What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

Video Courtesy of CBS News


The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.

White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.

Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”

To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.

The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.

One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.

Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?


Video Courtesy of NBC News


The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.

It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.

In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.

They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.

Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.

No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.

White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.

What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?

No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.

If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The Marathon

The Marathon

Video Courtesy of ABOVE INSPIRATION


It can be an eerie feeling to see everyone around you accomplish the same goals that you have for yourself, whether it’s graduating, getting married, having kids, or getting promotions. For me, it’s even more difficult when the people closest to me are achieving these milestones. But I’ve come to accept that everyone’s race is different, and people don’t achieve things at the same time. We can’t compare our personal races with other people’s races because we never know what hurdles they had to overcome to get to where they are.

For me, it took four-and-a-half years to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I was able to see some of my peers graduate in the standard four years and even some in three-and-a-half years. But I needed an extra semester to complete my undergraduate journey. I was a little devastated that I wasn’t graduating on time. According to The New York Times, “only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.” But despite the statistics that the majority of full-time students take five-to-six years to graduate, I wanted to graduate “on-time.”

Being Twentysomething it seems that I haven’t been on time for any of the goals I made for myself when I was younger. By 25, I thought I’d at least be engaged to my college sweetheart, but here I am at 24 and have yet to have been in a serious relationship.  Sometimes I find myself getting upset that the plans I had for myself weren’t a part of God’s timing. How do we know what God’s “on-time” plan is for us? Did I miss the orientation where God told each of us when we would accomplish certain goals? It can be so frustrating, especially in this age of social media when you can see all the accomplishments of the people around you. It might make you feel like you aren’t doing something right. But trust me that isn’t the case. It’s all about God’s timing, not yours.


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Despite things not happening the way I wanted them to, I know that as long as I keep my faith in God everything will work out. The Bible says, “At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (from Galatians 6:9 NLT). Knowing that it would take me an extra semester to get my bachelor’s degree I could have easily gotten discouraged, distracted or maybe even thrown in the towel. How many times have we thought about quitting something because it’s not happening as fast or easy as we wanted it to happen? It’s not about how fast or slow we finish the race, but that we finish.

Graduating with your bachelor’s degree at 50 or getting married and starting a family at 20 will feel no different if you accomplish it sooner or later in life. What God has for you will be for you, no matter how long it might take. So take a deep breath and don’t rush through your race to catch up with the masses. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” God has a plan for your life. So go ahead and celebrate your friend’s engagement and know that if it’s in His will it will come to you.  If you are feeling down about something not happening when or how you want it to, stay faithful and hold on to God’s hand because He’s got you no matter what. And no matter what bumps in the road you encounter, remember life is a marathon, not a sprint.


Jordan Clayton-Taylor is a twentysomething recent college grad with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and English and a minor in Black Studies. As Jordan navigates her way through life, she tries to walk by faith and not by sight while staying positive despite all the things going on around her. 

 

 

Donor-funded journalism is on the rise in Africa: why it needs closer scrutiny

Donor-funded journalism is on the rise in Africa: why it needs closer scrutiny

Some African journalists are concerned that foreign funders may influence what they cover and how.EPA-EFE/Jayden Joshua

 

An enormous and increasing portion of the foreign development aid coming into Africa annually is for media development. Foreign aid funds diverse projects, ranging from investigative journalism in Nigeria to stories on Chinese building projects in Kenya, or health reporting in South Africa.

The news media landscape and journalism practices – on the continent as well as globally – have undergone massive change in recent times. This, coupled with the collapse of familiar business models, and the limited potential for genuinely independent “watchdog” journalism, the relationship between external influences on local cultures and practices of journalism needs to be reassessed.

A report last year, by the American Centre for International Media Assistance, concluded that about US$600 million a year is spent on media development in Africa by state and private funders. This may exceed a billion dollars if the opaque amount China spends on media operations and training globally is included. Much of this is focused on Africa.

But how does this aid influence journalism in Africa?

Our recent international study examined the impact of foreign development aid on media systems in seven African countries. These were Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan. A separate report focused on Latin America.

