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?

 

 

The Hope that Lies In Relationship with God

I am humbled. Truly and deeply humbled.

The faithfulness of my God even when I struggle amazes me. I wrote at one point about how God tore down everything in my life that I had built in order to lay a good foundation. This allowed everything that was built afterwards to point to God’s power to redeem; that it demonstrates not my glory but God’s.

He called me to move to Clifton and when I gave up control, He gave me a beautiful home with a faithful Christian woman that challenges, inspires and balances me.

I said no to the move from Cincinnati that I’d always wanted and stayed in a city I never loved and God transformed my heart and vision for Cincinnati; through my volunteering, classes and relationships I’ve come to see this city and her people for the beautiful love story she is.

Less than two months ago I left my job because I felt like that was what I was supposed to do. I spent time in prayer and reflection asking God to lead me. I struggled and fought, wept and submitted. I put all my trust and faith in God who I believed would show up where I had heard His promise. This gave me time to learn to rest, to learn to listen, to deepen my faith and better understand the call God put on my heart. When I was ready, He connected me to the most beautiful team of people whose mission is the same as mine; I wouldn’t have recognized that this was the ideal role for me if God hadn’t called me to leave when He did and I hadn’t responded with a yes.

Every place I thought I would feel stifled by my faith I have found instead to be full of freedom. I’ll make a lot less money and I certainly own substantially less than I used to but it turns out money and THINGS were never able to bring me joy, freedom and happiness.

This life with God is a series of contradictions; each step of the way I felt like I was sacrificing so much and on the other side I see that they were just chains being broken so I know the freedom found in this true love, in this real relationship.

Three German Theologians Post-Holocaust

Jurgen Moltmann hypothesized that God’s suffering is real. He theorized that it was relationally flowing from authentic love. Summarized below are some of the ideas contained in Moltmann’s theology.

Jurgen Moltmann, a German post-Holocaust “political theologist,” placed suffering into the being of God and described this idea as the “crucified God.” Before this, it was assumed in most circles that the suffering experienced by Jesus was relegated to the flesh and that the divine nature was out of the reach of this suffering. Moltmann’s proposal presented the startling vision of a God that truly suffers with those who suffer in the world. During the crucifixion, Moltmann suggests that not only does the Son suffer a brutal physical death, but the Father also suffers in the separation from His son and out of their mutual love the Holy Spirit comes into our sinful and broken world. It is really important to note that God doesn’t have to do go through this; God freely chooses to suffer out of their love for humanity. This does not justify evil or bad things happening in the world; instead it is a reminder that God is a God that sides with the suffering and rests in the depths of it, desirous for the freedom and restoration of the Creator’s people.

Dorothee Soelle worked through three “theological positions” by which she shapes her conclusion that “divine power is the silent cry of life in the midst of suffering.”

     Dorothee Soelle is a German whose family helped hide a Jewish family during the war and elected to visit Auschwitz as a young Lutheran theologian. Bearing witness to such events caused her to re-evaluate the classical attributes ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. As Elizabeth Johnson says in Quest for a Living God, “…she went from classical theism’s omnipotent Father who requires obedience, to the powerless God on the cross who models the impotence of love, to the crucified and risen Christ in whom the divine victory of life over death empowers our own participation in God’s power of life.” (Johnson, 63)

First, she questioned why we would be encouraged to worship a God whose most important characteristic seems to be power and disliking of independence. She eventually finds this incongruent with the character of God. Then she goes on to the idea of this passive, selfless love in Christ who dies on the cross. The portrayal comes across as weaponless, that love is impotent and that it creates apathy in followers in the face of real-life human suffering (as one might see in those who allowed the atrocities of WWII to happen). Soelle came to believe this was because it was neglecting the whole story of Christ, excluding the value of the resurrection. Finally, she arrives at the conclusion that the Divine is, “…a creative, noncompelling, life-giving good. This is power that flows through relationships bringing others to life, power as love.” (Johnson, 64) While nothing justifies events like Auschwitz to her, the belief that God shared in death and suffering as well as brings this kind of power through the resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of a loving and justice seeking God we can worship and with whom we can be in relationship.

Johannes Metz didn’t find the suffering God image helpful. Instead, Metz theologically positioned the problem of suffering within the constellation of considerations. Several components of theology guided the development to his two part approach.

Metz actually fought on the front for the German army at the age of 16; while he was delivering a message his company was attacked and he came back to only bodies where just a day before there were youths sharing hopes, dreams and jokes. His Catholic confidence in a good God  and orderly world began to separate and the Holocaust created a gap that couldn’t be bridged by ignoring the issue, as many in theology were doing.  Nor did Metz agree with the “God who suffers” that fellow Germans Solle and Moltmann had concluded upon. He felt this internalization made suffering beautiful and eternal and therefore went a different path. Suffering was outside of God. There aren’t simple answers. “Toward that end, Metz proposes two intertwined steps: remembering and lamenting unto God.” (Johnson, 65)

First was to remember. Jesus Christ stood in solidarity with all humanity. Through recalling his sacrifice and resurrection, we should also remember those who suffer throughout human history.  This is done because it takes victory away from the conquerors, the writers of history. It also connects each individuals story to the story of Christ in a concrete way, in a way that promises hope for them and also that reminds us of the dangers of inaction; the power of evil.  Second is to lament to God, to keep the question to our Father open rather than wrapping it up in a neat package. “So too, suffering of past and present must drive us toward God protesting, complaining, lamenting, grieving, crying out of the depths, insistently questioning “How long, O Lord?” (Johnson, 67)  This keeps our hopes alive.