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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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.

(Christian) Social Justice in the United States

We like to claim that the United States is the land of the free, but how free are we?  I want to believe that all people, regardless of where they are in their faith journey, want justice for the oppressed but it is a PARTICULAR call on the heart of those who are a follower of YHWH and Jesus. In that vein, I encourage everyone to watch “13th,” a documentary available on Netflix, and keep in your heart these passages.

“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Zechariah 7:10 (NIV)

I would wonder what the effect of a ballooning prison population starting in the 70’s might have had on the stability of the family unit; in effect do we not create widows and orphans through incarceration?

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4 (NIV)

God puts all of us together; the cause of the voiceless is the cause of those with a voice. Those with power have a responsibility to act for those who are powerless. We should be defending and upholding the cause of anyone experiencing injustice.

“Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)

This is not about anarchy but about making sure that a portion of our society isn’t existing in an oppressed state or being taken advantage of.

“He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” Psalm 146:7-9 (NIV)

So what do your actions say about which side you are on. Even something as simple as voting. Where do your votes fall for the widows, the fatherless, the foreigner and the poor?

A few additional articles:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/03/americas-prison-population (Article looking at the current prison population of the United States and what it means)

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2015.html (2015 Prison Statistics)

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2015/08/14/jailsmatter/  (Role jails play in US)

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html?_r=0   (The issues around bail for those in poverty and the ripple effect it has on their lives; many are found innocent)

http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/07/us/kalief-browder-dead/  (Man jailed as teen for 3 years without conviction commits suicide)

 

 

 

 

God is Faithful

Compassionate ministry is perhaps, at its best, a reflection of God’s character through us. As I work through this course about questing for the living God, I think the most essential idea I’ve encountered so far in relation to compassionate ministry would be God’s faithfulness. As Bryan Stone tells us in Compassionate Ministry, “…there is a critical distinction to be made between knowing God and knowing about God.” (Stone, 46)  It can be difficult to pierce through the veil of darkness in this world and discern God’s faithfulness but it is the foundation on which our understanding of God’s compassion is built. Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for a Living God shows us that, “This human seeking for God is matched by the divine hunt for ones who are lost.” (Johnson, 11) I think that if we fully believe in our Father’s steadfast faithfulness then we trust; we begin to view the world in a very different way. We see how God must allow freedom for us to choose, we see the many ways God is present and continues to show up, and we see that we are never abandoned.

Many, including the prophet Nehemiah, proclaim the Lord’s righteousness. In 1 Kings 8:56, we learn of the ways our Lord keeps promises: “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses, His servant.” In Deuteronomy 7:8-9 we are also reminded of the many ways God has demonstrated faithfulness historically, “But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh King of Egypt.  Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” Then, when we are unable to keep the commandments, God faithfully comes to us in the Flesh to give us a path of reconciliation to God; in this way obedience becomes an expression of love rather than a checklist you can never complete.

Often in our lives we experience moments of frustration, injustice, times where we question why God would allow something to happen if God were, indeed, faithful.  A Lament is even a type of Hebrew poem, one that looks at an injustice or complaint about the state of the world and accuses God.  It eventually comes around to saying that God’s people will trust that God will be faithful. And yet this poetry exists because we, God’s people, struggle with our understanding of this world and our God. We struggle with trusting in that faithfulness. We have difficulty in knowing that this is not a perfect world because of us, not God; that the Kingdom is still coming and battles are still being fought. This world is not broken and cannot be restored if everything were fair, and if everything were fair, we would live in a much graver situation.

But God is still faithful today. “Only the living God who spans all times can relate to historically new circumstances as the future continuously arrives.” (Johnson, 23) Instead of the response we saw in Ferguson with violence and riots, when Cincinnati was faced with the brokenness of this world in the shooting of Samuel Dubose, I believe God showed up.  We had thousands of believers of diverse backgrounds from all over the city come together in worship, prayer and mourning. Additionally, Samuel’s family was God-inspired, they prayed, and they asked for non-violence. The city’s response was also much better than Ferguson but I believe it shows that God shows up with His People both to mourn and to heal. The same could be said for the Charleston church shooting in which 9 tragically died, murdered during prayer because of the color of their skin and a man who was heavily influenced by the evil in the world. Yet our Father showed up even then in mourning and healing on the side of the broken-hearted: in the response of the church across the street all the way to my church in Cincinnati, through the people who spoke prayers over the shooter instead of curses, and causing a shift in perception throughout our entire nation.

In this way it is clear to me that God is with us, and instructs us on how we can enter into a deeper relationship. “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.” (Deut 4:29) There are few things that you can seek with all your heart and soul without being changed by it; I suppose this is why God asks us to lead with it. Since God is love, what better avenue to feel than through the heart? If God is not of this world, what better way seek than through the soul? It just further emphasizes the faithfulness of our Lord who then works through us. As Stone pointed out, it confuses some when we hear that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28) and then in another book are told we are “justified by works, and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) These don’t really contradict each other but rather Romans speaks in support of James, “If we take into account the biblical witness as a whole, we must finally say that our lives, actions, commitments, and works finally justify or condemn us.” (Stone, 52) In other words, if we seek God, we come to know our Father’s faithfulness and compassion. As a result, we are changed and our action must start to reflect the character of our God to others, thus leading to compassionate ministry.