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Sing a Song of Justice

There is a good-sized body of congregational song from which to choose that deals with justice: from the powerful simplicity of an African-American spiritual with its repeated plea “let my people go” to the texts that came out of the nineteenth-century Social Gospel movement to the bold, rich texts of our own time that deal with the complexities of feminist and liberation theologies. Through all of these runs a deep concern for the human condition that comes from an understanding of the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the world.

Children from Your Vast Creation

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Text writer David Robb, a retired United Methodist pastor, has written a number of hymn texts, most of which are gathered together in the collection Heartsongs, also published by Selah. His theologically rich texts are expressed in clear, powerful words and images.

With its language of gathering and confession, the text is probably best suited to an early place in most orders of worship.

  • st. 1: All who gather are God’s children, seeking guidance for how to set right something which is clearly amiss. It is necessary that God open our childlike, perhaps even childish, minds to the other possibilities that are offered us, possibilities reminding us that the dimension of love is too often left out of our economic, political, even theological considerations. Only through finding such an opening can we experience the more abundant life Jesus promised us (John 10:10).
  • st. 2: In our grasping after more things, we have actually shut the door on that abundant life for the rest of the “children of the vast creation.” No one can accuse Robb of veiled language here: we have indeed wanted “things we do not need.” Whether this is mere money, or a disproportionate share of the limited resources of earth—minerals, timber, fossil fuels, food, even water—we have lusted after more than we have any right to. We ourselves are about to be consumed by the greed with which we consume the riches of the earth. We need God to intervene with and for us, bidding us away from the “vain world’s golden store,” as Mrs. Alexander perhaps too gently called it.
  • st. 3: We confess here that our greed makes us so much less than we were meant to be. We are beginning, a bit late perhaps, to open ourselves to the idea that there is far more to our stewardship of earth than we thought. We took far too literally the injunction to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). We have gone far beyond wanting what we do not need. We have chosen to take what is clearly not ours, not only by the mere economic methods of what we have perceived to be fair commerce, but in using war as “diplomacy by other means” to extract from others the excessive creature comforts we have craved, the very things God’s love deplores.
  • st. 4: If we are gathering and confessing as children from the vast creation of the same Creator, we gather as brothers and sisters seeking redemption. That comes only as a touch from God reminding us that unselfish love must triumph in order that we may really “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16). Now here comes an image that is, so far as I know, unique in hymnody. Robb asks God to come to us “amid life’s scrimmage.” The sports metaphor may jar a bit on first reading, but sports talk has almost replaced music as the universal language. And this is where we need most but often seek least God: in the rough-and-tumble of everyday life, where the small actions we take to simplify our lives can let God begin to recreate us, speeding the day when those small actions collectively are enough that God’s will is fully done. This last stanza allows the text to be seen as a worthy one for Advent, as well as addressing the immediate theme at hand—justice.

This fine text is set here to Welsh composer William P. Rowlands’ sturdy and easily grasped tune blaenwern, and is provided with a ringing final stanza arrangement with trumpet descant by Kenneth Sweetman, as found in Sing! A New Creation (available from Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.FaithAliveResources.org, 1-800-333-8300). If the Rowlands tune is not to your taste, look around. There are plenty of other tunes in 87 87 D, and Robb’s rich text would admit of other supporting melodies. It certainly deserves to be sung, particularly when the theme is environmental and/or economic justice.

When a Prophet Sings of Justice

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The tune that serves my own text “When a Prophet Sings of Justice” is genevan 42 (sometimes called psalm 42) and is also found in Sing! A New Creation. For those who may be unfamiliar with it, this is a rather tricky meter for which to write passable text, but the tune is easy to pick up. Like many of its sister tunes from the famous sixteenth-century Psalter, it relies a great deal on the repetition of small motives in building its melody. There is no leap of more than a fourth; indeed, it is in stepwise motion for most of its length. The rhythms are infectious. To help a congregation learn it, consider the Crüger setting, played by recorders and a tambourine, for example, but violins or flutes might be used, as might a small drum or other hand-played percussion. There are also several handbell arrangements available (two are included in the list of handbell music for tunes in Sing! A New Creation—see www.calvin.edu/worship/resources/bookshlf).

But I would encourage something that points up the dance rhythms inherent in this “Geneva jig,” as Queen Elizabeth I is said to have haughtily referred to these Psalter tunes. I’ve always found this tune great fun to sing. In most hymnals, its only function has been to carry the Isaiah paraphrase “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People” for Advent. It seems a shame to use such a grand tune only once a year.

