Music that Points to Justice

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Music: the ‘lingua franca’ of youth

MUSIC THE ‘LINGUA FRANCA’ OF YOUTH   contributed by Patrick Jurd, Ave Maria College Essendon.

Introduction
This brief outline sets out some of the possible uses of contemporary music and video in religious education – be it in the classroom or during prayer. As educators we know that music and video is ‘where the kids are’. I have given this some thought while I have been completing my Master’s studies in theology and share the following with you as a rationale.

Using the ‘lingua franca’ in the Church

The early Christian writings, both Gospels and letters, were written against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. However, the writings that we now refer to as the New Testament were written not in Latin (the language of the Romans) but in koine Greek, since it was the lingua franca of the time. Lingua franca refers to ‘any language widely used as a medium among speakers of other languages’,[1] so it can be understood by the largest number of people. This principle of trying to ‘reach people’ is seen in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes states that the Church’s ‘purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization’.[2]

Music – the ‘lingua franca’ of youth

Pierre Babin observed that ‘audiovisually oriented people were being born, and we could no longer speak to them as we had spoken in the past. The church’s education and pastoral work had to change’.[3] Music could be said to be the lingua franca of young people.[4] This concept is reinforced by the research of psychologist Daniel Levitin who noted that:

our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture. This becomes the basis for our understanding of music, and ultimately the basis for what we like in music, what music moves us, and how it moves us.[5]

As educators we may not be ‘native speakers’ of young people’s language, but the contemporary religious educator would be wise to use this musical language in their classroom in order that they might best communicate with and evangelise young people.

Some examples
I have set out some examples I have used, thoughts and ideas, in no particular order. Hopefully they will be of use to you and may spark some creative thoughts of your own! To look at these examples (chiefly song titles) go to the right hand panel at the top of this page.

[1] The Macquarie Dictionary (Second Revision), (Chatswood, The Macquarie Library, 1987), 1008.
[2] Flannery, Vatican II documents, Gaudium et Spes #44, 946.
[3] Pierre Babin, The New Era in Religious Communication, (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1991), 4. Note this comment came after he viewed the 1967 Expo in Paris. Forty years on, the comment is still valid. If anything, the need is more urgent.
[4] See “A soul kind of feeling” by Chris Middendorp in The Age, Saturday 14th April, 2007 and “Communicating Jesus’ message with iPods and videos” by Patricia Lefevere in National Catholic Reporter, 6th April, 2007.
[5] Daniel Levitin, “It’s just an illusion”, New Scientist, 23 February 2008, 38.

If Everyone Cared

IF EVERYONE CARED

Let’s start with the possibilities in the song If Everyone Cared by Nickelback from All the Right Reasons, Warner Music, 2005.

This song looks at the importance of living a life of love and integrity. The song itself is very good. The video clip – if you can source it (maybe Video Hits or MTV) – is amazing! The opening verse has the band playing their instruments and the lyric is relational, concluding with ‘Amen! I’m alive’. Certainly, one meaning is that we are truly alive while we are in relationship.

During the chorus:
If everyone cared and nobody cried,
If everyone loved and nobody lied,
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride,
Then we’d see the day when nobody died.

the images shift to the story of Bob Geldof who organised the Live Aid concerts to raise money for the starving in Africa. The concerts raised £150,000,000.00 in one day. We are shown the example of people being selfless and working for what is right. While the focus is on an individual, Bob Geldof, many people worked to make Live Aid a reality.

As the next verse is playing, the images show the story of Betty Williams who in 1976 witnessed the deaths of three children in Northern Ireland. Within two days she had raised 6000 signatures on a petition.

While the lyrics:
We’ll show the world they were wrong
and teach them all to sing along

are being sung, a graphic comes up mentioning that she led 10,000 people on a peace march to the children’s graves. One graphic tells us that the first march was disrupted by protesters but a second graphic informs us that a week later she organised a march of 35,000 people. This occurs while ‘Amen! I’m alive’ is being sung. Clearly, she was a woman who believed in her cause and would not be stopped. She was someone who was truly alive. The link to ‘I came that you might have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10) is strong.

