Tag Archive | Joan Baez

The Non-Violence Pose

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nonviolence As Compliance”, The Atlantic, April 27, 2015

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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Other: You know what they say about opinions….

Me: Wow. Really? History tells us over and over that the only truly effective, long-term social change comes through violence. Whether or not this is what anyone would prefer is beside the point. And rather than offer something counter to this reality, you decide to call me an asshole? Good job. – Exchange on Facebook in a private group, Wed., April 29, 2015

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Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

The week has been interesting, to say the least. Lots of us have had a lot to say about the death of Freddie Gray, the police, the protests, and the riots. Lots to say, yet so little time to listen to the voices that matter: The folks in Baltimore; African-Americans who understand the simmering rage, fear, and frustration that prompts protests to turn to violence; the demands that national media either cover the actual events and talk to the people on the ground or get out of Baltimore. Everyone (and I’d include myself in this, obviously) has so much to say, yet never enough time to listen, to think, and for us Christians, to pray. It’s so much easier to find a picture or meme online, post it, and offer predigested opinions rather than engage with the reality that confronts us, challenges us, and has certainly disturbed us, yet again.

Which leads me to one of the sillier things, thankfully highlighted by Jon Stewart, showing Wolf Blitzer expressing incredulity at the protests in Baltimore; then showing him using the exact same words during the protests in Ferguson, MO. A national correspondent for a major media outlet finds it unbelievable that poor and minority communities might act out their anger and frustration because . . . because of the number of the year? And uses this schtick over and over? Then again, it is Wolf Blitzer who may well be one of the more clueless TV “journalists” around.

In expressing his incredulity, Blitzer brought up Martin Luther King, Jr., whose name and words have been invoked a whole lot this week, particularly by well-meaning white people of faith. While I understand the sentiments, I just wasn’t ready to be yet another white person far removed from the immediate circumstance and ignorant of the specific realities of African-American and police relations in the city of Baltimore (it turns out over the past few years, there have been 100 police-related fatalities, and the city has paid out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality; meanwhile, the city administration privileges the police over the victims, even as police actions cost the city needed money, money that could improve the neighborhoods and lives that are now rising up in protest). That kind of silence, however, was too often taken for consent to and approval of the violence. When I said that white folk, particularly those not in or around the neighborhoods in question might well benefit from silence, from some knee-jerk response calling for non-violence, and should perhaps wait to be invited to the conversation, I was accused of rejecting the Gospel and called an asshole. Because, you know, humility from people in positions of privilege and power is the anti-Christ, and Jesus did say, “Blessed are you who sit and sing ‘Kumbayah’, for you shall be called children of God.”

I do believe I demonstrated a bit more contempt for these folks than might have been warranted. After all, my own preference of course was that the vastly larger groups of people staging completely peaceful marches and protests, calling for an in-depth investigation of Freddie Gray’s death and accountability for the police department should receive far more coverage than the rioters; that white folk should withhold judgments about those engaging in violent confrontations with police precisely because we aren’t there or those people; and that too often those folks quoting King and demanding peace, no matter how much I might agree with them and desire much the same thing, come across no different from all the white folk who’ve been telling black folk how best to live and act in society for 400 years. It is far better that we, no matter our personal preferences, remain silent than continue to participate in social practices that privilege white voices.

The voices, however, continue. For some reason, white people appropriating the words of an African-American (like we’ve been doing with their art for centuries) seems to offer them a sense of moral authority, a pedestal from which to demand attention and agreement from all around. That the sentiments on offer are admirable is beyond doubt; their relevance, however, is certainly in doubt, as is their recent provenance. It isn’t right or good, and certainly not Christian, to take words from the mouth of a reluctant national leader against oppression and state-sanctioned violence and use them against those same people. To equate non-violence with the Gospel is a contemporary conceit, especially beloved by those in positions of power, privilege, and authority. Which is not to say it is necessarily wrong. It is only to note the current social and cultural milieu in which it seems to be so popular. For some reason, asking folks who certainly have their hearts in the right place nevertheless to refrain from the kinds of statements that come across as patronizing, judgmental, and dismissive of the real voices of the people on the ground is, in the eyes of these same people, approving of violence and a rejection of the Gospel.

