Alexis Mann’s life story is a case study in beating the odds. She grew up poor, dropped out of school, had a baby at 16, and ran away from home.
“I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face,” said Mann, who went on to graduate from high school and college and earn her master’s degree in special education.
Today, she teaches at Harrison Education Center, a Minneapolis high school for students with emotional and behavioral challenges, many of whom have experienced trauma. Mann’s story of emerging from desperate circumstances and thriving “provides students with hope, and helps them not give up on themselves.”
Her job can be challenging in the best of times. The work is even more demanding now, in light of the coronavirus, which has forced classes online, and the recent police killing of George Floyd, which happened just a few miles from the high school. In recent weeks, Mann has had to facilitate some difficult conversations, like when her 8-year-old grandson asked her if what happened to Floyd was going to happen to him.
“We say we don’t don’t know,” she said, “that we hope not.”
Mann spoke recently with Chalkbeat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Minneapolis has garnered international attention in recent weeks, following the police killing there of George Floyd and the protest movement that followed. How are your students processing the tragedy?
Most or all of my students have had encounters with the police. Many of them are on probation, and some have served time. They have a genuine lack of trust with the so-called criminal justice system. This is a time when students are asking themselves: What are my priorities? What are my needs? And for some of them school has not been a priority right now. With the protests, they are wanting to be part of that and showing up in large numbers to have their voices heard.
The biggest takeaway for them is to rise up and use their voices, to practice their civic participation and to vote, and to show up in spaces where policies are being made and decisions are affecting them. We do a lot of community engagement work in class; I take them to the state capitol to teach them about the power of their voices and the importance of fighting for equal protection, as is promised under the law.
Were you surprised by what happened to George Floyd?
What took me by surprise was the grim smirk on [the officer’s] face. He had this look like so what. It reminds me of how teachers sometimes treat their students, knowing that they’ll be protected regardless of job performance. Some teachers create a racist environment, a hostile learning environment, where some students get preferential treatment and others are over-punished. If Johnny asks to go to the bathroom, fine; if Tyrone asks, they don’t believe him.
Tell us about your own experience with school and how it impacts your work today.
I grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, a historically black community of St. Paul. When I was in elementary school, my parents bused us out to St. Anthony Park, which was a primarily white school. I remember Miss Buttler, the only black teacher in the school. I always hoped I would be lucky enough to be assigned to her classroom, but I got another teacher. Looking back, having teachers who I did not connect with caused me to lose interest in school.
I started high school in a suburb outside of Atlanta. I skipped class, refused to do my work, flunked, and ran away — back to Minnesota. I decided that my only way out was to become a teen mom, and three months after my daughter was born I struck out on my own at the age of 16, and I never looked back. I was determined to turn the stereotypical fate of teen moms on its face. Ultimately, I graduated from Central High School in St. Paul with my class in 1993, and went on to college and graduate school.
My story gives me a heightened ability to relate to my students and puts me in a place where I can be more considerate of their needs. I did not grow up with opportunities for success readily available, but through all that — what I encountered coming out of poverty — I’m able to provide students with a blueprint.
What’s one thing you’ve read that’s helped you become a better educator?
In recent months, you’ve been teaching your classes remotely and also facilitating at-home learning for your children and grandchildren. What advice would you give to parents who are trying to help their own children during the pandemic?
Try to keep your kids on a consistent schedule, and make sure they are going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. Create a distance learning space (or spaces) where your kids can focus and work quietly. It may also be a good idea to establish agreements with your children. For example, no pajamas in the distance learning space or no video games during the distance learning day. Lastly, create incentives for meeting milestones that you establish.
Speaking of advice, what’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?
My dad once told me, “The ones who know the most say the least, so hear more than you say and think before you speak.” Being a good listener is paramount to establishing respect, building rapport, and cultivating healthy relationships, which has been extremely helpful in building strong connections with my students and preventing and de-escalating behaviors.
What gives you hope at this moment?
