Christianity needs to sing a new song…
I spent the better part of the morning yesterday watching the live broadcast of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial luncheon celebrating the new MLK monument in Washington D.C.
Speech after speech was given by persons speaking about rights, both civil and human. It was both a celebration and a continued plea for justice for all persons.
Persons such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Martin Luther King III offered speeches of incredible encouragement toward never giving up the fight for justice. How “word cannot come without action.” A reminder that Dr. King’s monument cannot be an excuse for us to put him up on a shelf, but rather continue to be inspired toward justice for all humans, right-relationships, and peacemaking.
The core ideas that propel us through both old and new testaments are the words permeating the Psalms, the prophets, and the words of Jesus… justice for the poor, righteousness, and peace.
But then there was the music. The music that left me wondering, “Where are our songs of justice?” This is the second time this year that I have been struck by the lack of music that sings of justice at a major conference that seeks to highlight exactly that cause.
Earlier this year I was at the a very large gathering of United Methodists where the focus and keynote speeches were entirely centered on ministry with the poor. Despite this focus, both in worship and in workshop, the songs sung were only ever songs centered around “Jesus as a personal savior” or atonement doctrine (ie. Jesus died, rose again, etc).
Then, as I watched the MLK Memorial luncheon… this gathering of justice GIANTS… where persons who risked life and limb, literally everything, were speaking one after another with their lifting-up of history, and pleas to continue the fight. And then the music, offered by both Minister Ernest Pugh and Barbara Conrad, American operatic mezzo-soprano, never once made mention of justice, peace, or right-relationships. Ms Conrad sang an old hymn that lifted up Jesus as King. Ministry Pugh sang a song asking the Spirit to rain (over and over). Not a single word sung of what Jesus’ kingdom should look like. Not a single plea that the healing rain fall first on the most poor and disenfranchised among us.
I think this sadly represents the music of far too many places of worship across the US, and spans style and context. Singers were invited to share songs that reminded them of MLK, and their selections were lacking any call to the core ideas that he stood so boldly for. Singers were asked to plan worship that seeks to highlight our desire to work with the poor, and we sing songs that only focus on our personal salvation or a version of Jesus that is only interested in making sure we have orthodox beliefs about the Easter story.
Our songs tell a story, but how often is it one of theological disconnectedness and dogma rather than one of authentic relationship with those who Jesus called us to first. Christianity needs a new song.
Where is the image of the God of Justice? Where is the marriage of music and word that so beautifully compels us into the challenges of confronting injustice, working to end poverty, and bringing hope to the hopeless through relationship? If we say one thing, but sing about another, where is the unity in that message? If Jesus is King! What kind of kingdom does he reign over? Where are the old songs?
Our art and our songs need to ask and (at times) answer these questions.
I’m reminded of my friends who are currently attending Sing A New Song, a progressive gathering of Christians who are celebrating the love of God for all persons. As they meet this week, certainly they will sing new songs. Will those songs find themselves at the local church?
At this year’s Michigan area school for pastoral ministry (a conference for pastors) I was reminded of the power of poetry. So much can be said in so few words as to overwhelm the soul. So much can be said that one needs time to be silent and reflect afterward, or risk losing a crucial moment of wisdom and insight. This is the power of art.
Much of our church songs, hymns and contemporary alike, are simply poetry set to music. We say much in those few sung words. The words and melodies are often long remembered after the day’s sermon is forgotten.
So then we must ask, “where are our songs of justice?” What are we asking people to remember long after the sermon has been forgotten?
We cannot claim that these songs do not exist, for I know that they do. I use many in the contemporary context… “God of Justice” by Hughes, “Follow You” by Leeland, “As it is in Heaven” by Maher, “I will Go” by Starfield, among many others. One needs only to open a hymnal to find a wealth of songs calling for justice and peace. We make choices that affect what message is conveyed. If anything, we need more of these contemporary justice songs, and if (like me) you find the church desiring more of these songs, consider writing some of your own.
Want to know how to get folks to take your message seriously? Unify the message with the art and song. Sing songs that proclaim the kingdom of God in context… highlighting the Bible-wide messages of Yahweh’s restorative justice, right-relationships, and peace for all nations and persons. They will take notice when we act out our authentic community while singing our songs of justice.
P.S. I was inspired to create a new t-shirt. Check it out if you’re an advocate of justice. Justice is what love looks like in public.