“So much of the struggle in this world exists because we can’t imagine a world different than the one we have. The world is the way it is because people feel helpless to do anything in the face of injustice.” – Steve Schallert
Last week I drove up the coast to Newcastle for a gathering of songwriters and musicians, with Steve Schallert out from Hawaii leading us in conversation. Over the past year I’ve been loving Steve’s record, “Songs of Sorrow / Songs of Hope”, so I was pinching myself when my friend Stevie Lujan invited me to play a few gigs with them through the week. (Forever grateful to my wife for holding down the fort!)
The week turned out to be the shot of creative energy I’ve been needing. For a while now I’ve been mulling over how my own songwriting can be better integrated with my desire to get alongside people who are marginalised. This is exactly what our conversation centred around. I was buzzing from day one.
Music is a unifying language for people who are being oppressed. Steve took us through times in history where music has tapped into it’s prophetic potential by questioning the status quo or giving a glimmer of hope to those resigned to defeat. The language of music has allowed people to dream of new possibilities through the generations. Quoting a Palestinian poet, he said “If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.”
How do we start doing this work in any significant way? Steve pitched Phillipians 2 as the pattern to follow. It’s a poem that Paul wrote about how God travelled the furthest distance ever travelled by “emptying himself” (kenosis) of his intrinsic separateness from humanity. God became a part of this creation the same way we all did–as a baby, completely dependent upon parents for survival. He wasn’t born into power. Jesus’ very identity became enmeshed with a beaten down people. He walked alongside those people, serving, loving and teaching them that they can trust his Heavenly Father. He ruffled feathers and in the end, of course, he was beaten to death for destabilising the proper order of things.
The bait and switch we followers of Jesus hold on to is that in losing his life, he won. We all won. By showing us a better way of living, embracing us at our worst, dying and then being raised from death, Jesus proved the biggest point there ever was to prove: Good overcomes evil, Love is stronger than death. That “though the arc of the Moral Universe is long, it bends toward Justice.” (MLK Jr.)
Holding to Jesus’ metric for success, Steve suggested the only way we can truly begin to offer comfort, solidarity, and spark hope and imagination is by dismantling our own walls of separation. Clearly we need a Higher Power to help us do this, but we will see our choices for vulnerable love vanquish our pride and release us from fear. We’ll begin to come close to others in a way that we’ll feel our very well-being tied to theirs. Jesus gave us the greatest example of co-suffering love, and Bishop Desmond Tutu has given us more language for it by sharing the African concept of “ubuntu”:
Ubuntu […] speaks of the very essence of being human. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.…’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’
Songs of Sorrows / Songs of Hope profoundly demonstrates this ethic of ubuntu. The music receives and brings expression to the pain of Steve’s particular community—racial and economic tension providing the backdrop. But as the title makes clear, the record is also steeped in the language of stubborn hope. Steve finds a way to cut a hole in the roof, so to speak, lowering the pain and sorrow he’s carried boldly into the presence of Jesus.
I’m feeling inspired that I can do this sort of stuff too, somehow, in some way, in the bundle of life I find myself. I still feel a tinge of embarrassment as I write it out, but I’m making the choice anyway to say: My voice is valuable—is important—in the world. If mine is, I know yours is too. So let’s shake off the reserve and start making substance of that ache. Jesus led the way on this “long, hard road”, and has shown us there’s a “good, good end”. It’s our privilege to cry out for justice with people being oppressed, find our healing alongside the hurting, and to provoke imagination toward new possibilities not yet dreamt of in the world.
“Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe.” – Arhundati Roy