We witnessed parallel and intensifying debates among media workers in developing countries who accept (or depend on) foreign funding. Funders themselves are also increasingly reflecting on their objectives and how they measure success. And, the role of foundations in funding journalism is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Much of the media aid industry still holds the view that media workers and institutions in the South should emulate their counterparts in the North. But, our study took a different approach. We asked to what extent a flow of foreign money has affected the ability of developing regions to foster a critical and independent media sector.

Chinese versus Western perspectives

Journalists who took part in our project worried that the foreign assistance or travel they’ve received may limit the stories they can tell, or influence the way they tell them. On the other hand, they often feared that without foreign financial support, critical journalism in their countries would vanish.

The colonial powers of Britain, France, and Portugal still cast a long shadow over Africa’s media. More recently, however, African media has been shaped by the US and China. Many foreign interventions are small, like the funding of a single investigative news story, for example. But some are massive.

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, foreign aid has been directed at disseminating a model of journalism practice and education that aligns with the interests of wealthy, Northern donor nations. Chinese involvement in Africa has led to questions being asked about the assumptions underpinning Western media funding and training.

Because Chinese media are based on a very different model, their initiatives have caused anxiety among journalists and commentators steeped in the liberal-democratic tradition. This tradition emphasizes the “watchdog” role of journalism.

Chinese media, on the other hand, adopt a more persuasive and positive tone and favor official perspectives. This, while taking a critical view of the history of Western involvement in Africa. This approach is sometimes called “constructive journalism.” It promises to present Africa in a more positive light than the stereotypes that have historically characterized Western coverage.

The establishment of Chinese media outlets such as China Global Television Network, the wire service Xinhua, and China Radio International in Africa have been seen as part of China’s strategy to increase its visibility overseas.

Simultaneously, the cultural diplomacy component of media aid has seen African journalists receive offers for paid travel to Europe, North America, and especially to China.

We know little about how these exchanges – and other forms of foreign investment by corporate or religious institutions – affect African media and the stories they tell.

The fear is that the Chinese model, because of the government’s control over the media, is dangerous to introduce in African countries where press freedom has often come under attack.

But fears about a major shift may be overblown or premature given that research has shown that the influence of Chinese media on journalists and audiences in Africa remains minimal.

For its part, Western aid has resulted in an Anglo-American culture of journalism education, which has proved impractical to implement in countries with illiberal political regimes.

A quandary

Should under-resourced African journalists accept any foreign funding?

This is a difficult question. There are risks that come from shunning aid. This includes missed opportunities to develop African media or report independently on local power brokers.

On the other hand, aid can be used to coerce journalists to change their norms and practices unduly.

Media producers and users in developing countries need to be more vigilant about foreign media support. And they need to evaluate it. For citizens in countries that provide such aid, the challenge is to scrutinize the efforts made in their name.The Conversation

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town; Audrey Gadzekpo, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana, and Chris Paterson, Senior Lecturer in International Communication, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Seeing Jesus in the Migrants at the Border

Seeing Jesus in the Migrants at the Border

Video Courtesy of Clifton Gibbons


The devastating picture of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lying face down in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande jolted the nation awake last week.

We could no longer look away.

The tragedy of a father and daughter from El Salvador drowning while he tried to save her from being swept away by the strong river current reminded the nation of the horror of the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the border.

We must see them.

Martínez was leading his family from El Salvador to legally seek asylum in the United States.

But he was not able to get through the long wait at the border crossing, so he sought to swim the Rio Grande, stand on American soil, turn himself and his family in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum there.

All of that is legal.

But the river took them before they had a chance.

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martínez’s wife, Tania, told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current. (AP Photo/Julia Le Duc)

Martínez and his daughter were not the only migrants to die this week. A 20-year-old migrant woman and three small children were found dead in the desert near McAllen, Texas, having succumbed to the searing heat.

