I’m working this morning on the familiar spiritual of Jacob’s Ladder, trying to unpack why it is so meaningful to people at different life stages and in all sorts of circumstances. I’m looking back now over 72 years of singing it or – or shunning it at one point along the way. I didn’t like the “soldier” part.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.
We are climbing higher, higher….
Why did it mean so much to me as a teenager “climbing higher, higher”? It was a spiritual journey, a confusing one that tried to connect the war-torn, racist world of Earth with heaven, and the call to climb higher, higher to close the gap. But I suspect psychologically it also gave me some assurance about the challenges of growing up, getting wiser perhaps, more independent, climbing into adulthood. The journey was a struggle that made me feel sometimes like a soldier inside my own skin and the world around me.
But long before I sang it in church camp, it was sung by American slaves. It expressed the faith and hope of liberation from chattel slavery. They sang without apology as “soldiers of the cross” (beaten, tortured and crucified like Jesus), on their way up “every rung” going higher, higher (farther north) to a land that lured them like heaven itself.
I go to YouTube and find Pete Seeger’s wonderful, cheerful rendition that replaces the original “soldier of the cross” with “brothers, sisters, all” and remember that I, too, have joined him in feeling the need to eliminate the military language. “Soldier” and “cross” are oxymoronic. It was the soldiers who did the crucifying, and it was the soldiers of the white militias who terrorized the slaves’ hopes.
No sooner do I listen to Peter’s rendition than I listen to Paul Robson who found no reason to eliminate the “soldiers of the cross” – perhaps because Robson knew that he and we are engaged in a kind of combat and the strange pairing of soldier and cross carries its own power and meaning. Robson, as you may know, was a Communist who would have seen every rung going higher, higher the way Pete saw it – steps on the upward course of human progress toward a kind of heaven conceived as classless society, a kinder world. “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
I have been in all of these places a thousand times. Youthful, hopeful, visionary, climbing. But now I concentrate on things I missed in the earlier stages of youth, building a career, rising higher and higher on the professional and economic ladders of “success” or imagining and hoping the world was getting better.
I notice now as never before that the biblical text of Jacob’s dream is not of Jacob’s upward climb. Jacob never steps on the ladder. Angels (messengers) do, ascending to the heavens and descending to where he is in a kind of no-man’s land where everything he has ever known is at risk, the way I am in an in-between time between the today’s earthly beauty and climate departure, the scorching of the planet. Like Jacob, I have an “Aha!” moment: “Surely YHWH (the un-pronounable Hebrew name for G-d) is in this place, and I did not know it!”
So I’m reflecting now on the importance of this temporary, mortal, finite “place” in time where YHWH (the Breath of Life) is already present, and the need to surrender the idea that I need to climb to somewhere else.