Distance learning is giving our students access to learning 21st-century technology skills that they were not getting before, and they will need these skills to compete in the future job market. I hope that we can continue to provide distance learning as an option for students who are uncomfortable in the classroom environment, or who skip school because of safety reasons, or who need to earn extra credit to graduate. I support using distance learning to create more equitable access to education and technology skills.
Before he was a Democratic congressman and before he was a civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis preached to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy.
It’s a story staffers of Lewis can repeat by heart because they’ve heard it so many times.
“They would bow their heads; they would shake their heads,” he recounts in footage from an appearance at a Houston church in the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”
“They never quite said ‘Amen,’ but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues on the other side listen to me today in the Congress.”
The documentary, presented through a partnership including Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films, traces the journey of Lewis, now 80, from the fields of Alabama to the halls of Congress. The film portrays how Lewis was shaped by his faith and guided by religious leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson, two advocates for nonviolent civil rights action.
“Faith is an integral part of Mr. Lewis’ life but also part of his activism,” said Dawn Porter, director of the documentary, who filmed the congressman for more than a year starting shortly before the 2018 election.
Though he is a politician rather than a preacher per se, Lewis considers politics to be his calling, she said.
“He started preaching to chickens and now in many ways even though he’s a layperson he preaches to us,” she said of the man with a seminary degree as well as a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy. “That is part of the reason why people find it so motivating and so comforting when he speaks.”
The 96-minute documentary, which is to be released on demand and in select theaters on Friday (July 3), includes what has become Lewis’ mantra in its title.
“My philosophy is very simple,” he says in the film, which is also expected to air on CNN in late September. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The documentary’s producers have created a “Good Trouble Sunday” promotion for the movie, encouraging houses of worship to host a digital screening starting this Sunday,for which they can keep a portion of ticket sales.
Faith leaders on a mid-June conference call promoting the documentary expressed appreciation for Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer late last year, and his long service as a role model.
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta, recalled seeking advice from Lewis in the 1990s, when as the NAACP’s youth director Bryant received pushback for suggesting the civil rights organization reach out to the hip-hop generation.
“He said to me: ‘Jamal, change is never politically correct,’” Bryant recalled. “‘If everybody is in agreement, it’s not that radical.”
In the documentary, Lewis, a member of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, recalled his last meal in downtown Washington just before embarking on a trip as a Freedom Rider seeking equal access to accommodations for Black Southerners.
“Growing up in rural Alabama, I never had Chinese food before,” he recalled. “But someone that evening said, ‘You should eat well because this might be like the Last Supper.’”
American civil rights activist John Lewis on April 16, 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko/LOC/Creative Commons
Porter said those comments showed how Lewis and other young civil rights activists did not take their work lightly as they prepared for rides on segregated buses or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
“You’ll see in the movie that Rev. Jim Lawson, who was coaching and guiding the students, had them rehearse,” she said of Lewis and his fellow activists. “And I do think he decided that life under a segregated system was not the life that he wanted to live.”
Archival footage — some of which the congressman says he’d never seen before — reviews landmark, as well as lesser-known, moments in Lewis’ history. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On his first attempt on “Bloody Sunday” to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and thought he would die as he protested for voting rights.
The film’s crew followed him as he supported fellow Democrats in the recent election and traveled with a bipartisan group of politicians and faith leaders on the annual pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith and Politics Institute.
“Congressman Lewis has conveyed to all of us over the course of his lifetime that (the) fundamental right to vote is a foundational right,” said Joan Mooney, CEO of the institute, on the recent conference call. “So more than the transactional act of voting, Congressman Lewis talks about its sacredness, and voter participation in a democracy is the active expression of the values of all human beings.”
A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.
It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.
But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.
Building a fan base
Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.
Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.
During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.
Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.
Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.
In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”
When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.
By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”
As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
Making enemies at home
Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.
As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.
Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.
The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.
Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.
How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”
Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.
Anti-black racism in the United States continues to be a problem over half a century since the abolition of Jim Crow laws. These laws enforced segregation between black and white Americans in public places.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in employment and banned race-based segregation, as well as sporadic efforts by successive US governments to tackle racial inequalities, racism still looms large in 21st-century America.
