If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Subversive Songs: a reflection on Revelation 5:6-14

At the beginning of 2008 I started a series of ink and scratchboard drawings I entitled with the acronym M.U.S.I.C: Musicians Undermining Social Injustice Creatively. In this series of drawings I have created images of musicians with a social conscience along with lyrics from one of their songs that speak about justice, peace, nonviolence, racism, worker’s rights, hunger and poverty. One of the drawings is of Billie Holiday, a jazz and blues singer with a unique vocal quality. Her music is not known to be subversive or politically provocative…except for her song Strange Fruit. It is a song about the lynching of African American men.

You wouldn’t expect Holiday to be singing protest songs. Strange Fruit is a song based upon a poem by a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol. He wrote the poem, and later set it to music, to express his shock after seeing a photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana. The song paints a dark picture of racism, hatred, and violence.

Billie Holiday heard the song and made it part of her regular nightclub performances. She approached Columbia Records about recording the song, but they feared backlash from Southern record retailers as well as from Columbia’s affiliates. It was eventually recorded and became one of Holiday’s best selling records. She closed her performances singing the song with eyes closed, as if in prayer, in a darkened room with only the single beam of a spotlight. The song became an anthem of the anti-lynching movement.

Where I would expect to hear subversive songs of protest would be during the era of social protest---the 60’s. I remember one poignant protest song that captured the minds of the 60’s generation, who were rebelling against the establishment and the political climate. The song was Eve of Destruction. It was written by a 19 year old and sung by Barry McGuire, a former member of a folk group, the New Christy Minstrels, and now a born-again Christian musician. The popular song Eve of Destruction was banned on many top 40 radio stations. The song protested against the Vietnam War and blasted the fears and hypocrisies of our society into our sleeping ears. The song moans the politics of war: the Eastern world it is explodin’/violence flarin’, bullets loadin’/you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’/you don’t believe in war, then what’s that gun you’re tottin’? In apocalyptic images the song predicts that unless there is social and political change, the world is headed for nuclear annihilation. After describing the problems of war, segregation, religious hypocrisy, one haunting line repeats itself over and over: But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend/You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

The song Eve of Destruction stands in a long line of protest music.[1] In the 30’s a union worker may have stuffed in his pocket a booklet popularly known as The Little Red Songbook. It contained a number of protest songs written by Joe Hill, a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. In the 40’s, if you were a common laborer, you ears might have been awakened by a twangy tune of Woody Guthrie, known as “Shakespeare in Overalls.” His music dealt with the hard life of migrant workers, political peace, and other social commentary. Pete Seeger was an admirer of Guthrie. Seeger became known as the father of folk music, the seedbed of protest songs. If I simply mention the song If I had a Hammer, the tune might begin to ring a bell in you head of justice and freedom.

I could take you on a musical tour from Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On to Traci Chapman’s All that You Have is Your Soul. In Chapman’s song she sings like a prophet: Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple/Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit/Hunger only for a taste of justice/Hunger only for a word of truth/All that you have is your soul. It is a subversive song that calls us to resist the pressure of compromising our souls. The history of music is filled with subversive songs, songs of protest, songs of resistance.

But, I would like you to listen to some subversive songs that come from an unexpected place---the book of Revelation. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the songs or hymns in the book of Revelation can be understood as songs of political resistance.

Oh preacher, you’re head is still stuck in the 60’s. Wake up and smell the cappuccino! The book of Revelation is about the future and not about politics. There ain’t no protest songs in the book.

The pluck of an angel’s harp may not sound like a folk guitar. And, of course, the voices of the twenty-four elders surrounding the throne don’t sound like the off key whining of Bob Dylan. We might imagine the sound to be more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with pipe organ accompaniment as the symphonic sound is blasted: Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!

That sounds more like a song of praise to God than some weird protest music.

That might be so. Nevertheless, the heavenly songs in the book of Revelation are songs of political resistance. Let me explain.

The book of Revelation is itself a document of protest and resistance. Greg Carey, a personal friend from Lancaster Theological Seminary who is New Testament professor and a specialist in apocalyptic literature, once wrote that the book of Revelation is an example of resistance literature.[2] Resistance literature is a genre of literature found throughout history that is shaped by political protest. The book of Revelation, like other such resistance literature, was written to encourage the reader or listener to resist the power of an empire and its imperialism, a society and its systems, which subjugate, oppress, and cause dominated people to compromise their souls.

