I heard a sermon Sunday morning. It was magic. They usually aren’t, which is a shame. I’m a thorough-going baptist and we’re suckers for good preaching. Not folksy sermons pregnant with what sounds like conventional wisdom. We want that face-to-the-gravel prophetism. If you want to nourish a living room full of baptists you’d best be ready with a word from the Lord, built up brick-by-brick from the pages, and-we-do-mean-page(s), of the Spirit-breathed book we’ve inherited as the great-great grandchildren of Chrysostom and co., and you’d bloody well better preach it like the kingdom’s comin’ if it hasn’t already. And such was the sermon. It had been a while.
The subject was prayer. And music. And God. And suffering. And so forth. They’re not unconnected. They can’t be.
My pastor likes dust bowl ballads. And hip hop. Dust bowl ballads are struggle music. Hip hip is struggle music. Prayer is struggle music. But it’s different.
The word of the Lord, from Luke the historian. Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul and Silas heal a slave girl, as they do. She was possessed. Her demon was lucrative to the men who owned her, so our missionary friends wrecked the economic opportunities she created for her oppressors. They have them arrested on a dubious appeal to local customs, pulling at the heartstrings of the xenophobic magistrates and public. The Bible is relatable.
So they’re arrested. And imprisoned. They sing hymns to each other. And singing is like prayer. Deep calls out to Deep. Deep breaks the prison chains from the wrists and ankles of the missionaries and the jailer wakes to see the cells open. He’s ready to slay himself. Struggle music might slay the oppressor out of whose treachery it is born.
Paul and Silas catch him in time to stop him. He can’t believe they stayed. They tell him how he can be saved. He’s not uninterested. They baptize his whole family. He’s not ready to slay himself anymore. Struggle music might slay the oppressor or invite him to join the musician in enduring wrongs. When struggle music is prayer it’s always pastoral. It invites the oppressor to join the oppressed, and the Oppressed.
“Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are struggle music because they have to be. It emanates from the dissonance between how things are and how they should be. We treasure the risen Christ in song and our minds have to wander somewhere south of heaven. Or we land ourselves somewhere south of safe and sound and our hearts have to treasure Christ because the Spirit in us treasures Christ like Christ treasures us and the struggle music we vomit forth preaches the gospel to people unencumbered by hope and homesick for something like heaven.
So Paul and Silas sang. And Silas sang the gospel to a Paul who probably didn’t feel it, and Paul sang the gospel to a Silas who probably barely felt it, and Silas sang the gospel to a prison full of people who probably didn’t know it, and the prison sang the gospel to a guard who couldn’t help but succumb to it. When prayer is struggle music it’s something more than struggle music.
We’re not real familiar with this, who are white and Christian in the post-Christian west. We’ve never felt the hot itch of fire at our feet while passers-by point and murmur about how fiery pits are where Jewish myths will land you, sat shackled in a dirty cell while sleeping guards dream about their families, or stared down lions in fanciful coliseums because we’re a national security threat. This is alien to us.
Of course there’s mental illness. And there’s music for it. And this is struggle music. And prayer is struggle music. There is a balm in Gilead for the woman who wakes up and wishes she hadn’t, who can’t find her bearings, who has no home among the land of the living. Some of us are foreigners on planet earth. We’d rather leave, really. But there’s no exit, save for death. Struggle music beats its chest and weeps itself worn, defiantly, to testify that struggle is better than death. It doesn’t feel true. But the Spirit in us believes it, and we’ll come around eventually.
Not all struggle music is prayer, but all prayer is struggle music if it’s prayer, thanks-giving included. This is important. We are the privileged, by virtue of living in a land where safety and subsistence abound. If we’re Caucasian, even more so. If we’re male, we’re practically impenetrable. The task of the average American preacher is that of proclaiming another kingdom to this kingdom’s privileged, which is a hard sell. There’s not much struggle to speak of in the Suburban, predominately-white churches that make up the largest part of our religious landscape. So what’s struggle music to us?
For one, an equalizing force. And I do mean force. Politics aside, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society, even when its victims are not part of the believing community. That’s paraphrasing Bonhoeffer, from a speech that most of his audience walked out of. It was psalmic prayer, brought forth of desperation in somebody’s upper-room that wrought the strange communitarianism we see within the earliest Christian communities. (Acts 2, for reference.) I’m no Statist. Taxation is theft, and all that. But one of the non-negotiables of prayerful struggle music is that it beckons the privileged faithful to sacrifice their capital at the altar of solidarity. There’s nothing sacred about poverty itself. But we’re the workmanship of God, created afresh in Christ Jesus, and the voluntary redistribution of wealth is an avenue for worship that we don’t get to opt out of.