In addition to these deaths, the news from last weekend of migrant children held in detention in Border Patrol stations in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, without access to soap, toothbrushes, diapers or proper care, rightly caused an outcry from the public. Instead of the border security debate dominating the immigration headlines, Americans are now more fully seeing the human suffering of desperate migrants fleeing from home to a country that they hope will be a place of refuge.

The numbers of migrants coming are staggering.

People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the Mexico-America border near Tijuana on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

The month of May saw almost 133,000 apprehensions at the U.S. southern border, with 96,000 consisting either of family units or unaccompanied children. The large numbers of migrants now turning themselves in to Border Patrol and asking for asylum has overwhelmed our system.

Our laws require that we hear and process asylum claims and that anyone who sets foot on U.S. soil can claim asylum, but with the government’s primary focus being on zero tolerance, deterrence, security, detention, deportation and keeping migrants away from the border, the number of families and children presenting themselves for asylum is too much to properly administer.

The Border Patrol is overwhelmed and chaos has ensued.

Hearing these stories this week reminded me of what I’ve seen in my own trips to the border in the past year, most recently to El Paso less than two months ago.

There, I connected with a network of churches receiving from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants a day. The churches gave the migrants food and drink and provided a temporary place to rest before they continued their journey to join family in other parts of America.

I’ll never forget seeing the hollow eyes on the faces of exhausted migrants huddled on cots in a church sanctuary that had been haphazardly turned into a migrant shelter in El Paso.

When I arrived, I was told that these migrants had been released by ICE that day to the church. It was midafternoon, but what struck me was that they were so very tired. They sat in the quiet church worship hall in silence. Some slept. Some just sat and stared. Babies didn’t even cry. Mothers held their children close and just looked ahead. No one said a word. No laughter, no conversation. No crying of the children. Just silence. They were all so tired.

I was told by the pastors of the church that many of the migrants who came to them day after day suffered from violence, rape, extortion and threats of being forced into drug gangs. Many of them saw loved ones murdered and they lived under threats of death at the hands of cartels and drug gangs.

Corrupt police and government officials could not protect the poor who were being used and extorted in these countries that are descending into lawlessness.

Yet, prayers from the pastors, shelter, food, love, hospitality, concern, and being received and embraced as fully human encouraged them greatly.

The work of Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical churches along the border over the past several months has been immense. I’ve seen with my own eyes, and through my research with the Evangelical Immigration Table, churches engaging in this hard but needed work of receiving migrants in San Diego-Tijuana; Nogales, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; and elsewhere. These churches truly are being the hands and feet of Jesus.

But the other side of the work of the church is that it is often fellow Christians who come to the border from the south and make their way across.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that the majority of the migrants coming from Central America are evangelical Christians. I was told by a church shelter manager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that as many as 75 percent of the migrants they served were evangelicals. Others in El Paso said the proportion of evangelical migrants was well over 50 percent. In significant ways, the ministry of receiving migrants by churches at the border is the ministry of the church embracing Christ himself.

Not long ago, a Nazarene pastor friend of mine was invited to meet with a group of asylum-seekers at the border. Among them was a man named Oscar and his little girl. He had fled to the U.S. to keep her safe. They shared a meal and then Oscar, who said he was part of an evangelical church, told my friend something profound.

“Somos familia,” he said. “Somos hermanos.”

We are family. We are brothers.

Was this the same Oscar? What matters is what the asylum-seeker my friend met said.

“Somos familia. Somos hermanos.”

John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship, has also recently written that approximately 80 percent of the migrants that his church receives are evangelical Christians.

I write this not because I think that evangelical Christians have more value than people of other religions or no religion at all, but because I think it is important for American Christians to know that the migrants coming to us are also our brothers and sisters in Christ.

They are family.

How we treat them and see them is how we treat Jesus (Matthew 25:40).

I believe that Jesus sees these desperate people. I believe they matter to him.

Jesus saw Óscar and Valeria. Jesus saw the woman and the three little children who died in the desert. He sees all of the crowds of migrants, harassed and helpless and fleeing from a home where they are no longer safe to journey to a place they have never been.

He wants us to see them too.

