Tag Archive | justice

“This Little Light of Mine” and a Home Town Protest

Well, it happened again. I turned up too much information, and I need to share it somewhere. It’s too much for the book I’m writing, so I guess it needs to go into another blog post, just like the last time this happened, when I wrote about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This time the song is “This Little Light of Mine.”

I’m still spending most of my days working on my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. So far I’ve written hymn reflections on 12 hymns for Advent, 21 for Christmas, and 9 for Epiphany. “This Little Light of Mine” is my last song for Epiphany. Then I can move on to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Eventually I’ll get to the patriotic hymns of summer, hopefully while it’s still summer. My goal is to complete the book before the end of the year, and to have written reflections on about 100 seasonal hymns.

But as I said above, I learned a lot about “This Little Light of Mine,” and I want to tell you about it.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR) series, “National Anthem,” produced in 2018, 

Fans know “This Little Light of Mine” as a beloved children’s tune, recognized around the world. But it’s also a spiritual, which was transformed by the nation’s civil rights movement into an anthem of singular power.

In the 1960s, during demonstrations for civil rights, the singing of “This Little Light of Mine” helped to steady the nerves of protestors while angry police officers threatened to beat them up. Freedom singer Rutha Mae Harris recalled, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. ‘Everywhere I go, Lord, I’m gonna let it shine…’”

Fifty years later, in 2017, the song was still having the same impact. Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used “This Little Light of Mine” to defuse tensions during a counter-protest before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We had originally said we were going to stand silently,” says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. “But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling – mostly homophobic slurs – at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren’t with us… [They] were getting amped up.” 

Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. “I know song can do that. So I just broke into ‘This Little Light of Mine.’”

In a moment captured on video, the clergy and volunteers … are shown standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of “You will not replace us” from the rally crowd. “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis,” Sekou says. “They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”

There’s another story about another movement for justice and the role “This Little Light of Mine” played. This story is from “Sojourners” magazine, December 13, 2013. 

Two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, … hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called “usury” – the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor. 

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” sang 70 customers inside the cavernous lobby at BOA headquarters. “Even in my bank, I’m gonna let it shine!” they sang, marching seven times along the gleaming glass and polished marble walls…. 

The writer of this Sojourners’ article ended the story saying,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice: sitting on a bus, ordering coffee at a lunch counter, or transferring your money to a credit union built for people, not profits. I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song reverberating around an office building, could enflesh the presence of God, even if they weren’t hot enough or bright enough to right the wrongs, nor turn oppression into justice nor usher in the kingdom of God. I didn’t know it could be enough just to catch a glimpse of that kingdom, wherever two or three were gathered in Christ’s name….  I didn’t know this little light might actually free people, here on earth, not completely, but at least give them a bit more freedom from things like debt, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or loneliness…. 

 

And then there’s a story I personally experienced just a couple weeks ago. But we didn’t sing “This Little Light of Mine.” About a hundred people gathered at Veterans Park in downtown Cambridge, Wisconsin, population less than 2,000, to support the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the 2010 census, the population of Cambridge is 96.8% White, 0.9% African American, and 1.7% Latino. We’re a typical small town of the Midwest. And although racial injustice doesn’t touch us very directly in our everyday lives, we do recognize injustice when we see it, and at least a hundred of us, probably many more, want to do what we can to bring about justice. What we did in the park that evening was listen to a couple speakers, hold “Black Lives Matter” signs, meet some of our neighbors who share our same concerns for justice, stand together in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and pray together, led by one of our local pastors. 

If we hold another demonstration in the future, I hope we sing “This Little Light of Mine” as so many other freedom protesters have done in the past. Why do I care so much about singing this song?

