Why? I have long believed in the restorative power of music. Creating beauty through music has been a life-time spiritual discipline. It is personal prayer as well as soul food generously shared in public. In many ways, bringing music to a gathering of individuals is secular worship: part ritual, part cleansing, part quest for common ground, and part invitation to live from the heart for a moment in time. As a student and practitioner of non-violent social change, music is also a force that evokes faithfulness and solidarity in times of terror. John Lewis has said repeatedly: when the dogs and fire hoses were turned on us in the Civil Rights movement, it was our singing together that empowered us to hold on. My experience has been that when these truths embrace, music becomes a creative expression of non-violent resistance to oppression. It is simultaneously an aesthetic, sensory challenge to the status quo, and, a tender invitation into this generation's movement of revolutionary love that can "dismantle injustice and remake the world around us - and within us."
Ours has become a utilitarian culture, addicted and obsessed with bottom lines.We measure community, faith, hope and love from the perspective of immediate gratification. Parker Palmer recently noted that our national commitment is no longer to educate our children, but to push them through a test. Even if it requires cheating, all that matters in contemporary education is the outcome. He went on to wonder: in his fleeting last moments of life, did MLK ponder his effectiveness - the outcomes of his revolutionary love - as he bled out? Or, was he at peace on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis knowing that he had already "been to the mountain top?" I trust the later, but such is a minority report in 21st century America.
Now, beyond our utilitarian obsessions, we are becoming a people flirting with fascism. Madelaine Albright put it like this in yesterday's NY Times:
Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.
Our culture works overtime celebrating that which is course, rude, cruel, and mean-spirited. The so-called "art of the deal" so shapes our collective soul that we have lost touch with truth, goodness, and beauty. Indeed, we are woefully ignorant of the warning Alexandr Solzhenitsyn prophesied in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize testimony: beauty can save the world. For those who have forgotten who Solzhenitsyn was - or never knew - he served as a Russian soldier in WWII who was later imprisoned in Stalin's work camps. He rose to be an author of international repute for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward, and Matryona's Place. In 1973 his Gulag Archipelago documented the horrors of communism's forced prison camps. Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, Solzhenitsyn did not travel to Stockholm for fear he would be denied re-entry to his beloved Mother Russia. In 1974 he was banished from his homeland, moved to the US in exile, and returned in 1994 after the fall of communism.
One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved? There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.
The heart of his speech centered on his experience as an artist: tyrants tremble when beauty and truth embrace and are shared. When art articulates truth and goodness to the wider world, beauty evokes solidarity from all sectors of society. Allies outside of Russia who read Solzhenitsyn's fiction were emboldened to advocate for freedom of expression within the Soviet Union. These alliances strengthened one another by creatively shining the light of beauty into the darkness. Even when truth and goodness were shackled, unable to find free expression, beauty ascended. It awakened the collective conscience. It broke individual hearts. It gave shape and form to what human beings hold in common. And in time it was able to literally tear down walls.
Our era, while nothing like the grim purgatories of Soviet terror, is caught in a web of lies and fear-mongering. Some people of faith have forsaken the ethics and values of Jesus - like honoring the stranger as the Lord, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, loving our enemies, and trusting the way of the Cross - in exchange for a new culture war founded on the possibility of a Supreme Court nominee. Others are concerned only about instant gratification. And more and more mistrust the press, elected officials and their neighbors. In such a polarized time it is rare for opponents to meet and recognize one another's common humanity. But, it still happens in our culture from time to time through music...
Think of country artists Tim McGraw and Faith Hill calling for common sense gun laws. Or Bruce Springsteen calling out police violence against African Americans in "41 Shots." Or John Mellancamp's duets with
Me'Shell Ndegeocello or country singer Travis Tritt. Or country giant Garth Brooks taking on homophobia or domestic violence. Or Mary J Blige teaming up with U2 on "One."
For a moment in time, these artists and many, many others break through our collective fear to embody a loving alternative. In this, I believe that music
nourishes our better angels. It puts us back in touch with our deepest truths. And it evokes both the tears of lament and the laughter of joy without diminishing either.
God has given us gifts to enter the hardness of this hour but the holy "words" must become "flesh." We have been given compassion to stand with the forgotten, love to embrace the despised and broken; music to express our deepest truths; and treasured sisters and brothers of every size, shape, gender, race and class to help us carry the load when it all becomes more than we can bear. Music and tenderness in community are sacred resources given to us for reclaiming the common good.