I first learned of pacifism when I became acquainted with the Church of the Brethren. While there was no glorifying of war in my upbringing, my parents were solidly in the just war camp. Since those days, I’ve been steeped in the stories of the Brethren peace witness and have embraced it as part of my understanding of the Christian faith. I’ve learned from the many peace church members who take seriously the biblical admonition to study war no more.
In ecumenical circles, I’ve seen how fellow Christians hold in high regard those who live out this peace witness. Even if they don’t choose it for themselves, they see pacifism as a gift that enhances the church’s presence in the world.
I saw a different point of view recently when an Anglican priest who claims to “strongly tend toward Christian nonviolence and pacifism” published an article saying the situation in Ukraine is different. “Prayers and hopes for peace” are naïve and flimsy, she insisted, and Christian pacifists are in denial about the reality of evil. “We cannot simply hold hands, sing ‘Kumbaya,’ and hope for the best.”
Why is it that singing “Kumbaya” has become shorthand for clueless Pollyannas? Frankly, I’m glad for all the campfires and singing that have helped form Brethren for generations. The world would be a better place if everyone grew up spending a week each year at summer camp.
A few years ago, “Kumbaya” was in the news because of speculation that it should rightfully be attributed to the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. The other two origin stories circulating for decades were contradictory and illogical.
Enter the American Folklife Center archive at the Library of Congress, which has the earliest known recording of the song, a cylinder recording from 1926. After thoroughly examining the various claims, the center concluded that “Kumbaya” is an African American spiritual that originated somewhere in the American south.
“We can’t be fully confident that the song originated in Gullah, rather than in African American English more generally,” wrote Stephen Winick. “But it is certainly likely that Gullah Geechee versions led to it becoming a popular song today.”
Actual pacifists don’t spend a lot of time singing “Kumbaya”; they’re too busy working for peace. But in a world suffering from the evil of war, a fervent prayer sung by African Americans a century ago is always welcome. Come by here, Lord, come by here.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.