Can we, like Jesus, be moved with compassion for the crowds of migrants coming to us? Can we pray for them and weep for migrants like Óscar and Valeria?

Jesus sees them.

Do we?

(Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor and author of “When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.” He advocates on behalf of immigrants and refugees from a biblical perspective with the Evangelical Immigration Table. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Why Christians must support religious freedom for everyone

Why Christians must support religious freedom for everyone

Indian Muslims shout slogans during a protest against the Chinese government, in Mumbai, India, on Sept. 14, 2018. Nearly 150 Indian Muslims held a street protest in Mumbai, demanding that China stop detaining thousands of members of the minority Uighur Muslim ethnic group in detention and political indoctrination centers in the Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

The fundamental human right of religious freedom is under attack around the globe today like never before. While this disturbing trend should concern everyone, it should be particularly alarming for Christians, because a Christian worldview requires us to care about religious freedom — including the religious freedom of others.

Christians believe that God is sovereign over the affairs of man, but he also gives us the freedom to choose to follow him. Just as God provides all human beings that freedom, we must ensure that others have the same ability to decide their religious beliefs and live according to those beliefs (or lack of belief), whether the attacks come from governments forcing people to believe a certain way or nongovernment groups using violence or pressure to push people to adopt or abandon certain beliefs.

This understanding of the freedom that God has given mankind to make the most significant decision of life is why, as Christians, we must care about the plight of those suffering for their religious beliefs — even when those beliefs are very different from our own.

As the head of a Christian organization, I have the responsibility of advocating on behalf of Christians when their ability to freely practice their faith is inhibited by bad government policies or social pressure. It is essential work, and I will continue to highlight these issues.

Yet this same faith also compels me to defend the freedom of others. Advocating for the religious freedom of non-Christians, far from being incompatible with the Christian worldview, is actually required by it. The promotion of the fundamental human right of religious freedom is the product of a fully formed Christian worldview.

This is why, as Christians, we must care about the plight of those suffering for their religious beliefs — even when those beliefs are very different from our own.

My time as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has exposed me to a wide range of religious freedom concerns around the world.

Jewish tombstones are seen desecrated with swastikas in the Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery, north of Strasbourg, in eastern France, on Dec. 13, 2018. Dozens of tombs were defaced. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

In China, the government has detained over 1 million Muslim Uighurs and subjects them to Communist Party indoctrination, forced labor and torture. Increasingly violent anti-Semitic attacks against Jews are on the rise in France. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly face criminal charges for practicing their faith. Iran’s Baha’i community is attacked for its religious identity. Yazidis in northern Iraq have been hunted mercilessly by ISIS, all for simply what they believe.

These examples are all gross violations of the fundamental human right to religious freedom. In the face of such religious freedom violations and atrocities, it is my duty as a Christian to pray for these people and advocate for their religious freedom on their behalf.

Americans — and I would argue the entire world — benefit immensely from the religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. At the core of the American experiment is the idea that a human being’s obligation to God is sacred and deserves protection from any encroachment of government power. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in many other countries, and the abysmal state of religious freedom has caused much suffering worldwide.

Not every country needs to adopt a government system like the United States. However, every country is morally obligated to protect the right of conscience of its citizens — and that means ensuring that people are not persecuted because of their religious beliefs, and are free to live them out in community with others.

That freedom necessarily includes the ability to change one’s faith as well as to share beliefs with others without fear of reprisal. Governments must adopt and enforce legal protections for people of all faiths, and societies must be sure to cultivate a culture of understanding and protection of religious freedom.

In the effort to promote international religious freedom, Christians must remain informed, advocate for policies protecting religious communities and submit these issues to God in prayer.

Religious freedom is not merely an American right. It is a human right that we are compelled to protect and promote for all people of all faiths everywhere.

(Tony Perkins is the newly elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and is also president of the Family Research Council. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Frederick Douglass, July 4th, and remembering Babylon in America

Frederick Douglass, July 4th, and remembering Babylon in America

Video Courtesy of HISTORY


On the anniversary of America’s independence, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made a biblical Psalm – Psalm 137 – best known for its opening line, “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a centerpiece of his most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.

