Music of Resistance
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a model for how religion and resistance meet. It is not lost on me that for Dietrich Jesus was the model for how religion and resistance meet – and in his own resistance to evil Dietrich learned what he could from Jesus. Dietrich once wrote: “When God calls you, God bids you come and die.” Its not hard to see how he learned that from Jesus.
But that’s not what I want to reflect on now. Dietrich also wrote that “Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.”
Let us call this a time of care and sorrow. Let us concede that we need the music that will keep a fountain of joy alive in us. There are times that will try our souls. Like many who have engaged in resistance movements, we will find ourselves called to speak and act in ways that take a toll. How do we sustain ourselves for the road to come? How do we ensure that our spirits and our souls and our psyches stay strong and stable and whole and healthy for the duration of this engagement?
Of all the answers we can proffer, one stands out for me: music.
This past Sunday, I preached at Glenview Community Church outside Chicago. At dinner the night before, their organist told me he had chosen a Postlude in response to Mr. Trump’s latest executive order severely limiting or outright banning refugees from finding safety in America. I waited to hear it, knowing it would move me. Well, it did. As I stood in the back of the sanctuary listening, I had tears – healing tears, angry tears, motivating tears – running down my cheeks.
What did he play? The New Colossus, by Irving Berlin. The New Colossus is the poem written by Emma Lazarus that inscribes the base of the Statue of Liberty: music as resistance.
I remember singing for the first time “A Song of Peace,” a hymn written to the tone poem composed by Jean Sibelius. The words were especially moving, and in certain contexts can be used as resistance. The second verse reads:
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
That is a remedy for the kind of xenophobia that can ruin a people. Then I learned that the tune, composed by Sibelius, was itself a song of resistance. Composed in Finland (the tone poem is called “Finlandia”) during the time of Soviet take over, it became the unofficial National Anthem of the resistance and inspired an entire country to defend their freedom against tyranny and oppression. It was forbidden to be played anywhere, only making it all the more necessary for the resistance to use it. It would be listed in playbills under different names and titles to prevent the empire from shutting down the event – and then its opening lines would be played and the crowd would go wild upon hearing it again: music as resistance.
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land;” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind;” Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome;” John Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin about a Revolution”; Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit;” these are all songs of resistance offered in the context of tyranny and oppression.
Gentle souls, you must find spiritual sustenance if you are going to resist evil. Let the music of the day find you, move you, sustain you. Let the sacred present herself to you in the chords and choruses of our movement. Let there be joyful noises that stir the passions within us and sustain us. You are needed, healthy and whole, on this part of the journey Into the Mystic.