Singing and Praying Justice

Singing and Praying Justice

“What’s going on?” — Marvin Gaye

The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.

A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.

War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.

Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?

At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?

In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?

The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.

Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:

“Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)

“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know”
(from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).

“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that”
(from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).

Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.

The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?

The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.

The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.

Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.

Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).

If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).

Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.

What to Do?

How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.

Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.

In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:

“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”

As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).

Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.

How We Get There

1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:

The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.

Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.

2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.

3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).

4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.

5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.

6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.

Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”

Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.

Lent and the Least of These

Lent and the Least of These

During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.

Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.

Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.

As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.

By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.

Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?

Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.

If Ruth Came to America

If Ruth Came to America

When and where we live, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened — the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.

In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her –and decided to marry her.

But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?

Would she be admitted at the border?

Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?

Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?

Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?

Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?

When she boldly “uncovers the feet” of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the “family values” that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?

Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone — not just a certain percentage of the people.

In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.

And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything — not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.

Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.

Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”

Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world — help bring the days of peace and justice.

What do we learn from their story today?

In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?

What are our obligations — those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?

Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?

Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities — local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary “furlough” from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?

Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?

What can we do — what must we do — to help bring on the days of peace and justice?

Retired Ugandan bishop seeks restorative justice for former child soldiers

Retired Ugandan bishop seeks restorative justice for former child soldiers

by Fredrick Nzwili

(RNS) A retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda is agitating for restorative justice – which emphasizes forgiveness and truth-telling over punishment – in a region where the wounds of a brutal war unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army persist.

Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, 84, has been responding to community concerns that the modern court system may not deliver justice for the people who suffered in the complex conflict.

In 1980s and ’90s, the LRA rebels, led by Joseph Kony, terrorized civilians in northern Uganda, abducting children and forcefully recruiting boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves.

Kony turned child soldiers into killing machines against their own community.

By 2005, the LRA had abducted over 60,000 children and killed more than 100,000 people, while displacing 2.5 million people.

Ochola buried the dead, walked with returning child soldiers and at one point was forced into exile.

The conflict took a toll on his family. His wife died in 1997 after a land mine blast hit a car she was traveling in. Ten years earlier, his daughter committed suicide after being gang-raped by the rebels.

But Ochola has refused to remain bitter, choosing to promote peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation among his people.

“If there is no process of reconciliation, there is no healing, and if there is no healing there is no restoration and justice,” said Ochola, who served the Diocese of Kitgum.  “Healing and restoration brings transformation of life for those affected.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted five top leaders of the rebel group in 2005.

Last month, it put on trial Dominic Ongwen, a 41-year-old former rebel commander who was abducted at age 10. He faces 70 charges, including murder, attempted murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced marriage. He is the first former child soldier to appear before court.

“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” Ongwen said in court.

 

Dominic Ongwen, center, a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, sits in the courtroom of the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Peter Dejong/Pool

Ochola has been urging the court to carefully reconsider the circumstances under which children-turned-commanders were trapped in LRA captivity.

 

While he does not deny the court’s charges, he fears the court may not offer restorative justice but is seeking punishment or retribution. He is also concerned it will divide the community, which is in dire need of unity in the aftermath of LRA atrocities.

Like many other cultural and religious leaders in Uganda, he stresses a traditional justice system known as “Mato Oput,” which he thinks is more holistic.

Centered on forgiveness, it involves truth telling, compensation and a ritual in which food is shared and the accused drinks bitter herbs.

“It brings restoration to broken human relationships, transforms lives and heals the hearts of those involved,” said Ochola. “The court system, which is retributive, promotes polarization, alienating both sides.”

Mato Oput mirrors many of the forgiveness and reconciliation efforts central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and the Gacaca courts used in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

Mato Oput is the justice system of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, the community most affected by the LRA conflict.

The LRA left northern Uganda in 2005 and is now believed to operate along the border region of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The LRA is still at large and they are still fighting … so we must continue with the work,” said Ochola.

In 1997, Ochola was one of the founders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith organization led by cultural and religious leaders that sought to peacefully end the LRA insurgency. ARLPI has been facilitating grass-roots and intercommunal reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.

One aspect of that is trying to help the government and LRA go through a process of truth telling.

“This would involve accepting full responsibility and making public acknowledgment of what one has done,” said Ochola.

One problem, he said, is the government’s lack of political will to dismantle the LRA.

In the case of Ongwen, Ochola had hoped the former rebel would be brought to the community for truth telling. Since that did not happen, Ongwen will likely refuse to accept responsibility.

“As a victim, he continues to be punished twice,” said Ochola.

Sheikh Musa Khalil, a northern Uganda Muslim leader and the ARLPI vice chairman, backs Ochola, saying that with Ongwen, the traditional system could have achieved more.

“It mirrors what is in the Quran and Bible,” said Khalil. “It’s based on forgiveness. We feel he should have been brought to us.”

The bishop believes a change is needed in the general wordview that when a child is abducted — as in the case of northern Uganda — he or she must take full responsibility in adulthood for any crimes committed while a captive.

“For northern Uganda,” he said, “this is wrong because the children had their humanity destroyed.”

(Fredrick Nzwili is a reporter based in Nairobi)