Even if it is not a national trend, minorities in the US continue to receive discriminatory treatment from law enforcement officials and face major obstacles in securing housing, health care and quality education, as well as experiencing irregularities in the justice system. To make matters worse, things have escalated under President Donald Trump.
Some scholars talk about the existence of structural racism in the US, and there are statistics that corroborate this. In 2018, a poll by NBC News/SurveyMonkey found that a majority of Americans believe racism is a major issue in the United States. According to the poll, 64% said “racism remains a major problem” in society. This is while 45% of Americans believe race relations are getting worse.
In 2017, a poll by Quinnipiac University scholars found that more than six in 10 Americans say the “level of hatred and prejudice in the United States has increased since Trump was elected president.”
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Akil Houston, a filmmaker, social critic and an associate professor of cultural and media studies at Ohio University, about racial inequality, the politics of race and the portrayal of African-Americans in the media.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: The election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States in November 2008 was a turning point for the nation and for African-Americans. How do you evaluate his performance in terms of challenging and bridging the divide between black Americans and the rest of society?
Akil Houston: I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the premise of this question. Symbolically, sure. The election of Barack Obama did not change the material conditions for black America. Yes, his election was inspirational, for US citizens who longed for evidence to support their belief in meritocracy or for those who misguidedly felt his win signaled the dawning of a post-racial country.
The Obama presidency was not remarkably different than any other concerning key issues impacting African Americans. I would argue — as others have — it would be, and was in some instances, more damaging to have a black man speaking from the platform of the presidency reinforcing the myth that racial inequality in the United States is the burden of black America — the question also gestures toward this.
In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Barack Obama highlighted what would be a common theme in his approach to race when he said:
“[A]s a general matter, my view would be that if you want to get at African American poverty, the income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids. Higher minimum wages, full-employment programs, early-childhood education: Those kinds of programs are, by design, universal, but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit African Americans.”
This perspective does not focus on racism as the key factor in the divide, nor does it offer any specific remedies for black America. In fact, as many historians, journalists and those from the “alternative” or “radical left” and progressive camps argued, conditions worsened during his presidency. While the obstructionist role Republicans took during his tenure cannot be undervalued, the administration took a position of non-position on racial matters.
Ziabari: President Donald Trump is openly called a racist by many of his detractors, including journalists and academics. His views on minorities and immigrants are well known to those who follow US politics. Has life become particularly difficult for African-Americans under President Trump in terms of opportunities and civil liberties?
Houston: While the current administration’s use of dog-whistle tactics may create the impression that these are recent trends, anti-black resentment has been rising since the Obama White House years. Acts of terror, from church shootings, instances of police brutality and the deaths of people like Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland and far too many more, demonstrate that living while black continues to be challenging regardless of who sits in the White House.
Long before this administration, there has been a historical pattern of intense resistance to African-American enfranchisement. This racial resentment typically peaks after periods of significant inclusion efforts, for instance, in response to reconstruction in the 1860s, the human rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s and most recently as a response to the presidency of Barack Obama in 2009. This political moment is consistent with this historical pattern.
Ziabari: One of the major grievances of black Americans about how they are treated pertains to the law enforcement and the justice system in the United States. It’s said that African-American wrongdoers and felons receive harsher sentences than white Americans when they commit the same crimes. Is this assertion demonstrable by facts and figures?
Houston: Yes. The book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and perhaps more reader-friendly for a lay audience is the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. These books are a small sampling of the many books, peer-review scholarship that provides history, context and empirical data regarding incarceration, sentencing and the historic disparity within the US justice system.
Ziabari: How are black Americans depicted in mainstream media in the United States? Is the portrayal realistic, fair and objective?
Houston: This is a broad question and there are a number of variables to consider. For instance, things like overall representation, context of representation and in what forms, must be taken into account. While there are more images of African-Americans than in previous eras, African-Americans continue to be underrepresented as subject area experts — outside of sports and race — in broadcast news content and overrepresented in comedies, sports and reality-TV programming.