The chorus is sung twice as the beginnings of Amnesty International are shown in a number of graphics of words and pictures.

While the following lyrics are sung:
And as we lie beneath the stars,
We realise how small we are,
If they could love like you and me,
Imagine what the world could be.

the band are playing their instruments again. We are shown a number of graphics depicting the story of Nelson Mandela, when the chorus strikes up again. A possible meaning here is that it took an enormous effort of forgiveness and love of others for Mandela and others working in South Africa to eventually gain freedom from apartheid.

After the band finishes playing, the film clip concludes with a quote from Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’
Christians are prompted to think of Jesus and his disciples and the enormous change that they managed to bring about – and the thousands upon thousands of groups of people who have followed in their footsteps.

Some uses

  • We originally used the film clip as a reflection after a Social Justice Mass but it could equally well be used as a reflection during classroom prayer.
  • The film clip invites discussion about a number of topics, rendering practical the song’s lyrics.
  • As discussion starters, the following questions could be posed. How hard is it to care? Do you think the songwriter is suggesting that caring is part of being truly alive? Compare its themes with John 10:10. How do they work together? How important is it to be truthful and sharing? The film clip gives us examples of good people. Who inspires you and why?

Following are a couple of extracts from Scripture and one from the Documents of Vatican II that could be used in relation to this song.

Scripture
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:7–11).

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. (Deut 30:19-20).

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4: 16, 20-21)

Church teaching

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbour. Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to by guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. (Gaudium et Spes #16)

Prayer
May we be prompted to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, caring for others so that all can live life to the full. Amen.

Jesus Walks

JESUS WALKS
Jesus Walks is by Kanye West from The College Dropout, Roc-a-fella Records, 2004.

If possible obtain the film clip of the song, put out by the artist. The speed of the images displayed here is counterbalanced by the speed of the vocal delivery. The opening of the song contrasts a man in a church setting with three different people; an African-American woman who we assume is a prostitute, a homeless African-American man and a group of young African-American men who look like they are gang members.

Then we are shown a gathering storm, followed by a fire and then a choir in a choir loft sing ‘Jesus Walks’. As they sing, ‘Jesus walk with me’, the three different characters begin walking through their ‘world’. The main singer, himself an African-American, Kanye West, is styled as the preacher in the church where the choir sings:

We are at war with terrorism, racism,
but most of all, we at war with ourselves

This would suggest that Kanye West believes that the difficulties of some of his people partly originate within themselves. This is an instinct about human nature shared by St Paul ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want’ (Romans 7:18-10).

As the woman walks, a white man in a car follows her – he seems to be the one doing the soliciting. She waves him away.

The gang member runs away, but is shot, seemingly dead.
People are praising God in church in the evangelical style.
A homeless man staggers down the street, possibly drunk. The next line is:

My mama said only Jesus can save us

At this point an angelic African-American figure in a wheelchair stops traffic for the homeless man. The angel character blows a bugle. As the lyric ‘God show me the way’ is sung, the angel figure beckons the homeless man across the road.

The African-American woman climbs a fence helped by two African-American child angel figures. Another angel figure goes to the dead body of the gang member as the lyric ‘right my wrongs’ is sung. He is resurrected.

The three figures continue to walk alone, as the following lyrics are sung:

And I don’t think there is nothing I can do now t’ right my wrongs, I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid because we ain’t spoke in so long.

The three eventually walk into the church.

The lyric:
To the victims of Welfare,
for we living in hell here,
hell yeah Jesus walks with them

is sung and footage of the south-central Los Angeles riots from 1999 are shown.
This is followed by the lyric:
I want to see thee more clearly
words evoking a traditional prayer popularized in the song Day by Day from Godspell.

What is the implication of the words here?

