Music and Social Justice

I’ve been a big fan of System of a Down since Toxicity was released in 2001, and “Prison Song” was one of the songs on that album. Their lead vocalist, Serj Tankian, formed the band in the 90’s with several other Armenian-Americans. Passionate for social justice and having experienced discrimination personally, the band was very vocal regarding political and social justice issues. I was awakening to the fact that deep and systemic injustice was not part of our past but alive and thriving in the present. I was also starting to see that America was on a path of escalating tension, easily manipulated by fear, but I didn’t have the language or context to fully connect all of the dots. In 1999, the Columbine Massacres had occurred, changing the way we interacted with schools, our administration, the growing police presence, as well as how students even viewed each other. There had been a substantial number of bomb threats within my school and then this album, with this song, was released a week before the September 11th attack. The timing of these events and their effect on me personally forced me to really question what I knew about my country and the people in it, both with and without power. I started asking myself what I didn’t know.

When I listened to the Prison Song, the statements that they were making sounded so extreme and outlandish that, at first, I thought they were using hyperbole to get their point across. But as I started to do the research and pay attention to the headlines and stories I was hearing on the news, I began to see that System of a Down was actually trying warn people, to let them know what was really happening in our country. Much of what they sung about I’ve read about in books, articles or witnessed through my community. For example, they state in the song that, “They’re trying to build a prison, Following the rights movement, You clamped on with your iron fists, Drugs became conveniently, Available for all the kids.” Consider the graphic below from prisonpolicy.org. You can see, based on the years, the relationship between the civil rights movement and the response of an uptick in the prison population. Our readings clarify the how: “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.”[1]
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[2]

 

Later in the song they proclaim that, “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, You don’t even flinch, All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich…” From The New Jim Crow, we can understand what the statistic for minor drug offenders looks like a few years after the release of this song: “…four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in the state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.” (Alexander, 60) Rather than be concerned with the increasing percentage of our population sitting behind bars and asking what we can do differently, our nation responded with fear and the mission to use our taxes to continue to build more prisons. It certainly was a war, but the language around new non-rich is important. I cannot be sure of the bands intention, but there was a rebranding of black and minority America occurring during this time that made a war against them acceptable as long as leaders and people didn’t refer to race. We’d refer to locations (where these demographics were generally the majority), a specific socio-economic status or even a symptom of the deeper disease in our nation (i.e. crack addicts). Rebranding race as the “new” non-rich changed how people could be targeted.

There is so much more that was said in this song that transformed the way I saw my country, the people in it, and understood my responsibility to participate in social justice. Once your eyes are opened you have to make a choice on how you’re going to respond to it. I have to choose whether I will be a mechanism of oppression and injustice or part of the voice and movement against those who would systemically disenfranchise large swaths of people permanently. I am thankful for all of the artists, actors, and creatives who use media like System of a Down did in order to awaken people to the social issues of our generation.

Prison Song (Lyrics)

By: System of a Down

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison

Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids Following the rights movements You clamped on with your iron fists Drugs became conveniently Available for all the kids

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Nearly two million Americans are incarcerated In the prison system, prison system Prison system of the U.S.

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich Minor drug offenders fill your prisons You don’t even flinch All our taxes paying for your wars Against the new non-rich

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

The percentage of Americans in the prison system Prison system, has doubled since 1985

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences All research and successful drug policies show That treatment should be increased And law enforcement decreased While abolishing Mandatory minimum sentences

Utilizing drugs to pay for Secret wars around the world Drugs are now your global policy Now you police the globe

I buy my crack, I smack my bitch Right here in Hollywood

Drug money is used to rig elections And train brutal corporate sponsored Dictators around the world

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison (For you and me to live in) Another prison system Another prison system Another prison system (For you and me)

They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison They’re trying to build a prison For you and me Oh baby, you and me

[1] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, pg. 60. It goes on to say that from 1980 to the present, there has been a 1,100% increase in drug-related imprisonment.

