“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” is a folk song that grew in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time when the United States faced deep internal turmoil. We were tormented by a war of potential – a Cold War – that threatened to tear apart the world at any minute. Our nation was plagued by an established and enforced inequality and segregation of races. We were a country a deep principles and deep hypocrisies, but some individuals came together to set things right. Their path would be difficult. They would risk much and lose much. Some would die, but these people had a focus. They had a goal. They had a prize, and they kept their eyes upon that prize regardless of the obstacles standing before them.
The song says, “I got my hand on the gospel plow/Won’t take nothing for my journey now/Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on/Hold on, hold on/Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” In Philippians 3:13-14, Paul writes about a prize set before him. He speaks of reaching forward, pressing onward, and looking upward. He speaks of a crown of righteousness in II Timothy 4:8 for which he is striving. Paul fixes his eyes on his prize, and he invites us to do the same, allowing us, like him, to overcome anything in the name of Christ.
A Persecuted People
This is a lesson about persecution. In I Corinthians 4:12, Paul writes bout enduring reviling and persecutions. Those First Century Christians faced hardships, faced brutality and trials the likes of which we can hardly imagine. The Jewish zealots would stone and beat them. The Roman rulers and military grew truly creative. With few exceptions, we don’t know what it is like to face true inhumanity, true cruelty, true persecution and come out the other side.
One group of people who did face true persecution were those same people who linked arms, singing to each other to keep their eyes on the prize, encouraging one another that the times, they are a-changin’ and edifying each other that they shall indeed overcome. Those people, who saw their mission as a completion of the work begun by Abraham Lincoln a century before, they faced persecution.
Jumping backwards a hundred years, people like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas helped launch the Civil Rights movement in this country, attempting to bring our nation to the point of practicing what it’s founding document preached: that all are created equal. It was a mission against which our sixteenth president faced massive resistance, but, this is what he said at Cooper Union Field on February 27, 1860:
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations…, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction…Let us have faith…Let us, to the end, dare to do our duty…
Lincoln basically says that there is nothing that will deter him from the goal set before him, and Paul encourages us to take that same attitude in Romans 8:37-39 when he encourages us that no man, no government, and no gulf of distance can separate us from our God. There is nothing that can tear our prize from our hands.
Those Who Lived and Died
Those activists trying to desegregate our society, working to give African Americans basic rights such as voting, striving to conclude the journey Abraham Lincoln began – they met resistance we have a hard time imagining. These were not people who were merely ignored by their peers. They were not simply called ignorant or stupid. Their persecution was not that of belittling or teasing. It was violence.
Protesters – man, woman, and child – faced high-powered hoses, attack dogs, beatings, bombings, betrayals, lynchings, and murders. In his song, He Was My Brother, Paul Simon (under the pseudonym Paul Kane) describes the atmosphere this way:
They cursed my brother to his face.
“Go home outsider
Mississippi’s gonna be your buryin’ place.”
Writer Harlan Ellison, who participated in the 1965 march on Montgomery Alabama, describes the conclusion of his experience like this:
…They wouldn’t give us a loading ramp to get into the plane. We waited four hours. They found a bomb on the plane. It was a nine-hour flight back. Viola Liuzzo. She was killed hurrying back from Selma to Montgomery…It was a lot closer than I care to admit.
From Rosa Parks who was jailed for not giving up her bus seat for a white man, to the Little Rock Nine who faced school closure before desegregation, to Martin Luther King who was assassinated for threatening the status quo, to the countless unnamed who were beaten, battered and bloodied because they stood united against injustice, we see a true example of what it means to face persecution head-on and overcome. To many, these are heroes. They are like those heroes of faith in Hebrews 12:37-38 who “had trials of mocking and scourging and of chains of imprisonment, who were stoned, were sawn in two, were tempted were killed with the sword, who wandered in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted and tormented.” We see men, woman, and children setting aside differences to work for a common cause. We see a people who look to a higher cause than themselves. We see the result of keeping our eyes on a prize.
Pressing Onward and Upward
How can we emulate these examples? How can we keep our eyes on our prize? God does not expect us to protest, to march on Washington, to hold rallies, or to riot. Our God’s focus is on our spiritual home rather than on secular politics, but we can press forward as these people did and as Paul does in Philippians 3. We can edify, encourage, and exhort one another toward a cause and a goal that is greater and higher than any of us individually.
In He Was My Bother, Paul Simon sings:
He was singin’ on his knees
An angry mob trailed along
They shot my brother dead
Because he hated what was wrong.
What did this individual’s murderers find him doing? They found him on his knees, singing. In Matthew 10:21-22, Jesus says we too will be hated. How do we see those First Century Christians responding to such animosity? In Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas are found singing and praying while imprisoned. In Acts 5:41-42, Peter and other disciples walk away from an unjust imprisonment and hearing rejoicing, and the immediately return to their mission, hardly dissuaded by the trials.
When face with the threats associated with trafficking freed and escaped slaved to safer states, Harriet Tubman stated, “I can’t die but once.” She recognized that her life was a small thing when stacked against the accomplishments she and her supporters were achieving. She could be killed, but the Underground Railroad would live on. Likewise, in Matthew 10:28, Jesus encourages us to take this same attitude. We should not fear those who can take our lives, for our souls will live on. The cause of Christ will live on.
We may not be lynched for our beliefs. We may not be beaten, stoned, or hosed, but we never know what the future holds. Satan is always trying to distract us from our upward call. Jesus, in Matthew 6:21 tells us that where our treasure – or prize – is, so too are our hearts. Where is your prize? Upon what are our eyes and hearts fixed? When we focus on and obsess over the things of this world, then we will remain chained to the pains of this life, but we can be more.
We can resist Satan and whatever trials or persecutions he throws our way, and we can proclaim that we will not be moved. We can live in peace, and we can overcome. Time and again in our studies of Revelation, we read that Jesus wants us to overcome and spend eternity with Him, and I John 5:4 tells us that it is our faith that gives us the power to overcome. As Abraham Lincoln spoke of faith that drove him, so too our faith should drive us toward the calling of our hope.
Maya Angelou once wrote in Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Likewise, we hope to rise again. The time could come when we are beaten down, when were are trodden underfoot, when we are threatened for hating what is wrong. Like those Freedom Riders and like our Christian forefathers, we can obtain a victory over the powers of this world that none can take from us. Our hands are on the gospel plow. We are walking hand in hand, and we are encouraging one another on a journey to a land where pain and suffering are no more. We must press on. We must keep our eyes on the prize. We must hold on.