‘Not here to argue about facial features’ (of Jesus?) are the words sung as the three characters walk past the startled congregation – does the congregation expect a white Jesus?

The angels who helped the woman climb the fence have rocks thrown at them – they turn into white doves and fly away. The angel character who helped the gang member is chased up a pole by dogs, then turns into a white dove and flies away. The angel character in the wheelchair also turns into a white dove and flies away. The dove is a biblical symbol for the Holy Spirit so what is being suggested here?

The homeless man puts down his bottle on the floor of the church. The gang member puts down his bandana, the girl lies down on the floor of the church. These symbolic actions all point to a renunciation of their former lives. The bottle and bandana are then shown aflame.

As the song closes, we see a storm, a tornado, a tree on fire, maybe reminiscent of the burning bush (Exodus 3:5). Flame is another symbol of the presence of God and more specifically of the Holy Spirit.

The film clip concludes with a white dove rising and flying away with the stained glass window in the background.

Some uses

  • As an Easter/Pentecost class prayer
  • As a discussion starter: Is Jesus present today? If so, who might best represent him? If you/we really believed that, how should we treat those around us? How did the imagery from the video strike you? What parts in particular? What are some parallels in the Australian context? In our own experiences? (See further questions below.)

Scripture
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Matt 25:31–40).

Church teaching
Faced with a world today where so many people are suffering from want, the council asks individuals and governments to remember the saying of the Fathers: “Feed the people dying of hunger, because if you do not feed them you are killing them”, and it urges them according to their ability to share and dispose of their goods to help others, above all by giving them aid which will enable them to help and develop themselves. (Gaudium et Spes #69)

Questions for dialogue

Does this song speak to you about issues you are dealing with in your life?
How does this song reflect the background of the musician? Does the song cause you to think about how you see yourself? the world?
Is there anything in the song which is negative, exploitative or transformative?
Did the imagery from the video strike you? What parts particularly?
What are the values and beliefs in the song?  In what ways does this song evoke the memory of or reflect some part of the Christian story? Is Jesus present today? If so, who might best represent him? Does the song help you to see the Christian story differently? Does the song help you to see your life differently?
If you/we really believed that Jesus was present today, how should we treat those around us? How should we treat the homeless? The poor?
Listening to the song, what needs to change for the world to be more just? What actions can you take that will help? What actions can we take that will help?

Prayer

Lord, may I recognise your face in the powerless, homeless and poor of this world. May I treat everyone around me with respect. May I be inspired to act for justice in real, practical ways.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD
The Ghost of Tom Joad is by ‘Rage Against the Machine’ from The Ghost of Tom Joad, Epic Records, 1998.

This song is a cover version of a song written by Bruce Springsteen commenting on the situation of workers in America in the mid-1990’s. In the song title, Springsteen is referring to Tom Joad who is the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

‘Rage Against the Machine’ are a band who are very concerned about the rights of workers and those who are oppressed, regularly giving benefit concerts or donating money to good causes.

One of the important lessons that I have learned is that the educator does not have to use the whole song. In this case I focused on the last verse which runs from 3 min 50 sec to 5 min 10 sec. In this final part of the song Tom Joad is talking to his mother and expressing solidarity with all those who are oppressed or in need in some way, e.g. someone ‘beaten by police’, ‘a hungry new born baby cries’, ‘somebody’s strugglin’ for a pIace to stand, for a decent job or a helpin’ hand’, ‘wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free’. As Tom says to his mother…. ‘Look in their eyes Ma, you’ll see me’. The phrase ‘you’ll see me’ is repeated several times for emphasis.

As a religious educator, there are at least two strong themes that emerge here. Most obvious theme is compassion for those who suffer and solidarity with them. Pushing the image a little further and referring to Matt 25: 31-40, as Christians we see the face of Jesus in these ‘least ones who are members of my family’.

Scripture 
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead(James 2:14-17).