Although most people know “This Little Light of Mine” as a Sunday School song or as a Freedom song for peaceful protests, it is definitely a song that belongs in the Epiphany chapter of my book, as well. The word “epiphany” means “appearance or manifestation.” Epiphany as a church holiday refers to January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, and it commemorates the Wise Men finding the Christ Child and bringing him gifts. This is considered the first manifestation of Christ to Gentiles. Probably the most well-known Epiphany carol is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” 

But the Epiphany season is about much more than the Wise Men’s journey to find Jesus. It’s about other ways God has given us an “epiphany” – an “aha!” moment – about the nature of God and our relationship to God’s world. A common theme of Epiphany is light. It is with light, that truth is revealed to us. That’s why we sing “Jesus, the Light of the World,” another Epiphany carol. And Jesus told his disciples to be the light of the world, as well. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, New King James Version

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!  [sing 3 times]
Let it shine!   [sing 3 times]

Shine all over Cambridge, I’m gonna let it shine! [sing 3 times]
Let it shine! [sing 3 times]

That’s the song. Regardless of who is singing it, and for whatever purpose, the first verse is always the same. The simple pattern of the first verse can easily be filled in with new words to fit any justice issue – to shed a light on whatever injustice needs to be illuminated – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice, and so on.

As the writer of the Sojourner’s article explained,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice… I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song … could enflesh the presence of God…

Today’s Politics Should Prompt New Hymns

MM at Moodys PubI’ve been working on my next book of reflections on hymns, and just completed the story behind “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” The writing of this hymn was prompted by the social and economic conditions in the United States following the Civil War. As I was explaining the context of this hymn to Mim, she said, “That sounds just like the social, economic, and political situation today. You should blog about it.” So here’s a peek at one reflection that will be in my next book.

The time period following the Civil War in America was turbulent. In the late 1860s, America was beginning to change from a land of mostly farmers to an urban industrial society with two distinct classes of people – the super wealthy and the vulnerable poor – the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the slum-dwelling working class. Economic injustice was one of the dominant themes of the day.

Washington Gladden was a Congregational pastor of a church in Ohio. He was very troubled by how society was evolving, and he became an outspoken activist for moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics. He wrote 38 books on related moral reform themes, as well as numerous editorials and articles, and even poems and hymns. He became a noted leader in the Social Gospel Movement, a movement to apply Christian ethics to social problems – to apply Jesus’ teachings to our daily living, to take seriously the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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Gladden was widely criticized by fellow clergymen for his political involvement. They thought he should limit himself to preaching the gospel instead of getting involved in secular justice issues. Gladden wrote the poem,“Walking with God,” and published it in his magazine in 1879 as a response to this criticism. The poem had three verses of eight lines each.

Dr. Charles H. Richards, an editor and publisher of hymns, read the poem and loved it, except for the second verse. He omitted that verse, and split the first and third verses into four verses of four lines each. Then Richards paired the edited poem with the tune MARYTON, and published it as the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” in his book, CHRISTIAN PRAISE. The omitted verse helps us understand why Gladden wrote this hymn. I’m sure he felt better after writing it – even if he’s the only one singing it.

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide Thy light,
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that Thou art good.

Obviously, Gladden thought his critics were hypocrites who were totally blind to what the Bible really says about justice issues. That was back in the 1870s, as our country was evolving from an agricultural age to an industrial age, and economic changes were bringing about extreme wealth and extreme poverty. 

And that’s what is happening today, as well. Today’s age of technology of all types is bringing about chaos in many new ways. Unfortunately, our political parties have very different ideas about how to address the chaos. And, most unfortunately, people have forgotten how to work together to solve our problems. Listening. Understanding. Compromising. Respecting each other. These seem to be lost skills.

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I feel that many Christians support policies that I believe are contrary to what the Bible says about justice issues, like caring for the needy, and welcoming strangers. I feel just like Gladden felt. Maybe we should all do what Gladden did – write a hymn like Gladden’s, one that begins with words like,

O Jesus, Let me walk with you,
before the horrid Washington crew …

After getting out that bitter first verse, we might be able to move on to more constructive, positive verses, like the ones below, verses that begin with words like, “Help me… Teach me… In hope…”

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Something I Started To Think about in Fifth Grade

fullsizeoutput_2003I was about ten years old when I first tried to understand what the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” meant. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Borgerud, and she very patiently tried to explain to the class the core beliefs of each political/economic system. Back in the ‘50s, we all knew that the United States was right and Russia was wrong with regard to all our differences. Therefore, it was clear that capitalism was good and socialism was bad. We knew that. What we were trying to learn that day was what those big words really meant.

