Music and Justice

Professor Morna Hooker

23rd February, 2014

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;

His truth is marching on.

   Glory, glory, alleluia!

   Glory, glory, alleluia!

   Glory, glory, alleluia!

   His truth is marching on.

            It is difficult to recite these stirring words, because they positively demand to be sung.  It’s partly due to the rhythm of the words, and partly due to the fact that they are so well-known.  The so-called ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ has become so popular in America that it’s sung at both Democrat and Republican Conventions, as well as at Presidential inaugurations.  What could be more appropriate than to remind politicians that ‘He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement-seat’?  or to summon them to action with the call, ‘let us live to make men free’?

            The words, written by Julia Ward Howe, were penned during the American Civil war, when the North was intent on ‘making men free’, but they were not the original ones.  You may well know the tune better to the words of ‘John Brown’s body’ – a song written a year or two earlier, about one of the soldiers fighting for the abolition of slavery.  But whichever words we sing, here is music that is inextricably tied up with the notion of justice.

            That, however, demonstrates my problem this evening, for I have been given the title ‘music and justice’, and words and music are not often so happily wedded together.  Take, for example, some of the most revolutionary lines ever penned:

    He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.

    He has cast down the mighty from their seat,

    And has exalted the humble and weak.

    He has filled the hungry with good things.

You will all have recognized these words from the Magnificat, which must have been set to hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes.  But how many of them suggest that kings are being hurled down and the poor lifted up?  We sang or heard two vigorous versions earlier in the service, but more often than not, the music simply flows over us, impressing us with its beauty, but failing completely to stir us into action. 

            The Magnificat is a song of praise, thanking God for what he has done, which, when you consider its original setting – in the mouth of the pregnant Mary – is extraordinary, because so far he has done nothing, except cause a poor, unmarried peasant girl to conceive, and so risk being shunned by all her neighbours.  No one, so far, has been scattered or cast down; the poor have not been lifted, and neither have the hungry been fed.  The hymn sets out a programme for what God is going to do – and he is going to do it through Jesus and his followers.  Like so many hymns and prayers, this one is not a shopping-list of requests to God, but an agenda for his people: it is through them that the mighty will be brought low, and the poor will be given justice.

            It is no accident that our Old Testament lessons this term have been taken from the Psalms, for the psalms were composed to be sung in the temple.  What the music was originally like we do not know, though the reference in tonight’s psalm to a lyre, a ten-stringed harp, a new song, and a shout, suggest a glorious cacophony.   And what were they shouting about?  Why, the fact that God ‘loves righteousness and justice’ (Ps. 33:5).  Unlike so many so-called gods worshipped at that time – gods who toyed with men and women, and acted totally arbitrarily – the psalmist’s God was reliable, righteous and just.  Now it has to be admitted that this is not always the impression that one gains from the Old Testament, for there are passages there which suggest that God is capricious and vindictive.  But turn to the prophets, and you will find them insisting, like the psalmist, that God is righteous and just, and that what he requires of his people is, in the words of Micah, ‘to do justice and love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God’ (Mic. 6:8).  The prophets demanded what we now term ‘social justice’.  ‘Let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream,’ thundered Amos (5:24).  The core commands, in both Old and New Testament, are the commands to love God and to love your neighbour.  If you love God, who is loving, just and merciful, then you must love your neighbour as yourself: that is only just.

            In our New Testament lesson (Luke 4:14-21), we heard Luke’s account of how Jesus read from the book of Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry.  Once again, we have an agenda – an agenda for what he is going to do: he will bring good news to the poor, announce release to the captives, bring sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of Jubilee.  Now you may think that I am cheating here, since although this passage may be about justice, it is not set to music.  But it is the closest thing we have to music in the New Testament, and in my Bible, both the passage in Isaiah and the quotation in Luke are set out in verse form.  Like the Magnificat, this poem announces a reversal that will bring justice for the poor and the captive – and notice how that theme is stressed:  Jesus will declare release for the captive, he will let the oppressed go free, and he will pronounce the year of Jubilee, when slaves were released.  This is his mission – to bring freedom.