Do I get this? Of course not. Do I wish more folks like me might restrain themselves from speaking with assumed authority, using words appropriated from a white-approved black man to tell black folk what’s good for them? Of course. I suppose, however, I shouldn’t be surprised that even people of faith have blind spots. Acknowledging this isn’t rejection of the Gospel or approving violence. It is, rather, to be humble in the face of so much social unrest; to be aware of one’s own limited perspective and one’s own position of social, political, and cultural privilege; and to be in prayer that from all the unrest, peaceful and otherwise, something constructive will emerge, some effort to patch together and reweave bonds of community, including between the city of Baltimore and its police department and communities of color in that city. We who are outside, however, would demonstrate the best solidarity by remaining silent.

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Hymnody As Social Practice

“Heavy metal” now denotes a variety of musical discourses,  social practices, and cultural meaning, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power.  The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts.  Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.  The visual language of the metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera.  The clothing and hairstyle of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedroom to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community.  And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship. – Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, p.2

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The social interpretation of light and, in the final analysis, of all music is faced  by the one central question: what method is it to employ to avoid, still further presumption in methodology of the ambiguity of the static state of nature – in the components of drives – and of dynamic historical quality – in its social function.  If music, as it has done up to the present, is to escape the schematism of individual psychology, if the most elementary of its effects presupposes a concrete social condition of which it offers a tendentious indication, and if nature itself does not appear in music other than in historic images, then the material character of music might offer an indication that dialectical materialism might not answer the “question” about the relation of nature and history, but that it might rather contribute to the elimination of this question both in theory and praxis. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation of Music,” in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p. 433

I suppose I’m backtracking a bit.  After a day spent wondering where to take my reflections from my experience on Sunday at Christ The Carpenter UMC, I’ve also been struggling with what probably shouldn’t be a struggle: What should I read?  While I suppose I should continue with Taylor’s A Secular Age, the truth is the “story” he is telling is one with which I’m overtly familiar; he tells it in much the way I would tell it, first breaking the constituent parts then reassembling them to give the reader a picture of the historical movement.  For me, this is well-worn territory, and in all honesty, I’m bored with yet another presentation of something that is as familiar to me as as the clothes I wear.  So, I wonder: What next?

I picked up Robert Walser’s ground-breaking study of Heavy Metal music and was skimming the early pages when the paragraph quoted above leaped out at me.  In a moment, while I hadn’t resolved what I wanted to read next – for all its importance as the first serious musicological study of Heavy Metal; for the way Walser incorporates both social and cultural theory in his analysis both of the music and what another musicologist, writing about British Progressive Rock, Edward Macan, calls the music’s “taste public” (a term I find far more satisfying than “fan”), it is now over 20 years old, dated in its references, and doesn’t include the way the “unity” of the style shattered in the 1990’s even as it morphed in its public presentation – I knew that I had to go back and talk a bit about what music is.  All the important texts I have read over the past several years have wrestled with this most basic question.  Some have been totally absorbed by it, such as This Is Your Brain On Music, which looks at the neurophysiology of music production and reception (as well as the distinctions between those parts of music that exist “out there” in the real world and those parts of music that are wholly produced by how our brain interprets particular types of physical stimuli).  It became clear to me, reading that paragraph from Walser that I  had to discuss the function of music in Church, precisely because our diverse preferences for styles of church music, hymnody, and gospel music are less reflective of reductionist descriptions of the sounds themselves (although these are important and can never be ignored).  Indeed, the distinctions and preferences of individuals and congregations are far more easily, and interestingly, explained by the social function particular musical style play for those who prefer them.  Any attempt to introduce theologically interesting music from outside what is acceptable as “church music” is as much a matter of confronting changing social functions (sometimes radically) as it is personal or congregational preferences for one style over another.

Thus it is that I drag Adorno along to remind us both of the social reality and function of music, as well as the limitations not only of his own particular vantage point, but the limitations of a solely social understanding of music.  For music is many things: it is, at its simplest definition, “organized sound”; it is a particular type of organized sound, emerging from an individual or group of individuals at different points in time; it is both the reflection of and answer to the social contradictions with which all societies live, often seeking to resolve them through a social dynamism in which social distinctions are submerged for the good of the whole.  In the West, particularly the White West, we have lived far too long under the spell of an aesthetic that insists the “highest” art is functionless, existing solely for itself.  Not only those who wrote about music, but those who composed it, on occasion accepted this inhuman, unhistorical, and impossible view of music.  Far too many of those who are current patrons of what is far too narrowly (and ignorantly) called “classical” music – including opera, the ballet, and chamber music – accept not only this understanding; their social practice of listening as a group demonstrates an insufficient understanding of the social function such music played in the past, and how audiences were lively, sometimes rowdy, and that it was for such audiences the music was originally produced.

