History of Hymns: 'Goodness is Stronger than Evil'
By Bryan Black
“Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil” (“Victory Is Ours”)
by Desmond Tutu
The Faith We Sing, 2219
“No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us!” (Romans 8:37, New English Translation)
An African Prayer Book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (b. 1931) is a compilation of writings ranging from the Xhosa and Coptic traditions to St. Augustine and the worldwide African diaspora. First published in 1995, Tutu’s “Victory Is Ours” (p. 80), the original title, is one of only two prayers in the book written by him.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960, pursued theological studies at King’s College, London, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984; and in 1986, he was seated as the Archbishop of Capetown. Tutu’s prominence as a church leader and advocate for racial justice through the 1970s prepared him for a critical role, along with Nelson Mandela, to negotiate the end of apartheid following the 1994 elections. He later chaired the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gained international respect for giving “the world as it entered the twenty-first century an African model for expressing the nature of human community” (Allen, 2006, p. 396).
The compact structure of “Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil” reflects the rhetorical style of paired opposites common throughout scripture (Daw, 2016, p. 716) and echoes affirmations such as those found in the Song of Solomon, chapter eight, verse 6: “For love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave” (RSV). Similar paired opposites are found in the well-known prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is darkness, light.” Likewise, these brief, vivid pairings significantly enhance the rhetorical impact of “Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil.” When placed in the context of South Africa’s suffering under apartheid’s racial oppression, Tutu’s prayer reveals many commonalities with the freedom songs of the 1960s–1990s which “[gave] voice to protest, struggle, and solidarity” (Hawn, Canterbury, n.p.). The phrase “light is stronger than darkness” alludes to John 1:5 and is doubly significant since the imagery of light overcoming darkness in many freedom songs refers to restored spiritual vision and the gift of “seeing clearly” into the hopeful future of God’s reign (Janzen, 1992, pp. 111–118).
The publication of An African Prayer Book coincided with Tutu’s 1995 visit to speak at a gathering of the Scottish Episcopal Church. John L. Bell (b. 1949), best known through the semi-autonomous Wild Goose Resource Group sponsored by the Iona Community, set “Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil” to music for the occasion; the performance was “most pleas[ing]” to Archbishop Tutu (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 579), and Bell’s setting was subsequently published in Love and Anger: Songs of Lively Faith and Social Justice (1997), prepared by Bell and the late Graham Maule (1949–2019). His lilting 6/8 melody accommodates Tutu’s irregular meter (188.8.131.52.9), turning the final longer phrase into a refrain. Tutu’s first four lines of the poem deviate by only one syllable from the ubiquitous Common Meter (184.108.40.206). By slurring the first and third lines, Bell harnesses this less familiar metrical pattern and propels the text forward with a sense of confidence.
The four paired affirmations reference archetypal spiritual conflicts found commonly throughout Scripture: goodness/evil (Isaiah 5:20); love/hate (Luke 6:27); light/darkness (I Thessalonians 5:5); life/death (I Corinthians 15:55–57). These are followed by the triumphant conclusion: “Victory is ours, victory is ours through him who loves us,” which is a close paraphrase of Romans 8:37. Short echo responses between upper and lower voices in the conclusion evoke the moving parts common in many South African freedom song refrains and invite the power of shared community singing to take hold. Like the brief freedom songs that were sung over and again while marching for racial equality, “Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil” is often repeated several times to fully appreciate the textual depth and engage the congregation’s voice. The text resonates powerfully with themes of social justice, racial equity, and the cosmic victory of the risen Christ over death through his sacrifice of love.
Following its first appearance in 1997, Bell’s setting can now be found in some thirteen other collections in addition to The Faith We Sing, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), Worship, 4th ed. (2011), Ancient and Modern (2013), and Glory to God (2013). In addition, several anthem versions have been published (See Recordings below).
John Allen, Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu (London: Rider, 2006).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
C. Michael Hawn, “South African Freedom Songs.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/south-african-freedom-songs (accessed January 26, 2021).
Kenneth R. Hull. “John Lamberton Bell.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-lamberton-bell (accessed February 3, 2021).
Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/search?qu=Goodness+is+stronger+than+evil (accessed February 3, 2021).
John M. Janzen, Ngoma: Discourses on Healing in Central and Southern Africa (Berkley: University of California Pres, 1992).
Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book (New York: Doubleday, 1995).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
John Bell (Dutch public broadcasting, “De Verwondering” 2018), https://youtu.be/xt4b7_U7oHM, (accessed January 24, 2021).
John Bell (St. Olaf College chapel rededication, 2020), https://youtu.be/ybqkD8tk1uU (accessed January 21, 2021).
Thomas Keesecker (World Library Press, composed 2015) https://youtu.be/a9VTnFIhnkE (accessed 20 January 2021).
David Schwoebel (Fred Bock publishing), https://www.jwpepper.com/Vihttps://youtu.be/1BjZJwkB_7Mctory-Is-Ours/10094147.item#/submit (accessed January 20, 2021).
James Whitbourn (Chester Music CH 68167), https://search-alexanderstreet-com.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cscore%7C2443584#page/2/mode/1 (accessed January 21, 2021).
James Whitbourn (Naxos recording, 2010), https://youtu.be/1BjZJwkB_7M (accessed January 21, 2021).
Bryan Black is Director of Worship Arts at North Avenue Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia. He is active in the American Choral Directors Association, currently serving as the National Chair for Music in Worship. He is also a candidate for the doctor of pastoral music degree at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.