Ziabari: Some scholars argue that the decline in incomes and socioeconomic inequality that black and brown Americans experience today mean nothing has changed and improved significantly for African-Americans five decades after the abolition of Jim Crow laws. Do you agree?
Houston: Empirical data supports this statement. While I wouldn’t paint the African-American experience with a broad generalized brush, or state nothing has changed at all, there are still significant gaps between various groups based on race and gender. The National Urban League’s State of Black America annual report noted in 2017 that fewer black Americans are dropping out of high school and more are earning associate’s degrees. However, racial disparities still plague other areas of life.
Ziabari: An article in the American Journal of Public Health in 2004 noted that over 886,000 lives could have been saved if black Americans received the same care as whites. This is in reference to the number of African-Americans who died between 1991 to 2000 due to the lack of medical insurance, inadequate insurance, poor service and other factors. Is discrimination against African-Americans in the health sector so serious today?
Houston: I would preface my response by first saying: It is essential to be mindful that anti-discrimination laws do not operate exclusively on behalf of black people. While the adage that if white America has a cough, black America has the flu rings true, these disparities in health care impact the entire nation. Health care is as much a class issue as it is a race issue. The continuing debate on affordable health care and how the government will address treatment for pre-existing conditions and infant mortality rates in the African-American and Latino communities, coupled with the fact that people of color often complain that their physicians do not listen or misdiagnose them, provide ample evidence that these factors are present today.
Ziabari: How are African-American artists using arts and culture to reflect on the discrimination and inequalities they face today?
Houston: When I see this question, I wonder why it is posed as if it is the sole province of marginalized groups like African-Americans. Most often these same questions are not raised with white artists and their work and how it reflects on the discrimination and inequalities of society.
As the scholar bell hooks once pointed out, ironically, more than any other group, white artists are able to produce cultural products like film and music without being subjected to a constant demand that their work engage or challenge systems of domination based on race, class and gender. As a result, it is often these works that are the most problematic. Yes, there are some artists who engage these issues as there have always been. Artists continue to engage the complexities of life. Regardless if it is the work of playwright Suzan Lori Parks, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, or singer and actress Janelle Monae, artists continue to push the boundaries of creativity by exploring these issues of the day.
Ziabari: How do you think African-Americans can debunk the myths about their community and enjoy greater social, economic and educational opportunities? Is it through political activism that they should overcome discrimination and difficulties?
Houston: This question assumes that some act or role by African-Americans is the salve to the nation’s centuries-old racial quagmire and doesn’t address the centrality of American racism in explaining sustained black-white disparity. Throughout US history, African-Americans have attempted all matters of redress, from enlisting in the armed services, the ballot, respectability politics, civil disobedience and other forms of dissent. From the nadir of the Civil War to the present, this has been consistent for African-American activists and their allies.
In 1968, the late writer James Baldwin was asked a similar question by Esquire magazine. His response was that, if “the American black man [and women too] is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.” I would argue that the “give up” portion has to do with the assumption that the promise of a just and truly democratic society is the responsibility of the marginalized. As Baldwin cautioned then, and I would echo now the responsibility is in large measure on white citizens who can influence the national conversation and the behavior of their families and friends in ways that marginalized groups cannot.
Ziabari: As a university professor, do you think black students feel unrestricted and also enthusiastic about engaging and interacting with students of other races, especially white students, or do racial gaps keep them apart and make their collaboration challenging?
Houston: Given the racial climate in the United States, one would be hard-pressed to find black students who didn’t feel some level of anxiety about interacting with other student populations. However, black students like other student populations are generally open to collaboration if the university is sincere in its commitment to foster an inclusive, welcoming learning environment.
Also, it is important, again, to note that black students are a diverse group. If there is a real interest in solutions, the first step is to stop thinking of black students as a monolith. These students have different worldviews, politics, goals and various identities that distinguish them from other generations of black students and each other. I would argue some faculty have these challenges around collaboration. The university campus is in many ways a microcosm of the larger US. Rather than expecting marginalized students to be the ones to shift, more progressive schools have found ways to institutionalize diversity efforts and change the way they engage these student populations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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.”