There’s a German phrase bantered around a lot in biblical criticism, Sitz im Leben, roughly translated “setting in life.” It refers to the sociological setting out of which biblical passages emerged. The argument is that taken out of its original context, the original meaning of a passage is often lost. Thus the context of exile is the best way to understand Psalm 137 where the psalmist opens lamenting over the holy city Zion (”By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept…” and ends with a bitter cry for revenge. Likewise, the coronation ceremony of a new king is the most likely Sitz im Leben out of which the beautiful lyrics in Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is given, unto us a Son is born: and the government shall be upon his shoulders…” were originally sung, though they would later be interpreted prophetically as portending the birth of the Messiah.
Language arises out of contexts, and so do individuals.
Each of us has a Sitz im Leben that informs who we are, a context that has a lot to do with how and why we see the world the way we do. Our Sitz im Leben doesn’t explain everything about us, we are more complex than that, but it explains a lot about the shape of our consciousness, or lack thereof.
It matters, then, if you were born in the 50s or in the 80s. It matters if you grew up listening to to James Brown and Aretha Franklin’s on 45rpm, or to Michael Jackson and Take 6 through a tape deck, or Ja Rule and Kirk Franklin on Ipod. It matters if “The Cosby Show” and “It’s A Different World,” or “The Mod Squad” and “Bewitched,” or “I Love New York” and “Pimp My Ride” were part of your weekly diet. Just like it matters if you were married in your 20s and were busy raising babies during in the 70s and 80s, or if you postponed marriage, went on to do graduate work and was reading black women’s literature in the 80s and 90s, and had your first baby at 40 years old.
We are not prisoners to our Sitz im Leben, thank God, but neither can we escape its influence no matter how much we wish otherwise.
Sitz im Leben matters. Whether your awakening to life and its contradictions can be traced back to witnessing the Birmingham church bombing, Watergate, Enron-gate, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Jena 6, or to the Don Imus affair, or to a lesser known incident, there’s something to be said for being able, like the prophets in the bible, to recall the time of your call and conversion.
Of course, it’s quite possible to live through a revolution and refuse to be touched by it, going so far as to renounce its changes and avowing to cling to a former paradigm. Then again, it’s also possible to live an utterly un-self-reflective life, totally ignorant of how your politics and theology have been shaped by your times, and believing smugly, and wrongly, how smart you are in creating yourself and coming to conclusions on your own. But you’d be dumb to do so.
This weekend I finally got around to opening a Christmas gift someone sent me last year. The gift got misplaced in all the Christmas paraphrenalia of last year, and was stuffed away in one of the big plastic bins in which I keep the lights and bulbs for the Christmas tree. The gift was wrapped in red Christmas paper. I unwrapped the paper to find an oversized picture book, the kind you keep on the coffee table.
Black Panthers: 1968 by Ruth Marion Baruch & Pirkle Jones.
The collection of photographs of the passionate, defiant, yet tender young faces from the early days of the Black Panther Party in California was touching to look it. The photographs reveal how young these young black people were back then, how determined they were to change the world, and how naive they were about how ready and prepared J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. government were to tear them to pieces.
I almost joined the Black Panther Party.
A flyer circulated around my high school by the Panther Party asking for volunteers to help serve breakfast to elementary kids as part of the Panther’s “Free Breakfast Program.” I managed to talk my unsuspecting father into driving me across town one Saturday morning and dropping me off in front of the Black Panther House there in Atlanta. I was around seventeen years old, and was finally old enought to take part in some of the student protest activities I’d been witnessing on television for the past decade.
I stayed around for a few months helping Panther women serve breakfast (I know, I know) on Saturday mornings to hungry kids before heading off to college. I never got around to joining the Panther party.
Thanks to whoever you are for the photograph book of the Black Panther party. Thanks for the memories. To me it was just day before yesterday.
Sitz im Leben.