Church teaching
The struggle against destitution, though urgent and necessary, is not enough. It is a question, rather, of building a world where every man, no matter what his race, religion or nationality, can live a fully human life, freed from servitude imposed on him by other men or by natural forces over which he has not sufficient control; a world where freedom is not an empty word and where the poor man Lazarus can sit down at the same table with the rich man. This demands great generosity, much sacrifice and unceasing effort on the part of the rich man. Let each one examine his conscience, a conscience that conveys a new message for our times. Is he prepared to support out of his own pocket works and undertakings organized in favour of the most destitute? Is he ready to pay higher taxes so that the public authorities can intensify their efforts in favor of development? Is he ready to pay a higher price for imported goods so that the producer may be more justly rewarded? Or to leave his country, if necessary and if he is young, in order to assist in this development of the young nations? (Populorum Progressio #47)

Questions for dialogue

  • Does this song speak to you about issues you are dealing with in your life?
  • How does this song reflect the background of the musicians?
  • Does the song cause you to think about how you see yourself? The world?
  • What are the values and beliefs in the song?
  • In what ways does this song evoke the memory of or reflect some part of the Christian story? Is Jesus present today? If so, who might best represent him? Does the song help you to see the Christian story differently? Does the song help you to see your life differently?
  • If you/we really believed that Jesus was present today, how should we treat those around us? How should we treat the homeless? The poor?
  • Listening to the song, what needs to change for the world to be more just? What actions can you take that will help? What actions can we take that will help?

Prayer 

Beliefnet and Prayers for Justice and Peace contain many prayers that could be used or adapted for class use. Students themselves might choose and adapt these in response to the topic.

We Believe

We Believe is by ‘Good Charlotte’ from The Chronicles of Life and Death, Epic Records, 2004.
The words of this song are easily matched to images to make an effective PowerPoint presentation which students can contribute to putting together. The lyrics initially paint a picture of sadness, as a mother mourns the loss of her son. The next verse focuses on the everyday world of ‘suits and ties’, and suggests that they are part of fighting a war that has ‘no regard for life’. The verse concludes with the impulse for justice. The writer of the song wants to “make this right”.
The chorus affirms that ‘we believe in this love’. While the chorus is playing, images of the so-called ‘war on terror’ are displayed in turn on the slide show. We used a photo of the Twin Towers, of an Iraqi woman in her bombed-out home, then two photos from the London underground bombings. We superimposed over these photos the word ‘Fear’ – since fear is the opposite of love – the love to which we are all called as Christians.
In the next verse, a picture is painted in the lyrics, focusing on what unites us as humans. The next lines concentrate on the need for love and forgiveness in the world – ‘Let forgiveness wash away the pain’. The verse is quite explicit about people’s quest in life: ‘no one really knows what they are searching for’ and ‘this world is crying for so much more’ which puts into words consciously or unconsciously the Christian insight of St Augustine that human hearts are made for God and are restless until they rest in God.
While the chorus ‘we believe in this love’ is playing a second time, a different group of images can be shown. Choose images of groups of people who are not accepting fear as the norm and being frozen into inaction: e.g. people rallying for peace, contributing in a soup kitchen, tutoring immigrant kids, taking disabled teens to the footy etc. Could some activities of class members make up these images? The thought behind this is that as a community we believe in a love that empowers us to act. The final slide has the words of the chorus with a group of crosses. This suggests that as a community of Christian believers we believe in self-sacrificing love.
Some uses
  • Reflection in the parish/school prayer in response to a fearful event – a response to acts of terrorism or a situation in the school or community that has caused grief, anger, pain or loss.
  • It could be used as part of prayer during Holy Week or leading up to Christmas as well as in conjunction with social justice units or units that deal with costly love.
  • Discussion starters might include questions like: What do you fear? What do your friends fear? Are there differences/similarities? What do you think gives life meaning? How important is belonging to you? Who/what do you believe? What is the origin of love?(For more see below)
Scripture 
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17).
Church teaching It is imperative that no one … would indulge in a merely individualistic morality. The best way to fulfil one’s obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one’s means and the needs of others, and also to promote and help public and private organizations devoted to bettering the conditions of life. (Gaudium et Spes #30)