The extent to which the secular state should by taxation provide a safety net for those below the poverty line is up for debate, and it’s a debate I’ve joined on other forums. What isn’t up for debate is that Jesus, by a strange sort or intra-communal taxation, so to speak, provides for the destitute both in and outside of the believing community. He can do that. As previously mentioned, it’s voluntary. Ananias and Saphira weren’t struck dead for skipping the tithe. But it’s non-negotiable. The rich young ruler was excluded from Jesus’s entourage because he wouldn’t be convinced to sell his belongings to pool the capital for the poor to whom they ministered. It would be a good time to bring up Jesus’s prayer life.
It’s also a humanizing force. And I do mean force. There is a balm in Gilead for the man whose home has been devoured by debt and taxes. Out of a job, he can’t afford Christmas presents for his wife and too many kids. Or rent for January. And he’ll sing There Is A Balm In Gilead on Sunday morning – (Saturday if he’s an Adventist) – and know that everything is gonna some kind of okay, the details of which are yet to be seen. As he’s thinking on these things, it’ll occur to him that he was comforted by a “negro spiritual” that was eventually incorporated into the life of the whole church, at least in the States. And he’ll consider, perhaps sustainedly for the first time, the anxieties that gave birth to it. Of course there’s a balm in Gilead, he whispers. Why’d they need a song about it?
And his mind will wander to the high school English class where he read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or The Souls of Black Folk. He remembers how struck he was, or wasn’t, by the harrowing experience of the black man, sojourning in strange country like Israelites awaiting Exodus. And wherever he lands, he won’t give quite so much credence to the quieting rhetoric of those who would silence the complaints of the black community against what appears to be an inequality in the justice system. America’s no promised land. No yet. And he’ll know that, now, because prayerful struggle music is a cattle-call for the privileged to take up a cross of solidarity. It rehumanizes the other.
Like all struggle music, it gives us ears to hear what isn’t obvious. Namely, that we’re contributors to a system that offends God because it oppresses people who bear his image. Kendrick Lamar isn’t holy scripture, but there are echoes of Moses in Alright. Same with Regina Spektor in Your Honor, and echoes of Paul in Ode to Divorce. Genesis 3:16 says that man’s a curse to womankind in his natural state. In case I forget, Regina’s around to remind me. Numbers 12:1 says that racism permeates the very best of us, including authority figures. In case I forget, Kendrick will remind me.
Alright is the first half of a gospel proclamation, if I understand it correctly. Describing a racially charged confrontation with a police officer, Kendrick whispers:
I remembered you was conflicted
Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
The officer abuses his power. No surprise there if you read the morning newspaper. He probably isn’t racist in any way that would register. But the uptick of tension as he approaches this unarmed black man is consequential. Our prejudices build their homes just beneath our consciousness, and their roots entangle everything. The officer misuses his influence, validated in doing so by the pre-conscious biases he brings to the confrontation. He’s the villain here, despite the badge. But it would be simplistic to stop there.
Kendrick won’t let us otherize police officers who use excessive force on suspects of color. Mainstream media lacks the attention span to give sustained focus to the personhood of either the victims or perpetrators of racially charged police violence, and so our dominating narratives are less than one-dimensional. Kendrick wants us to know that sometimes he did the same. Even as a victim of systemic racism he’s always within hailing distance of being the oppressor, given the right circumstances.
This is struggle music that invites the privileged to see themselves in the officer. Racism indwells everyone. We’re certainly not better than Aaron and Miriam from Numbers 12. But beneath it is the drive to dominate. Hearkening back to Genesis 3:16, the text says “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will dominate you.” That’s a brief encapsulation of the origins of patriarchalism, so to speak, but if the following chapters are taken into account, man and womankind are bent toward dominating the other wherever possible, in whatever form. One of those forms is racism, whether personal or systemic.
But, again, Kendrick draws attention to his own participation in the system that offends God. By his own admission, he is a Christian, so this song is low-hanging fruit, but the point stands. He testifies to the culpability of all of humanity, victim and victimizer alike, for the culture we create together. Everyone’s a predator in Kendrick’s vision, and John Calvin’s. Some predators live and die as victims.
And, to bring it back round to Bonhoeffer, the gospel demands solidarity with the victims of any ordering of society. Even if they’re predators, because they all are, like we are. Struggle music, prayerful or not, reminds us of this. It reminds us of the cosmological significance of systemic injustice. It reminds the privileged of the man who has to wonder whether the officer pulling him over will treat him fairly. And the woman who has to police her wardrobe, drinking habits, etc. for fear of becoming rape culture’s next casualty. And the Native American being heckled by the National Guard for protesting a pipeline being built through a Native graveyard. And the Middle Eastern family whose lives have been turned upside down because their governments were toppled by the imperialist West. It reminds us that the cross was demanded by the state of things. Systemic injustice isn’t the progressive stand in for aloof Evangelical doctrines of sin and so forth. They’re coterminous realities, often overlapping, reinforcing one another.
These are the sort of things that drive the pious and impious to prayer. Because struggle music is usually prayer. And it drives them both to action, carried on regardless of the jeers of the cynic, in the hope, childlike, you might say, that God will fight with them.