I learned that “socialism” was based on the belief that everyone is equally entitled to all our resources and everyone should be treated fairly. Our resources should be owned communally, and everyone should work together so that the basic needs of all of us would be met. My initial reaction was quite positive. That sounded like what Christ modeled in the New Testament – that we should help each other and take care of the poor and the sick. I was surprised. That couldn’t really be what “socialism” was all about… Or, was it?

Then I learned that “capitalism” was based on the belief that the harder we worked, the greater would be our rewards. Those who were poor, deserved to be poor because they didn’t work hard enough. That sounded to me more like selfishness and greed and disrespect for the poor. That didn’t seem to be the type of behavior the Bible encouraged.

I was puzzled. I looked around at the other kids in the class to see if they were as confused as I was by what we were hearing from our teacher. I couldn’t tell. No one expressed any of the shock that I was feeling. I guess I must not be understanding what Mrs. Borgerud was really saying. I didn’t speak up. I just listened some more.

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Mrs. Borgerud came to live with us for assisted living care several years ago. She and Abbey became good friends.

Mrs. Borgerud explained that one reason capitalism was better than socialism was that it provided an incentive for people to work hard. If you want to be rich, you can be rich. You just need to work hard enough. In contrast, the weakness in socialism is that there is no incentive to work hard. You will get all your needs met whether you work or not. Socialism provides an incentive to be lazy.

I guess that made sense. But I was still troubled. I didn’t know anyone who worked harder than my mom and dad, yet we considered ourselves poor, not rich. I never went hungry, and I always had enough clothes – although they all came from Penneys or Sears, not from Manchesters where some of my classmates from wealthier families bought their clothes. I’m sure their parents didn’t work harder than mine. There didn’t seem to be much of a correlation between hard work and wealth.

And what about the special offerings we sometimes had in church to provide food and clothing for the poor in our inner cities and in Africa and India? What did capitalism have to say about meeting the needs of the poor? Was being poor really their own problem because they were too lazy to work?

It’s been almost 60 years since I first wondered about these things.  Ever since that day in fifth grade, I’ve been suspicious that there may be serious inconsistencies between capitalism and what the Bible says about how God intends for us to share our resources with our neighbors.

At times I’ve wondered if socialism follows the teachings of the Bible more closely. That sounds more like how the early church lived.

Now the group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. [Acts 4:32-35 NRSV]

Ellen M KogstadA few years ago Mim and I had a long conversation with Ellen, a friend of ours in Chicago. Her family immigrated from Norway to the United States when she was a little girl. Ellen still keeps in close touch with many of her relatives in Norway. Our conversation with Ellen was after one of her recent trips to Norway. She talked about how socialism has changed the way people think about caring for their less fortunate neighbors. “It’s the government’s job to see that their needs are met – not mine.” Her cousins rarely go to church, and they certainly don’t tithe. There’s no personal sense of responsibility to care for the poor. It seems that the advice given in Proverbs no longer applies to individuals in Norway.

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse. [Proverbs 28:27 NRSV]

Why am I thinking about socialism and capitalism today? I can’t help but think about what is the appropriate role of government, as our country is jolted from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration. It seems we are changing in lightning speed from trying to be a “kind, gentle nation” to becoming a “tough, aggressive, me-first nation.” Selfishness is expressed in the new administration’s slogan of “America First!”

As I read the lectionary readings for January 29, 2017 in preparation for planning the music for Sunday’s church service, I read Micah 6:1-8, the Old Testament reading for the day. In the reading, God has a complaint against Israel. After all God has done for Israel, why aren’t they following after the righteousness they have been shown. The passage ends with these words:

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 NRSV]

I think it’s obvious from experience around the world that no political/economic system is perfect. But God’s standard of how we should act as a nation has been set – To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. With all the political squabbling that’s going on now, this is what we need to remember. This needs to be our guiding principal – personally and as a nation.

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