Questions for dialogue 

  • Does this song speak to you about issues you are dealing with in your life?
  • How does this song reflect the background of the musician?
  • Does the song cause you to think about how you see the world?
  • How important is to be truthful and sharing? The film clip gives examples of good people. Who inspires you and why?
  • Did the imagery from the video strike you? What parts in particular?
  • What are the values and beliefs in the song?
  • In what ways does this song evoke the memory of or reflect some part of the Christian story? Does the song help you to see the Christian story differently? Does the song help you to see your life differently?
  • How hard is it to care? Do you think the songwriter is suggesting that caring is part of being truly alive? (cf John 10:10) Does that make sense?
  • Listening to the song, what needs to change for the world to be more just? What actions can you take that will help? What actions can we take that will help?
Prayer
Lord, at times it can be difficult not to let fear rule my life. May I be able to live and love without counting the cost. Amen.

Matrix: Revolutions

Matrix: Revolutions is by Warner Bros/Village Roadshow, 2003
Towards the end of the movie (specifically from 1 hr 47 min to 1 hr 50 min), Neo re-enters the Matrix in order to do battle with Agent Smith. After battling for a while, Neo seemingly ‘abandons’ himself to the darkness of Agent Smith who appears to have won. In reality, the prostrate form of Neo becomes bathed in light (note its cruciform appearance!). In the Matrix, the light overcomes the darkness – with Agent Smith becoming bathed in light, beginning with his eyes. The scene concludes with the Source saying ‘It is ended.’
Some uses
  • I originally used this film clip as part of school assembly prayer during Holy Week. It could be used at the station where students are invited to reflect on the death of Jesus.
  • It could also be used with Texts and Traditions students in terms of the themes of light and darkness in John’s Gospel and the hour of his crucifixion being the hour of his glory – Passion Narrative of Chapter 19.
  • Parallels can be drawn between Jesus and Neo (which is an anagram of One) – particularly the self-giving death. This could spark an interesting discussion in a RE class (from Year 9 up).
Scripture
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).
Prayer
Lord, may I recognize the darkness in me and others so that I can choose the light in small matters and large. Amen.

Don’t You think It’s time

DON’T YOU THINK IT’S TIME

Don’t you think it’s time, by Bob Evans from Suburban Songbook, EMI records, 2006, looks at change and the need for it.

Some uses

  • We first used this as the opening song at a Social Justice liturgy with an accompanying PowerPoint.
  • It could be used as a reflection in class prayer about change, growth, new beginnings.
  • It could also be used as a discussion starter. There are many themes mentioned in the lyrics that could be picked up. For example, Why would it be good to quell fear? What might “opening up your eyes” mean? How might we reach out to others? Where/when could we be more forgiving? What might it mean to “show grace”?

Scripture

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19).

Church teaching

There is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom, even in matters religious. (Gaudium et Spes #26)

Questions for dialogue

  • Does this song speak to you about issues you are dealing with in your life?
  • How does this song reflect the background of the musician?
  • Does the song cause you to think about how you see the world?
  • Why would it be good to quell fear? What might “opening up your eyes” mean? How might they reach out to others? Where/when could they be more forgiving? What might it mean to “show grace”?
  • What are the values and beliefs in the song? Do they connect with the Christian story?
  • In what ways does this song evoke the memory of or reflect some part of the Christian story? Does the song help you to see the Christian story differently? Does the song help you to see your life differently?
  • Listening to the song, what needs to change for the world to be more just? What actions can you take that will help? What actions can we take that will help?

Prayer
Lord, may I be open to your promptings in my life. May I reach out to those in need, be forgiving and show grace to those around me. May I recognise and confront my own fears and help calm the fears of my friends and family. Amen.