Every so often I turn over my column to a colleague or student who has a poignant take on this political moment. This week, my Fordham University Masters in Urban Studies student Melissa Thornton wrote about our new dawn in this unique moment.
By Melissa Thornton
These days the Biblical scriptures of Chapter 8 in the Book of Jeremiah are likely resonating soundly for many of us. Then, Israel was in turmoil and the Israelites were in exile. They were in great despair and hopeless as this was the most challenging time in Israel’s history. Jeremiah, a prophet, is so bereft that he begins to lament for a balm, a salve…help. Rhetorically he asks: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Jeremiah is deeply troubled by what he witnesses every day—a nation pained by the oppression of its people and its corrupt leadership. His heart is sick. He’s over it; he’s wailing.
Most know Jeremiah Chapter 8 through the Negro spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” It’s the plaintive response of the enslaved in America during the period of chattel slavery answering Jeremiah in the affirmative, exclaiming full faith. In his book, “Deep River and the Negro Speaks of Life and Death,” noted Black liberation theologian Howard Thurman explains the spiritual’s refrain: “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is the note of creative triumph.” This note of “creative triumph” in the face of despair becomes the balm, the salve.
Summoning up creative triumph when all hope seems lost is a radical, healing act. But we have been doing it! We’ve turned question marks into exclamations points and by doing so, we’ve created balms. The simple act of donning a mask to offer protection is an offering of salve. When artists drag the pain felt in their bodies out and into their paint brushes, they’re extending salve. When environmental organizations and farmers partner to provide free boxes of fresh food to food insecure communities, it’s not only sustenance, it’s salve. In his speech referencing the spiritual, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that “one day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth.” From the enslaved to the essential, their work is—and has always been—salve.
With this presidential election, resoundingly, we turned a question mark into an exclamation point and, in harmony, declared, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole!” And in that spirit of creative triumph, together, we can now dress the wounds of our nation, of our cities, our Gileads, and apply the salve.
Christina Greer is an associate professor of Political Science at Fordham University.