility today includes rethinking the faithfulness of singing a beloved song about the "Lord of the Dance," given that it projects blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on "the holy people" of first-century Palestine. The reality is that the only people in Palestine who used crucifixion as a method of execution were the imperial Roman occupation authorities.

Moving On to Real Healing

We do not believe that it is censorship when Quaker songbook editors choose not to include songs that glorify war, romanticize slavery, or reinforce patriarchy. We do not believe it is censorship when individual Friends—or our monthly, quarterly, or yearly meetings—refuse to sing such oppressive songs together. Instead, we believe that all these actions are examples of faithfully discerning how to embody God’s love and justice within our spiritual communities and our world.

We now ask that all Friends apply this same spirit of discernment and love of justice to the question of whether it is faithful to sing or promote the hurtful lyrics of "Lord of the Dance," given that they repeat the ancient and cruel lie about "the Jews" being "Christ-killers." We believe that refusing to sing and promote this song as individual Friends, or in monthly meetings, yearly meetings, or in Friends General Conference, is one small but very important way for all of us to keep faith with our longstanding Quaker testimonies on Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.

Steve Chase is a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting and serves on Friends General Conference’s national Quaker Quest Traveling Team.
Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta is a member of Vancouver (B.C.) Meeting and the Ahavat Olam synagogue. She is an associate member (for Israel/ Palestine concerns) of Canadian Friends Service Committee.
Janet Minshall is a member and former clerk of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and has served as co-editor of Friendly Woman magazine.
Free Polazzo is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, has served as assistant and recording clerk for Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association, and is currently serving on its Faith and Practice Revision and Outreach committees. He was born in Naples, Italy before the end of World War II and was raised as a Jew.
Joy Weaver, who grew up Jewish, has been a member of the Religious Society of Friends since 1969. She is a member and co-clerk of Conscience Bay Meeting in St. James, N.Y. She is the former publisher of the Old Foundations newsletter.


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