It’s an age old question. The pilgrims came to the USA to escape persecution, and proceeded to persecute others who did not believe as they did. It’s an easy human tendency and it has always been with us. The founding fathers tried to combat this tendency, by separating the state from the church… so no “one, right doctrinal way” of thinking would be able to step on another. One wonders whether they would agree with the way it’s being interpreted, today.
While we agree, Church and state should be separate and all should be allowed to worship (or ignore God) in peace, it sometimes feels that, to anyone whose viewpoint gives primacy to the transcendent, there is almost a dismissive shunning. Has this, perhaps, gone slightly too far, towards worship of the secular, where all that is ‘of God’ must be stricken as anathema? This is what Chris Hedges wonders, in his little book When Atheism Becomes Religion.
Today’s world is so secularized, so materialistic, the world is asking, “who needs God?” Looking around, why not ask the opposite: Without God, can society find its way towards any right relationships? Between self and others? Between employers and employees? Between humans and creation? And, can we navigate within the tension, between the totalitarianism of the radical secular extremes and the totalitarianism at the radical religious extremes? For the world’s sake, we certainly hope so!
One often hears of religious intolerance, of course, but secular intolerance isn’t so often reported. Here’s an instance we, ourselves, experienced. It wasn’t so much intolerance as fear. There was a song we were promoting, to help bring raise awareness about social justice and activism. A song that a local school feared to play, because it had a Christian element. The song, Such a Crime, was written based on an Op Ed about the criminalization of poverty and the rising tide of inequality. It was inspired by the op-ed piece in the New York Times by Barbara Ehrenreich: a disabled, Vietnam-era veteran, who was a minister, was swept up in the criminal legal system when the police raided a homeless shelter and picked up folks with warrants including criminal vagrancy (i.e., homelessness). To add to the irony, it happened in Washington, DC, the town responsible for his disability.
What do you think? Would it be better, with a “less is more” approach, leaving out the minister reference? The off-the-record feedback from a SF public school administrator pointed out that there might be controversy if they brought in the song, as-is. It might be considered too “Christian” to be appropriate for school children, because the person who was profiled in the song happened to be a minister. Dr. Barbara McGraw of The Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism at St. Mary’s College of California believes that to be a mistaken interpretation, and that the separation wasn’t meant to cut Christianity out, but to allow everyone a seat at the table.
We created a CLEAN version of the lyrics, stripped of the offending references to the occupation of the subject of our ballad. But we didn’t have the heart to re-record it. The song just loses too much of its power when this event is sanitized into just one more nondescript story… Every hard-luck person has personal details, and therein lies the power of their stories. If in a highlighted case the person is Christian, is it a forbidden story? Kanye West famously wrote, “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus, That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes, But if I talk about God my record won’t get played Huh? Well let this take away from my spins, Which will probably take away from my ends, Then I hope this take away from my sins, And bring the day that I’m dreaming about, Next time I’m in the club everybody screaming out (Jesus Walks).”
If you’re a musician interested in taking the song into new directions or recording it, we’d love to hear from you. In fact, we would love to hear from any and all musicians who have used their art to raise awareness. Do you have a social justice (or religious) song you’d like us to consider for a WebGem feature? Tell us about it!