[2] Wagner, Peter. “Tracking Prison Growth in 50 States,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/overtime.html Written: May 28, 2014

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Steady Heart

I am constantly in the process of being humbled and amazed, and it is wonderful.

Do you know how much, in my journey from my life before God to a life lived with God, I petitioned him to know the end game? To reveal to me the places where we were going together? And I was given hints but the majority of the time it was one step at a time. Infuriating, frustrating, and aggravating.

But so, so good. It revealed God’s faithfulness. It deepened our relationship. I was shown my vast capacity to trust in God and to rest in love. I found myself as I was seeking God and discovered what I was made of: love, compassion, empathy and hope. I found freedom in becoming the person I was designed to be and found healing and restoration in my body, heart and soul. I discovered faith is less a destination than a journey, and the beauty in it is astounding.

 

Racial Castes, in the Present

We see racial castes at work in our country today through all sorts of institutions, and the voices that support those institutions are becoming loud. What was, until recently, structured predominantly around race but without any of the language indicating that, is now starting to show a little bit of its true color, and that color is white. Joe Walsh, a Republican Congressman from Illinois tweeted, “This is war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” This clearly expresses a sentiment that there are castes, that Obama and Black Lives Matter “punks” aren’t part of the real America, even if America was built on a foundation of black bodies (and indigenous peoples) who have been told for centuries that they don’t belong and they don’t matter. Joe Walsh is echoing the sentiment of racists that have directed this country’s path since its inception. The Washington Post reports similar statistics to what we read in The New Jim Crow: “Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with 2.2 million behind bars…And while black Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the incarcerated population. Forty percent of police killings of unarmed people are black men, who make up merely 6 percent of the population, according to a 2015 Washington Post report,” (emphasis added). The Sentencing Project is an excellent resource for understanding just how deep this discrimination grows. In their thirties, one in every ten black males will be locked up on any given day. White youths are three times less likely to be held in juvenile detention when compared to Native American youths. While these are examples of institutions, we have events happening on a daily basis that demonstrate the intentional movements of certain people or groups which target the continuation of these racial castes.

The words “Law and Order” are often used when Jeff Sessions is being discussed, a red flag to those who understand the background of the movement of using “Law and Order” as a justification for growing government institutions that have structural racism. He’s served over 20 years in the US Senate and has a previous background in the Department of Justice. He has also been a delegate to the annual Alabama Methodist Conference, according to Newsweek. While he worked as a federal prosecutor, he failed in his nomination to be a judge. The same article cites Ted Kennedy speaking out at that time, saying that Sessions was a “…throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.” The reports of racism are not limited only to Ted Kennedy. “During that Senate hearing, a former assistant U.S. attorney named Thomas Figures, said Sessions called him “boy” and told him to watch himself around “white folks.” Figures also accused Sessions of opposing the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council.” BBC further reports that, “He had also joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were OK until he heard they smoked marijuana.” Much of his efforts have been focused towards immigration. In addition to his support of “the wall,” Sessions also believes that much of our economic struggle originates in letting too many legal immigrants into the country. As they move towards confirming Sessions, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates was relieved of her duties. The White House released a statement through Sean Spicer that described her actions as political and a betrayal of the DOJ and the US citizens. Reuters reports that, “Yates said late on Monday that the Justice Department would not defend the order against court challenges, saying that she did not believe it would be ‘consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.’” She was fired hours later. The recent confirmation of Sessions and the handling of Sally Yates are both examples of the struggle to take power by a group heavily invested in maintaining racial castes in the United States.

