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All That Is Fair: In Christ There Is No East or West


Mavis Staples was born in Chicago in 1939.  She is an R&B/Gospel artist whose career has spanned the last 66 years.  She got started in 1950 singing with her family’s gospel act, The Staples Singers.  Through the years, the Staples Singers, and Mavis herself, have had tons of hits and notoriety.  Her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was the leader of the Staples Singers.  “Pops” was a close personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the ‘60s their music became a megaphone for the civil rights movement.  So much of what they did then, and what Mavis has continued to do, was inspired by their involvement with King. 

Fast-forward to 2010… Mavis is in the process of reinventing herself as an artist.  She starts working on various collaborations with popular, indie, or even country artists.  In 2010 she finished work on an album called You Are Not Alone, a collaboration with Jeff Tweedy from the band Wilco.  It was recorded in Muscle Shoals, and sounds like it too!  It’s really gritty and unpolished and creates a perfect backdrop for the raw emotiveness of Mavis’ voice.  The album contains old gospel songs, some Staples Singers songs, a Tweedy original, and Mavis’ retelling of this old hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West.”

I love the selection of this hymn for the album.  Mavis is a civil rights crusader.  She has fought for justice for the underserved and marginalized—not just for the sake of her immediate community but for the benefit of all humanity.  This hymn captures that ideal.  It’s the rhetoric of Dr. King. “...We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” It is also the sentiment of Jesus…  Matthew 8:11 says “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven.”  Also Matthew 12:48-50 says, “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

When you take those huge gospel-centered reconciliation concepts and marry them to the experiences and grit of Mavis Staples, this hymn takes on a new meaning.  True Gospel reconciliation between groups who have been at war is something that is beautiful but difficult.  It produces indelible scars of struggle and suffering.  That’s true of the civil rights movement, denominational or congregational fights, marriage and family turmoil, and ultimately, the rift between a holy god and a lovely, but diminished, image-bearing human race.  When you hear this retold with the weathered power of Mavis’ unmistakeable voice, you don’t just understand this; you can feel it too!  Isn’t that what good art is supposed to do?  Tell us something about ourselves that transcends the merely propositional and reaches for the uncharted skies of our hearts?

In Christ there is no East or West,
No North or South;
Only one great love
Inside and out.

True hearts everywhere
Some deaf and some blind
Singin’ one melody
Lost souls cannot find.

Join hands and have faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
There is no black or white
Only one great love
Hatred cannot divide.

Join hands and have faith,
Forgive your enemy
Surely we’re all a part
Of one big family.

Join hands and have faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

Join hands and have faith,
Forgive your enemy
Surely we’re all a part
Of one big family.