The social and political context of the churches in the book of Revelation might help us to understand why Revelation might be considered resistance literature. The seven lamps of the Asian house churches in Revelation burn like flickering flames in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, while the boisterous wind of imperial Rome tries to blow their flames out. The Asian Christians in those house churches did not necessarily face the chopping block in any systematic way, as they later would. But, members might tell of relatives or a distant friend whose life was snuffed out by Rome for being a Christian and not bowing to Caesar and his Roman gods.

To get a sense of the social and political climate of the day and the pressures from the empire that tempted many Christians to compromise their faith, let’s listen in on a Christian as she walks down the streets of a Roman city. Her sandaled feet hit the cobblestones as she passes beneath magnificent columned buildings, marble temples, and statues erected in honor of Caesar and the gods. You can tell from her robe that she is from the lower class of Roman society. Her family makes a subsistence living. When she gets to the marketplace we know she will not be able to buy all she would like to provide for her family. There will be no meat on her table tonight. As she inspects the pomegranates and figs she thinks to herself:

If only Lucius would just join one of the Roman trade guilds, we might have a better life. I know that would mean he would have to meet in the dining room of the temple devoted to the goddess Roma and Augustus Caesar. Lucius always reminds me that if he joined a trade guild he might have to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I know we are new Christians, but our family has to face participating in a pagan empire when our friends invite us to the festivals, when we use money with Caesar’s image, or when we walk the streets protected by Roman soldiers. Our lives are surrounded by Rome and its gods. I don’t see how we can avoid participating in pagan lifestyle. So, what’s the big deal. Lucius should think about our family first and do whatever it takes to provide a good life for his children. By compromising just a little we would have it much better off. Besides, there are no gods, but only the Lord God. What does this have to do with our souls?

The woman pulls a Roman coin from her pouch. She glances at the image of the emperor and the words “To the divine Caesar” engraved on her coin. She pays for some figs and a dried fish and heads home down the winding cobblestone street.

The influence of the Roman empire upon urban life that caused many Christians to compromise their faith was a daily reality. The churches of Asia Minor were becoming so much a part of the culture that they were growing accustomed to Roman domination and were giving in to the cultural pressures to conform. But, like the slow tightening of a vise grip, it was crushing the spiritual integrity of some Asian Christians. They were giving in to imperial culture and becoming comfortable in Babylon.

Yes, yes, now, preacher, all that’s fine and good a nice history lesson, but who wants to stand out like an oddball in their community? We should raise our flag along with everyone. Who wants to be labeled “unpatriotic”? It’s no fun not having what your neighbor’s have and not doing what the Jones’ do. It’s easier to go with the flow, fit in to our culture’s values and prevailing attitudes. We aren’t Amish, you know. Why can’t Christians be part of our world without questioning everything we do? We have been saved by grace, not works. Our faith isn’t supposed to make our lifestyles like a hair shirt on a summer day. So,why can’t we just snuggle up to our consumerist culture?

John the Seer paints an apocalyptic picture so bold and bizarre that the Christians of Asia Minor sit up and take notice. A few probably cough up their mocha latte on their Wall Street Journal just hearing Revelation read. John wants the churches to view Rome for what it truly is. Rome sings a song of her own praise. O beautiful for Roman skies, for temples to the gods…She sings the song of Pax Romana, Roman peace and pride. I’m proud to be a Roman, where at least I know I’m free. But, if you listen closely you will hear the dissonant tones of a peace that was built on the foundations of threat, intimidation, and violence. One ancient observer said: The Romans rob, butcher, plunder and call it empire, and where they make desolation they call it peace.

Roma, the goddess who represents the empire, croons of prosperity and the dominion she has brought to all her subjects. She spreads her peace and freedom to the far flung regions of the earth. Roma only asks for us to bow before her, to wave her flag high, to pledge allegiance to her rulers, and worship her gods, then her loyal subjects can reap her bountiful benefits and privileges. Then, she sings, “We have to protect our Roman way of life.”

John wants to unmask Rome and show her true face, the face of a devouring beast, who conquers, dominates, and destroys like a hungry lion. Underneath the fa├žade of Rome’s beneficence is the violent monster who nailed Jesus to the cross, no, not just Jesus, but thousands upon thousands of rebels, dissidents, or anyone who refused to sing along with her phony song of peace and prosperity, and who questioned the rule of Rome. John is warning Christians not to pet the beast.

John’s apocalyptic writing is protest music. He sings to the church of Jesus Christ: Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat from the bitter fruit. Hunger only for the taste of justice. Hunger only for the word of truth. All that you have is your soul. Revelation shouts like a doomsday prophet walking the streets of the city crying, “Have nothing to do with the Whore Babylon! Plug your ears to her siren songs!” Unlike the apostle Paul’s view of the state in Romans 13, Revelation sees no redeeming value in the Roman empire.

