I proclaim the power of God:
You do marvels for your servants;
Though you scatter the proud hearted
And destroy the might of princes.
To the hungry you give food,
send the rich away ——empty.
In your mercy you are mindful
Of the people you have chosen.
Refrain: And holy is your name through all generations. (verses 2 & 3 “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. #13 Sing the Journey. See also, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” verses 2 and 3 Hymnal, a worship book – HWB #166)
Where can we find similar praise to God for caring for the poor and hungry in contemporary and traditional worship music? The results of the search I’ve done show few examples of helping the marginal and bringing down the powerful in praise and worship music. Early 2015 the Mountain States Mennonite Conference concluded an Anabaptist songwriting contest. They asked for “New songs with lyrics that espouse Anabaptist/Mennonite values: (e.g. Non-violence, love for enemy, reconciliation, communal life, etc.), musically spanning from traditional forms to non-traditional genres, styles and cultural expressions.” Specific mention of the social justice theme is not made, but perhaps it is implied in “Anabaptist/Mennonite values”. The link below identifies winners and includes their lyrics and music. One of the six mentions attention to the poor. * The 2015 Mennonite World Conference Songbook, Walking with God includes at least three of fifty-six selections that specifically praise God for his attention to the oppressed and poor. January 4, 2016, MennoMedia announced Project 606, intended to produce a new hymnal by 2020. Will this project include work on identifying elements of Anabaptist-flavored, Bible-based worship music?
What Biblical models warrant placing a strong emphasis on praising God for social justice, especially in praise music? “Social justice” here is short hand for God’s act in delivering an immigrant/slave people from the super power of the day. It is a social act because a group of people, the children of Israel, was rescued. A new people with a new plan for living (the Torah) were established. God’s rescue of an oppressed people was “just” because it showed God’s love and mercy, not because Jacob’s descendants deserved it.
The contest (see above) reminded me of my quest of some years to find references to discipleship in worship music, narrowed here to social justice. After some 40 years of hearing loss, hearing aids no longer helped. My cochlear implant is engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but does not cover high and low notes of music. So, I give my attention to the words of the song. This has led me to ask questions about the theology behind the music used in worship. As a non-musician I make no claim to expertise in evaluating musical quality of any of the songs mentioned. I need a welcome help in identifying the quality of lyrics and music featuring attention to God’s interest in the oppressed.
What I have learned
Worship music in the evangelical churches I am familiar with usually includes what can be categorized loosely as contemporary Christian music (CCM), traditional hymns, and gospel songs. These types of music have some overlap. I am not going to define each type. Each has its focus. Contemporary and traditional music praise God for many attributes and deeds, give many invitations for rededication to Christian living, and rejoice in the promise of future life with God, but seldom on concern for the poor and oppressed. My focus on the marginalized in this essay is very narrow.
Christian contemporary music
Several writers have noted the lack of attention to social justice issues in CCM. Jay Howard writes: “There are few [contemporary Christian worship] songs concerned with social justice because there are few songwriters from the Anabaptist tradition.” He analyzes 77 Contemporary Worship Songs –those most frequently requested of the licensing service CCL–and finds only one that gives direct attention to social justice issues. John L. Bell, songwriter argues that CCM is mainly about the birth and death of Jesus and ignores his life. Have I missed some CCM titles that give attention to Jesus’ life, especially to his attention to the poor, the widow, and the outsider?
Traditional ‘gospel songs’ and hymns
Praise and thanksgiving in traditional hymns and gospel songs (I will not define these here, but look at the section on “Gospel Songs” Mennonite Hymnal for examples) give little attention to social justice. “Gospel songs” are strong in their emphasis on grace, God/Jesus’ companionship and love. I have not found any of these that praise God for his love and care of the “widow and fatherless”. There are a number of hymns in HWB, that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that honors God for this attention is “I’ll Praise My Maker”, verses three and four (HWB, #166). Some encourage us to follow Jesus’ example in caring for the marginalized. Did I miss hymns that specifically praise God/Jesus as Miriam and Mary did for God’s championing of the oppressed?
Models and sources:
The preliminary Biblical models I would propose for praise songs are Miriam’s song (Exodus 15) and Mary’s song in Luke 1. The book of Psalms was Israel’s “praise and worship” book. That requires some attention to psalms that praise God for his attention to disadvantaged and those who prey on them.
While God the warrior image usually makes Anabaptist uncomfortable, God is first called holy when he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian cavalry and foot soldiers.
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you?—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?
You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them. (Ex. 15:11-12 (New English Translation)
God is praised for delivering the immigrant/slaves God chose to become his covenant people.
In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says that the things we praise God for shows the way we view the world and our place in it. Many Psalms praise God (see also Miriam’s Song) for delivering a slave/immigrant people from the Egyptian superpower whose religion favored politically powerful and the rich. We are sometimes tempted to assign God’s action here to a special category, rather than see it as a model of what God does. Psalmists praise God (and kings) for their concern for the poor and marginalized. God is praised for being a just judge and for making wars cease. See the following Psalms: 9, 10, 29, 35, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 74, 81, 82, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105,106, 107, 109, 123, 124, 135, 136, 139, 140, 146.
Phrases from Psalms 72 and 146 capture a king’s and God’s attitude and action and are characteristic of the other Psalms:
Ps. 72: The King:
— takes pity on the weak and the needy
— saves the needy from death.
— rescues them from oppression and violence,
— for precious is their blood in his sight.
Ps. 146. The Lord
–upholds the cause of the oppressed
–gives food to the hungry.
–sets prisoners free,
— gives sight to the blind,
— lifts up those who are bowed down,
— loves the righteous.
— watches over the foreigner
–sustains the fatherless and the widow,
–frustrates the ways of the wicked
Praise the Lord.
Repeatedly God gives attention to the oppressed and provides security and safety to victims of violence. To what extent should words and phrases like these from the Psalms be present in our worship music?
Attention to the needs of the orphan/widow/poor is identified more with prophets than the Psalms and I was pleased to find significant attention to this topic in the Psalms. Prophetic critiques of worship do not contain comments on purity of sacrifices, social justice content of Psalms or the quality or frequency of Psalm recitation. The prophetic critiques point out that Sabbath worship by the people of the covenant should be reflected in covenant behavior during the week.
Mary, Jesus, Paul
These themes are continued in the New Testament. Mary’s prophetic vision of her son’s work is captured in the song “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13, Sing the Journey, verses 2 and 3 above). Jesus inaugural sermon repeats these themes.
Miriam’s Song, many Psalms, the prophets’ reminders all tell us that connecting worship and living is crucial. The New Testament contributions of Mary’s song, Jesus life and teaching, and Paul’s take on worship in Romans 12 all point to the worship-discipleship-concern for poor and marginalized as an essential element in our praise and life. I have found very few songs in CCM and “gospel songs” with this focus and only a few in traditional hymns that praise God as a champion of the down and out. (Perhaps additional research and help from knowledgeable persons will locate songs with a social justice focus.) Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) take on Psalms 65:1 provides an appropriate conclusion:
Silence is praise to you,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer [praise] in it all.
*Text and music of six winners can be found at:
Thanks to Julia H. Alleman and Ray E. Horst for sharing their music knowledge with me.
Revised from an essay previously posted on Compost & Grace
Nov. 27, 2016