Yet Adorno nevertheless is important precisely because he forces us to consider not only the historical and socioeconomic embeddedness of all music; he understood that precisely because music is historical to its core, it is thus functional to its core.  It is only when music ceases to be a part of a particular historical moment it becomes what Adorno calls “museum pieces”, his derisive term for much of the music-going public in the mid-20th century, who preferred music from previous centuries than the ongoing, living orchestral tradition that, Adorno continued to argue throughout his life, was ignored precisely because its major function: reflecting the absurdity and contradictions of emerging monopoly capitalism, the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and those who followed in their wake offered a vision of the current age that was far too threatening to be acceptable by the patrons of the arts, who also tend to be among the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie.

If there is any music that exists precisely because it is functional, it is church music.  Removed from the context of worship services, church music becomes less meaningful, even if its presentation is aesthetically pleasing, such as Beyonce’s performance of “Precious Lord”.  When music meant for a particular group of people at a particular time and place to perform particular social functions becomes yet another performance piece, its meaning necessarily changes.  For example, Joan Baez singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at Woodstock means something completely different than if she were to sing them along with a congregation worshiping on a Sunday morning.

Hymnody, then – as a way of encapsulating all the varieties of church musics, past and present – is a social practice that includes not only the sounds themselves; it includes where they are performed, by whom, under what conditions (solo performance, choral performance, congregational performance), the histories both of the song as well as its reception by the particular congregation performing it.  The well-known backstory to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”, for example, can make such a song not only a hymn, but a performance piece for solo or groups, without any reference to any religious context.  Indeed, it can be a song of personal strength in the face of a life tragedy that, while specifically dated (we in the West don’t lose too many to passenger ships sinking) is nevertheless an experience to which all can relate.  On the other hand, a hymn such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, cannot be removed from its particular religious setting without becoming meaningless, a performance piece to showcase either vocal virtuosity, or perhaps rearranged to demonstrate technical musical skill.  The particularity of the song, however, is lost.

It is for these reasons – set out only in sketch-like form here – that there is always resistance to changes in music in worship.  We become both familiar and comfortable with particular hymns that have brought solace, comfort, or some other meaning to our lives at particular times; they have become part and parcel of the life-history of a congregation; particular musical styles, including instrumentation and therefore timbres and tone colors, are part and parcel of this identity-forming social function.  Attempts to mix and match musical styles – to bring in “traditional” hymnody, “contemporary” praise music, and perhaps musics from other worshiping traditions, cultures, languages, or even confessional traditions – run up against the social practices of the particular congregation in question, resulting in conflicts rather than a more harmonious (pun intended) acceptance of a wider variety of musical possibilities open to more people.  I believe this is why, for example, in the mid-1980’s when the United Methodist Church last revised their hymnal, the acquiesced to pressure to include the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” despite its questionable theology, and the fact that fewer and fewer congregations actually sing it.  Just the thought of not offering the possibility to congregations who had sung it in the past was perceived as an attack upon their social identity, and the practices including musical practices that make up their identity.

While it might be profitable to become more inclusive in our musical choices both as congregations and as the Church as a whole, we must recognize the very real social barriers that exist in making even incremental changes in our musical practices.  This should give me pause as I try to work out the possibility of including secular musical styles in to our worship.  It might be beneficial to have classes, courses, discussion groups and whatnot in local congregations on hymnody, its history and function, the way musical styles have changed not only with technology (the invention of musical notation; the setting out of the well-tempered chord; the distinctions among musical modes and how they function; the rise of the organ, the piano, and resistance to their use, etc.) but as part of larger social processes rooted in particular histories.  Such an approach, making congregations more self-aware, might offer opportunities for growth, for self-reflection, and for a willingness for at least incremental experimentation with a larger diversity, first of musical style intended for church use.  Only then, perhaps, can we bring our congregations to hear the Word and feel the Spirit in all sorts of musical styles.