Revelation’s radical stance may not be what we modern Christians would want to imitate, but its message of resistance to the empire calls us to seriously re-evaluate our relationship to our culture, our society, and our nation as a modern empire far more powerful than Rome ever was. I hope that is why we, as Mennonites gathered at our national assembly in San Jose, passed a resolution calling the church to re-examine its relationship to the culture and empire under which we live.

It is within this social and political context of empire that we properly understand the praise songs of the book of Revelation. These songs of praise have a double meaning. In Revelation the songs of doxology are first and foremost praise to God in Christ. But, secondarily, they are songs of resistance, protest songs, as it were. These songs sing of allegiance to God above the Roman empire and its gods, praise to the nonviolent Lamb above the violent Caesar.

The scene in chapter five of Revelation is of heavenly worship. Four living creatures and twenty four elders surround the throne of God. The smoke of the incense clouds the worshippers. Harps strings are being plucked in a symphony of sound. Voices are ringing out in praise singing to the Lamb a new song: You are worthy…for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests serving our God. Then, myriads of angels pump up the volume of praise singing in full voice: Worthy is the lamb…to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! If the volume weren’t loud enough for Christian’s sitting under the rule of Rome to hear, every creature in heaven and on and under the earth and in the sea break the sonic barrier with a song of praise to the Lamb. And the four living creatures shout, “Amen!”

You see, that don’t sound like no protest song.

Neither do many of the African-American spirituals, unless you understand their social and political contexts. We may sing spirituals in white churches as quaint, folksy tunes. But, spirituals are rooted in the social, economic, and political struggles of an enslaved and oppressed people. African-American spirituals had a double meaning. When they sang of crossing the river Jordan, they were singing of crossing the river to go North to freedom. When they sang Go Down Moses, they were singing of their own liberation from slavery. We may find it cute when white children sing This Little Light of Mine. That same song was sung by African-Americans who had tasted the bitterness of segregation, but were determined to keep their witness burning bright as they marched in the streets for their civil rights. Sometimes simple songs may not sound like melodies of protest or resistance, until we place them in their proper historical, social, economic, or political context. Spirituals are subversive songs.

Such is the case with the songs in the book of Revelation. The myriad of voices of the elders and angels and creatures who sing a new song in Revelation sing a subversive song. They sing of one who is worthy, not because he is a conquering lion like Caesar, but because he is the nonviolent Lamb, Jesus Christ. This is a song that subverts the world order of power and violence, inequity and injustice.

Can you sing these kind of songs? Can we sing “Christ first,” while so many are singing “Country first”? Can you sing songs of a worldwide Christian faith amid the refrains of God bless America, but not other nations? Can you sing these songs while others rap lyrics of sexism and violence? Can you sing these subversive songs with all the pressures to hum the tune of conformity to our culture? We have been given other songs to sing, subversive songs, songs of resistance, songs of justice, songs of peace.

We have learned these songs since our childhood. No, I don’t mean songs like Eve of Destruction or Blowin’ in the Wind. We have learned the simple songs of our faith with melodies that are dissonant with the tunes of empire and injustice. I know a simple subversive song we can sing. But, we must be careful. It is a transgressive and dangerous song. This song has the imaginative potential to overthrow worlds of injustice and division. It’s stark, revolutionary truth could challenge the justification of any war, point a prophetic finger at the genocide of Native American peoples, condemn the Japanese internment camps, unmask white racism. It could break down the barriers that divide churches by race, class, and gender. This song could drown out the cries of child abuse. It calls for respect of all peoples and cultures.

We have sung this simple, subversive song since those days when we ran barefoot in the backyard and kicked our feet into the blue sky on the swings. We have forgotten the immense power of its message. Its simple tune has infiltrated our lives like sacred propaganda, subverting the world order.

And yet, this song raises no picket signs nor shouts in the street. It does not come like an armored tank, but can tear down walls. Like the songs of Revelation, it is deceptively political, while sounding like a nursery rhyme. If Christians around the world would sing this song with their hearts and with their lives, truly believe its message, give their lives for its truth, follow the lead of the song’s rebel hero, who knows, it might crack the foundations of empires. It might overthrow kingdoms. You know this revolutionary rhyme, this subversive song. You can sing it…. Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight/Jesus love the little children of the world.


[1] For resources on protest music, see Sere Denisoff, Sing a Song of Social Significance. Bowling Green, OH: Popular press, 1972; Ray Pratt, Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music. New York: Praeger Pub., 1990; Jerome L. Rodnitzky, Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as a Cultural Hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1971.
[2] Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1999. On resistance literature as a genre, see Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature. New York: Metheun, 1987.

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