            That’s a theme that has been linked with music down the ages.  Think, for example, of Negro spirituals, in which the singers long to cross over Jordan, into the Promised Land.  We tend to assume that they are thinking of heaven as the Promised Land, and that they are longing for death – and for many of them, that was the only way they would ever be set free.  But maybe they were hoping against hope for slavery to be abolished, or for escape, across the River Mississippi, to the northern states of America.  And who can miss the relevance of the spiritual ‘Go down Moses’?

     When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,

     Oppress'd so hard they could not stand: Let my people go.

     Go down, Moses,

     Way down in Egypt's land,

     Tell old Pharaoh,

     Let my people go.

It is no accident that the gospel was seen by the slaves as a promise of release.  The tragedy is that for so many of them, that hope was never fulfilled in physical terms.

            Music is such a powerful way to express emotion, that it is hardly surprising that it has continued to be linked with cries for social justice.

A century after the emancipation of slaves in America, the civil rights movement produced its own songs.  But racism was not the only issue that needed to be tackled – poverty and the need for social change were also dominant.  Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changing expressed the spirit of social and political upheaval that swept through America in the 1960’s.  He composed it, he said, in a deliberate attempt to create an anthem for change, and it was based on earlier Scottish and Irish ballads which had also attacked injustice. 

            The song most closely associated with the civil rights movement was, of course, We Shall Overcome, adapted from an earlier gospel song and popularized by Pete Seeger, who died last month.  Seeger’s music was protest music, and he used it to campaign for the causes in which he passionately believed, whether they were concerned with civil rights, international disarmament, or the environment.

            In 1982 my husband and I visited South Africa.  It was not a country we would have chosen to visit, for apartheid was firmly embedded, but my husband had been commissioned to look at theological education there.  We spent some of our time in the interdenominational college where ministers were being trained, and while we were there we gave some lectures, and we both had the same experience in every class we took.  No matter what the subject, the conversation always ended up in the same place: when was the revolution coming, and what would happen? . . .

There would be, we were assured, a blood-bath, with blacks taking vengeance on the privileged whites.  I suppose it was not so surprising that my husband’s classes on the prophets should lead to a discussion of justice – though what the students were demanding was not so much justice as more injustice, but with different perpetrators.  But I was puzzled: how had a class on the sources of the Gospels or the authorship of the Pauline letters led into this talk of the arrival of what my students saw as the Kingdom of God?  That was all they were interested in.  We left very depressed.  It seemed clear that South Africa was heading for disaster.

            And then we called on Desmond Tutu – not, at that time, the revered Archbishop, but the second most hated man in the country.  The first, of course, was Nelson Mandela, firmly locked away in prison, but visiting Desmond Tutu was like breaking into a prison, for his office was fortified and guarded like a castle.  ‘Do you have a message for the Church back in England?’ we asked.  ‘Tell them not to lose hope,’ he said.  Hope where there seemed to be none?  But of course, he was right, for in the end, there was no blood bath, and his Truth and Reconciliation courts did their best to heal the wounds. 

            And that is why I have asked the choir to sing the South African National Anthem for us tonight – an anthem that is made up of words composed in five different languages, but whose origin lies in two very different songs.  The first,  Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, was originally composed as a hymn in Xhosa, but came to be sung as an act of defiance against the apartheid government.  The second, originally composed in Afrikaans, expressed the aspirations of the Boers.  In 1997, they were brought together, adapted, translated, and welded into what is now the National Anthem.  But it is still a cry for the justice which the prophets, centuries ago, saw as the fundamental characteristic of their God, to be firmly established in the land.  And that haunting melody is instantly recognizable to us all.  The music is the message:

God bless Africa . . . .

Listen also to our prayers . . . .

Lord bless our nation,

Stop wars and suffering.

Save it, save our nation,
The nation of South Africa. . . .

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand.

Let us live and strive for freedom

In South Africa our land.