Douglass told the audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, that for a free black like himself, being expected to celebrate American independence was akin to the Judean captives being mockingly coerced to perform songs in praise of Jerusalem.

Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist, this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African Americans.

Origins of the psalm

Psalm 137, the subject of my book, “Song of Exile,” is unique in the Bible. The only one out of 150 psalms to be set in a particular time and place, it relates to the Babylonian Exile – the period between 587-586 B.C. in Israel’s history, when Jews were taken captive in Babylon and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed.

Psalm 137 in 12th-century Eadwine Psalter. By Anonymous (Fitzmuseum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Its nine verses paint a scene of captives mourning “by the rivers of Babylon,” mocked by their captors. It expresses a vow to remember Jerusalem even in exile, and closes with fantasies of vengeance against the oppressors. The Babylonian exile served as a crucible, forcing the Israelites to rethink their relationship to Yahweh, reassess their standing as a chosen people and rewrite their history.

The exile story, which echoes through the Bible, is central to the major prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Lamentations and Isaiah. And the aftermath of exile, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return to Israel, is narrated in books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Bible scholar Rainer Albertz estimates that “about 70 percent of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.”

Inspiring music

Because the psalm deals with music – a famous verse asks, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” – it has been like “poetic catnip” – intriguing to musicians and composers. BachDvorak and Verdiall wrote musical settings for it. Verdi’s first popular opera, “Nabucco,” retells the story of the captivity.

Popular music versions have been recorded by American singer and songwriter Don McLean (and used in a memorable scene in “Mad Men”). It has been used by the musical “Godspell.” Dozens of artists have recorded their own version of “Rivers of Babylon.” This includes a Rastafarian-tinged version by the Jamaican group the Melodians and a version by Boney M that became a blockbuster disco hit in 1978.

Message for social justice

The psalm has also inspired numerous political leaders and social movements, and immigrants as varied as Irish and Korean have identified with the story.

America’s first homegrown composer, William Billings, who lived during the War of Independence, created an anthem that puts Bostonians in the role of oppressed Judeans and the British oppressors in the role of Babylonians. “By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept when we remember’d thee O Boston….”

Statue of Frederick Douglass. West Chester University, CC BY-NC-ND

Frederick Douglass, of course, claimed the message of the psalm for enslaved African Americans.

In the wake of World War II, the dissident actor and singer Paul Robeson saw deep parallels between the plight of Jews and African Americans and loved to perform Dvorak’s setting of the psalm.

Some of the most celebrated African-American preachers, including C. L. Franklin of Detroit (Aretha Franklin’s father), also preached on the psalm. C.L. Franklin answered the psalm’s central question of whether to sing with a resounding yes. So did Jeremiah Wright, who was Barack Obama’s pastor when he lived in Chicago.

Valuing the act of remembrance

So, what is the central message of the psalm for today’s world?

The problem of what to remember, what to forgive and how to achieve justice has never been more vexing. By the original rivers of Babylon, now war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria devastated by the Islamic State, stories emerge of captives taking refuge in the river. The forced migration of millions of people from the region, mainly from Syria, is having worldwide consequences. These include helping the rise of anti-immigration populism across Europe and in the United States.

Meanwhile, Bible scholars are working to interpret a trove of cuneiform tablets that give a more nuanced picture of what life was really like in Babylon for the Judean exiles. And rightly so. For in the midst of all the injustices that confront us every time we check news headlines, remembering is as crucial as forgiving.

That was Frederick Douglass’ point as well. He said of his enslaved compatriots,

“If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’”

Remembering their history is what many Jews worldwide will do when they observe Tisha B’av, the most somber of Jewish holidays. It commemorates the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians and centuries later by the Romans. Jews will reflect on these two historic calamities along with many others.

And that is the message of Psalm 137 as well. It captures succinctly the ways people come to grips with trauma: disbelief, turning inward and venting their rage. There is a reason it continues to resonate with people.