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 #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. Some 40 years ago I had a period of illness that resulted in a significant loss of hearing. Gradually I lost additional hearing until today I am nearly deaf. Hearing aids and now a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but do 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.
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 will not attempt to fully distinguish between them. Each type has its focus. They are not fully listed here. Contemporary and traditional music praises God for many attributes and deeds, gives many invitations for re-dedication to Christian living, and rejoices in the promise of future life with God, but seldom praises God for 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 that category the 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 Hymnal, a Worship Book (HWB), that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that praises 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
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.
The prophetic focus is reflected in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1-2: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering [as your worship]. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (The Message-my emphasis). Perhaps an important aim of worship music should be to help us connect thanksgiving and praise with covenant living.
Today our world is one of increasing disparity in wealth. God’s rescue of an immigrant/slave people informs us what kind of God he was/is. Jesus affirmed this nature in his work and teaching by giving significant focus to healing, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Can God’s people today teach and act less like the world and more like our lord? Are there songwriters addressing this need?
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.
“I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” (HWB#166) and “My soul is filled with joy” include praise for God for his lifting up the poor and pulling down the powerful. So, that’s why I list them first, although the rest of this list is not necessarily in order of my sense of their importance.
The chair where I sit for morning devotions faces just north of east so that more than half of the mornings during the year I probably could see the sunrise. That feeds my love of sunrises and a preference for the hymns “I owe the Lord a morning song”( HWB#651) and “When morning gilds the skies” 1. The latter sticks in my memory from a theme song of a 1960s radio program, a favorite of my mother’s.
Since the question of favorite hymns was raised at Thanksgiving and since I spend a lot of time in the garden (or thinking about it), I must list “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground” (HWB#96). I list this one even though I know my favorites will vary by season. The place I find myself in my spiritual pilgrimage influences my preference for songs. Recently at church we sang “I sought the Lord” (HWB#506) and that provided the help I needed at the time which music has frequently done. (Once during a period of distress I was given words and a tune for my encouragement. I wrote down the words, but the tune I heard in my head required more of a musician to put on paper. Julia suggested that maybe if she put her head close enough to mine she could hear the tune, too.)
In addition to looking for songs about God’s justice I have been looking for songs that see grace for the journey as important as grace for the destination. The third verse of “Amazing grace” “Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already gone” 2 does that for me. Finally, I enjoy the sustenance of “My shepherd shall supply my need”HWB#589. In addition I recommend that everyone write their autobiography outlined by the last phrase of this hymn, “no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.” I may have listed less that ten hymns, but my preferences change with seasons of the year and of my life. As I looked up the numbers for the hymns above I saw many that have been my “favorites” at various times. And, I am still searching for more songs praising God for justice.
Nov. 27, 2016