Structurally the text is simple: it pursues the idea of justice in the prophet’s voice (st. 1), in the message of the gospel made palpable in the Eucharist shared with the larger world (st. 2), and in a voice from the “third testament” (post-biblical tradition), in this case chiefly the well-known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” (st. 3). The last stanza is our voice, responding, hopefully not with mere lip service, but with the promise to live our lives so that what the prophet sang of so long ago might come to pass. Please note that although the prophet, the images from the gospel, and the allusions to “Simple Gifts” all refer to events in the past, they are all given voice in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to these events: they are not dry history but part of a living tradition in which our own voices and actions will now play a part as well. Particularly because of the last stanza and its commitment to service, this hymn is probably best used at the close of a service.

  • st. 1: The image of justice and righteousness from Amos 5:24 is one of the most powerful in Scripture; the metaphor of abstract nouns as running water is striking. Those seeking after justice—legal, social, economic, whatever—thirst for it, as a nomad who seeks the real stream in the literal desert, or even as a deer does (Ps. 42, not coincidentally the metrical psalm with which the text first appeared). The idea of waters “teeming with salvation” may refer back not only to the figurative waters of Amos but also to the waters of our own baptisms.
  • st. 2: The gospel speaks its message clearly here. The references to Matthew 25:35ff. and 14:17ff. are but two of many that might have been used to give concreteness to the concept that every time the hungry are fed or the naked clothed, a simple form of justice is done; that often our actions set in motion work by others so that loaves and fishes are indeed multiplied; and that this form of service to our brothers and sisters is a form of Eucharist. It is not merely the ritual meal that is a Eucharist. Every meal shared in the name of Christ is a Eucharist of sorts.
  • If you have musicians who can adeptly shift gears, a brief interlude here between stanzas 2 and 3 on “Simple Gifts” would not be amiss.
  • st. 3: Laughter has a place in the life of the worshiping church, no less in its hymns than its preaching. This stanza makes a serious point about freeing ourselves from slavery to things and learning to simplify our lives, but it makes the point with an extended, lighthearted reference to “Simple Gifts”—an oblique nod to Simple Alternatives’ origin in seeking to recover the real meaning of Christmas. We may come together, set free from the selfishness and greed that have bound us. We are also, with a nod to Shakespeare via Elgar, freed from the “pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war” (Othello). Notice that we have been freed from this (past tense), but are free (now) to join Christ, who, as Lord of the Dance, has his own longtime association with the “Simple Gifts” melody. This imagery was also included here because of the eminent “danceability” of this particular Genevan tune. Turned round right, we may discern God’s will for us in the simplicity of new life. There is also a hint here of the idea expressed in several sources that conversion itself may be an experience of simple turning, rather than a blinding-light-on-the-road-to-Damascus drama. Or as another writer puts it: “grace is God’s gift of room to turn around in.”
  • st. 4: We respond. But we must continue to seek God’s guidance to make the best choices, to take the simplest alternatives available, that we may be better stewards of the earth’s limited resources, better at sharing them with our brothers and sisters of every nation. And so we come almost full circle: one prophet had the first word, another shall have the last. The closing reference is to Micah (6:8), who reminds us that the simplest (and wisest) of alternatives continues to be found in an ancient mandate: to do justice and love mercy, and humbly walk with God.

Enviado soy de Dios/Sent Out in Jesus’ Name

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A more immediately accessible song expressing the theme of justice is “Enviado soy de Dios,” also mentioned on page 35 of this issue as “Sent by the Lord Am I” (Songs for LiFE 249). The edition used here credits it as being Cuban in origin; another version I found online gives the source as Central American. Either way, we should be grateful for such gifts of simple yet profound expression from around the world that can enrich our worship and our spiritual lives.

Jorge Maldonado’s translation appears to catch the spirit of the Spanish text without trying to render it literally.

The text establishes its theme early on: responsibility for change in this world is ours. Empowered by our experience in worship, we can go forth into all the world as Christ commands. But this is not mountaintop rhetoric, and “the world” we are sent to may be severely circumscribed—a Cuban village or our own neighborhood, a shack of a church or our own comfortable parish. We are reminded that it is seldom by the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, but often by hard physical labor, that the reign of God comes to earth: the gospel must not merely be preached, but must be seen in what we actually do. And the importance of our actions is underlined by the repetition of the entire first section.

The second section moves us out from physical labor to more abstract ideas of love, justice, and peace that are made manifest in those works of our hands. But first we are reminded that though angels may watch over us, they are unable to change the world; that is our task. The world is only set free when we—as individuals and collectively—obey the will of God and carry it out in the world.