Reflection: Power, My Hope and My Fear

My hope, with regards to power, is that I might use what power I have to transform our society into a place that is a greater reflection of what we are called to as followers of Christ. Proverbs 14:31 (ESV) reminds us of what that calls does, and doesn’t, look like: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” There is verse after verse that calls us to stand against oppression and injustice if we are God’s people and so that is what I must use my power to do. The challenge in this hope is specificity: rather than speaking in generalities and taking no action I had to look for tangible ways by which I might become part of God’s redemptive nature, to effectively help bring about change for generations of people. Some of our most vulnerable people are actually our children. In Cincinnati, we are second in the nation for the highest child poverty rate of 53.1%, just behind Detroit’s staggering 59%. (2012 American Community Survey) I couldn’t help but ask myself what hope one could have in the future if, as a small child, you must fight pangs of hunger while facing insecurity in house and struggle to be clothed properly. In order to transform my city, we were going to have to transform the experience of our city’s youth. And so that became my hope, that I would be able to use my talents and power alongside others who hoped to transform the path of Cincinnati’s children and thus, transform their lives.

There is a certain amount of fear that comes up around this. How do I help in ways that don’t further victimize those we are coming alongside? How do I make sure we are working with people to help break us all free from an oppressive system that disables their self-sufficiency and sense of purpose rather than reaffirming that their salvation lies in the good will of affluent, mostly white people? Psalm 3:2-6 (NIV) is a reminder of where my hope lies even when I feel like we are coming against unchangeable things: “Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’ But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain. I lie down to sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.’” And so I equip myself as much as possible with the knowledge available from those who have come before us as well as studies from the sciences. I also rely on the Spirit to lead us in way that is fruitful and abundant.

A Prayer

Oh the weary and the broken,

the sad, the mourning, the lost

whose heart aches for rest and wholeness.

Oh Lord, make your presence tangible,

show us your tears, Abba,

let us hear you weep with us.

Open our hearts, eyes and ears

Reveal Your steadfast love and

proclaim your faithfulness to us

that we might be reminded

that you are not a God of the past

but the God of forever.

That you move in the present,

and you have plans for our future.

Remind us that You claim us

as your adopted children.

Remind us that you are in the here and now

in the spaces of our relationships

in the acts of love, kindness, grace, hope, and forgiveness.

Call to mind that we are Your dwelling place.

 

We are a faithless people,

quick to forget Your heart and sacrifice.

We act as disobedient children.

Correct us in love so we might not forget

You are Creator of all.

You are the Intercessor, the Guide and the Seal.

You are Sophia, bringing us your Truth and Wisdom.

You are the shepherd whose voice is known to his sheep.

You are our Savior and Redeemer, using all things for your good,

for your glory and your Kingdom.

You are light and love,

the source of all good and wonderful things.

To You we give thanks that we are part of your story,

constantly in the process of being saved by you.

King and Counselor, Corrector and Comforter, Judge and Advocate,

you are all things to your people.

Oh my God, how good you are.

 

Is Your Identity in Your Brokenness or Your Wholeness?

Some find their identity in their brokenness, their failures, the mistakes that they made. It’s true, when we stand on our own, when we choose isolation, we are broken and seeking wholeness, fulfillment, happiness. We seek and seek and seek and inevitably grow weary. Perhaps you never quite feel satiated, or maybe the satisfaction you occasionally achieve only lasts for a short time.

But there is truth in this: we are meant to know wholeness, but wholeness as it comes through relationship with the Creator, the Advocate, the Savior: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17) It is the triune God that holds us together; that brings fullness, meaning and purpose to our lives. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he calls this out to them and explains that God is limited to neither Jew nor Gentile but rather to all of creation.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. -Ephesians 3:14-19

There is a Fight

Do not be confused when you face difficult times; we are promised them in this life, and yet we are reminded that we are not a people ruled by fear, we are not a people dominated by anxiety. Psalm 27:1 reminds us: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread?” So we will not shrink away from the obstacles ahead of us. We will not call ourselves weak and talk ourselves out of moving into the places that God calls us. Deuteronomy 31:6 challenges this tendency: “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” So I ask, if people had to describe your character based on your actions, what words would they use? What guides your choices? What do you choose to do when nobody is looking? What is your true criteria for the challenges you take on, the mountains you climb, the trials you endure?

I encourage you to read Romans 8:31-40 out loud, and then watch the video.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I Will Fight from Elevation Church on Vimeo.