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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God is Countercultural

These topics are hotly debated, but perhaps it is because they should be. I’m a millenial who grew up with mass shootings, I’ve lived as a Christian and non-Christian, and I do own a gun. But as a Christian, I have to consider what I am defending and protecting with my words online and in conversations. First, because God asks things of us as a follower and second, because we have the ability to bring people closer or further to God through our actions.

Sandy Hook. Orlando. Are we more apt to defend the rights of our guns or to demand some change? To say the status quo is no longer good enough? God, Jesus, calls us to the widow, the immigrant and the orphan, to mourn with those who mourn. Yet I see many who claim they are Christians first jumping to protect our rights instead of our people, and in the mean time we are creating more people who are mourning.

I love our rights. As a history major, I understand the danger of giving up rights out of fear or the desire for protection or security. I’m not saying the answer is simple or easy but we must look at our choices and as Christians, we should be caring for the victims more than our weapons. That doesn’t mean I’m saying hand them all over and melt them down; but we believe in improvement in our personal, spiritual and business life. It would be startling to think that some improvements can’t be made.

This, surprisingly or not, ties in to things like the death penalty. I don’t support the death penalty in cases where someone can be safely kept. This wasn’t always the case but my time with some Catholic nuns has shown me that everyone should be afforded every opportunity to repent and change their path; are we not all guilty in some way and worthy of being prisoners (if not of worldly law then certainly of God’s)?

I think if we examine other controversial issues like immigration, abortion, etc. we can start to see that leading with love and empathy might be the better foundation to build upon.

Nonviolent Jesus: Humility, Simplicity, and Charity

Jesus often modeled humility, not elevating himself or speaking only of his rank and status. Rather, he did the exact opposite. In Luke 22:27, he teaches “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” Here he shows the position he has chosen to take in obedience to his Father, and it is a humble one. He emphasized this point over and over again, although one of the most poignant moments is described in John 13:5, “Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”

It was not only in how he served that he was humble, but also the company he kept. Many expected the Messiah to be the kind of Warrior King they would recognize, a ruler that kept company with other rulers, great leaders and warriors. The Pharisees expected cleanliness which meant not interacting with those who were considered unclean; but that was not Jesus’ way. In Matthew 9:10-11, we see that “… as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” He proved through word and action that he was going to take a role in the world that was ‘from below.’

He also modeled simplicity. Luke 9:58 tells us, “And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” He was not caught up in belongings, in building a house that kept him in one place. He instead kept his possessions few and traveled to spread his gospel. This was an expectation he had not only for himself but for his followers when he sent them out to preach the Word and rely on those along the way to care for them.

But his simplicity is not just in His belongings but in His teachings. He taught in a way that invited the new person in but gave depth and greater relationship to the believer. Jesus was both high invitation and high challenge, but he kept much of what he said simple. When asked what commandment was most important, his response was both simple and the foundation of his actions. Matthew 22:37-39: “Jesus answered: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.”

Lastly, Jesus constantly modeled charity. I often feel like, when reading the Bible, Jesus taught more on charity and love than any other aspect. I wonder if this is because if we do these things we cannot help but have our hearts changed by it and come more in alignment with God. Perhaps this is why Jesus says in Matthew 25:35, “’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.” 1 John 3:17 asks, “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? “ This is the question that Jesus constantly tries to get people to ask themselves. Jesus is charitable through his works, his time, his healing and ultimately through his sacrifice. Jesus is all things charitable.

By looking at the parables and examples that Jesus himself provides, we begin to see a type of leader form; a servant leader. By emulating him and these virtues, I would argue that if applied as Jesus meant them to be, ordinary humans would unintentionally become nonviolent. This is because you cannot apply all the things He called us to do and simultaneously behave in a violent nature. They are at two ends of a spectrum. Jesus was at his core nonviolent; he allowed himself to be sacrificed for others. That being said, it is best to pay attention to any violent inclination or tendencies to condone violence so we can understand why and address the discrepancy.