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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Christian Life and Politics

I hear the laments of people who feel like their faith has been hijacked; who look at the face of Christian’s in the media and even in the people around them and feel anger and sickness.  They want to disassociate themselves with their faith and God because of what they see playing out locally, nationally and globally in his name. But friends, we must remember that this darkness is not evidence of God’s absence but rather a choice in the disobedience of his people. Therefore we must seek the light and shine it into those places which reject it.

We must remember and be encouraged that even Jesus saw this, that he knew that there would be people proclaiming deeds and works in his name who knew him not. Your spiritual family is not with those who claim a title but do not know what it means. In Matthew 12:48-50 it says: “But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus recognizes those who abide in the Word of God as his family, not the workers of lawlessness. And this is a lawlessness from God, not this world. It says in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’” In really simple terms, what is that law that Jesus speaks to?

There’s several places where Jesus makes this really simple for everyone. One instance is right before he illustrates his point in the story of the Good Samaritan (keeping in mind that Samaritans were a shunned people by the religious, and Jesus later sent his disciples SPECIFICALLY to Samaria, wanting them to continue the work he had started with the Samaritans):

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” -Luke 10:25-28

It’s also expressed again in Matthew where he reminds us that ALL the law and the prophets hang on the fact that we love God with our entire selves (heart, soul and mind) and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Matthew 22:36-40

This might seem fairly obvious and simple but consider that God doesn’t want part of you; he wants all of you. Politics, employment, friendships, policy, institutions, family, finances… these all belong to God and the choices we make matter deeply. It says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We cannot trust in our God, love him with all our being and love our neighbor as ourselves if the space we are operating out of is fear. Fear of Others, fear of terrorism, fear of economic downturns, fear of scarcity, fear of man, fear of loss. This is not what God’s people were made for!

In 1 Peter 2:9 we are reminded, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We bear light into the darkness! We are not a nation formed from blood or heritage but rather from a King who came to earth and spilled his blood not out of obligation but out of love.  Love.  Love for a God that is good. Love for a people that persecuted Him. Love for a world that yearned for salvation even when it turned away. We cannot find anything to boast in unless it is the profound way God redeems every part of our lives. We are told in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” We must remember to not become prideful but be a people of repentance and humility, for who are we apart from God?

But, you say, this is real-life 2000+ years down the road, right? Life feels pretty hard. People we love are dying and suffering, anger and violence appearing to push in from all corners, and things are just so different from that time…how could we possibly know what we are meant to do? Yet, the world has been a messed up place for a super long time, and this isn’t a new story for anyone. It was dark in the time of Jesus and his answer wasn’t to build walls, reject the refugee, and blame the oppressed for their oppression. It wasn’t to deny the existence of privilege. Jesus tells you what will happen to you and it isn’t based on your feelings or the amount of money you gave or the roles you held in your church. You will be sorted based on how you cared for others.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ -Matthew 25:31-36 

And then you consider the ‘blow away moment’ that comes next when we discover that even the righteous didn’t recognize God as they were meeting the real needs of others rather than protecting what was theirs.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40

Consider how truly profound this statement is. How could Jesus be present in the strangers we welcome, or in the naked we clothed or the sick we care for? What relationship could Jesus possibly have to us visiting those in prison?

Love. Our God is love. Agape. God doesn’t just feel love; God IS love. It says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Because if you know Him, you know love, and where there is love God is present. When one of us goes to the prisoner to show solidarity, God is there. When you go to give warmth through clothing, God is there. When you welcome the foreigner, the refugee, the stranger, God is there.

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46

Our fate is clear; it is a choice. Will we be a people who chooses to care for the sick? Who gives asylum to the stranger? Who quenches thirst and satisfies hunger? Or will we choose to be a people lost to our basest fears?

 

 

Everyday, We Choose to be Christians

I haven’t finished “processing” the Holocaust yet, not that one ever can. It is something I studied for a very long time and used, when I was an atheist, for proof of both God’s non-existence or callousness and the evil of Christians. Yet as I dive further into this challenging issue I have begun to gain a deeper and deeper understanding of why Jesus said he brought good news to the poor.  It is because it was not perceived as good news to the rest of the people and if we repent and believe, our faith calls for our actions to speak for us. Unfortunately, there are Christians that don’t hear this call to action and don’t see this perspective of Jesus and they are often the most vocal and visible on television and comment sections online.

