The Common Good

What We Find On Higher Ground

One of my favorite pieces of sacred music comes from a not-so-sacred genre: funk. Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” though, is unapologetic in going to issues of faith:

Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com
Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

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I'm so glad that he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin'
Till I reach my highest ground...Whew!
Till I reach my highest ground
No one's gonna bring me down
Oh no
Till I reach my highest ground
Don't you let nobody bring you down 
God is gonna show you higher ground
He's the only friend you have around
.

Oddly, the “last time on earth” line worked prospectively. Three days after the song was released on 1973’sInnervisions album, Wonder was struck by a log falling off of a truck, and was in a coma for four days. The first signs of his recovery came when he heard this song. 

Here in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota), the importance of higher ground is not just metaphorical, as snowmelt-fed flood waters rise to envelope communities. People, quite literally, are forced to higher ground by floods.

It is interesting, too, what happens when that higher ground, the literal higher ground, is sought. Necessarily, there are more people in a smaller area; that’s the nature of it. Diverse groups are forced together. We know these images from the news:  the floating cars, and then the displaced people together in a school gym, talking.  The power of that second image is that it shows an unexpected, shared space. People have grabbed what they could and fled to this place, often by walking uphill, and now they find themselves together.   

When the metaphorical waters rise and destroy what we know or count on, people do the same thing, but that higher ground is a broad mutual faith that encompasses the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, that there must be a reason for these tragedies; we turn to God. Recently, we have seen this happen in Boston and in West, Texas. At the memorial for the victims of the explosion in West, held at Baylor University, President Barack Obama spoke openly about faith.  

“Even amidst such sorrow, so much pain, we recognize God’s abundance,” he told the crowd which included Baylor President Ken Starr and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “We may not all live in Texas, but we’re neighbors too,” he said. 

In a way, though, that is the easy part. Of course the higher ground, the refuge from tragedy, is God’s. People seem to sense that instinctively, regardless of faith tradition. The harder, more humbling realization is that all of it — the flooded places, the roiling waters, the displaced people themselves — are part of the Kingdom of God, and none of us truly knows how it all fits together, how it all makes sense. 

Still, tragedy does bring us that moment together on the higher ground, and perhaps we celebrate that too little.

Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St, Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, Prof. Osler is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.

Image: Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

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