Jesus did not tell us, first and foremost, to condemn. To lecture. To tell people that they shouldn’t have abortions but if they want to take care of that kid they should have, then they should go to college to get a degree so they can get a job whose pay  will maybe lift them out of poverty after they pay the loans off in ten years (or much more offensive bits of condemnation masked as wisdom). In fact, Jesus tells us to do this:

Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love in the Hebrew context is not making a heart shape with your hands at someone; it isn’t only words or gestures. Love is action. Jesus is telling people that loving your neighbor is as important as loving God and it is loving them in a physical, actionable way. It is sometimes sacrifice of time or resources. Jesus makes it even more clear that He means this in this next verse:

Matthew 25:34-40 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Two important things to note here.  One, Jesus put himself in, and suffers with, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers (foreigners), naked, sick, and IMPRISONED. He didn’t mention the rich, or even the comfortable. Jesus speaks of people who are condemned, who are insulted, who are blamed for their condition by society in Jesus’ time and  today.  Two, those are the people God sides with, and there are sides. This is because God cannot abide injustice. God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit to right these wrongs, to fix the injustice of the world, to comfort the sick. Christians are called to do God’s work, to bring God’s Kingdom from heaven to earth, and when we ignore that call and continue to support the mechanisms of oppression in our systems, businesses and government, we are part of the problem.

Here is hard news for many “first world” people. Each day, we choose to be liberators or oppressors. We choose whether or not we follow Christ’s teachings. Personally, I never realized how much I was a part of a system of oppression. That doesn’t free me from responsibility though. Sticking my head in the sand, turning the news off, or ignoring the sadness in my heart doesn’t stop the suffering in the world; personally I think the only thing it does is breaks God’s heart because that’s how the Trinity speaks to us. Through our heart, soul and mind.

I think God is reaching out, that the Holy Spirit is calling to us to have compassion, to do the Lord’s work, to bring the Kingdom through charity, empowerment and justice. When I look at the Bible, this is how I see God operate. Generally, it is through relationships with people, not God acting alone. We act with God and when we don’t, we deny our Creator. Choosing to be ignorant to the suffering of God in humanity seems to be an unacceptable option, personally, so I continue to work at improving this.

This is not to say that our actions earn us anything. It doesn’t; but it does speak to our relationship with God and suffering humanity, with whom Jesus says He is with. It makes clear who our King really is, who we really believe is our Savior, and where we really believe the Kingdom lies. How we spend our money, where we choose to live, what companies we support (fair trade, ethics, etc.), the way we spend our time and treat people. These things matter deeply.

Let us not forget these very important points:

  1. Jesus had the humblest of births
  2. Jesus in adulthood travelled and was therefore fundamentally homeless; Jesus often relied on the charity and goodwill of others and was also in solidarity with both the foreigner and the poor in his living condition. He gave similar conditions to his disciples at times.
  3. Jesus kept company with those considered to be outsiders of his faith, people that others would look down on he looked at with love and compassion.
  4. Jesus suffered and died the brutal, violent death of a criminal (prisoner).
  5. Jesus was resurrected, a promise of hope to all people who feel the solidarity of Jesus Christ in their suffering.

It seems like these are sometimes glossed over, or that Jesus did all that just as a side note.  You don’t dedicate 30+ years, coming into the world and leaving it in the most humble of ways, without good reason. Not Christ. The Prosperity gospels tell you that if you do the right thing God blesses you with wealth and health which conversely means that if you’re poor and sick, God thinks that’s what you deserve. I just don’t see that God as the good God I know.  If you look at Jesus, His blessings are all for people in a place of suffering and oppression. His freedom is not a freedom for you to become more rich, but for you to find freedom in salvation so that you can bring more freedom to others.

Just a few thoughts. Still trying to process it all.