By Greg Ayers
December 8, 2014
Does protest music matter to Christians? In an age in which a Republican congressman cites a progressive rap-metal group as his favorite band and contemporary protest songs seem to pale in comparison to their forebears, it’s a question being asked a lot.
As it turns out, Christianity and protest music have a long history, with the Psalms being an early example. In Psalm 137, the author laments the ancient Israelites’ Babylonian captivity and pours out his revenge fantasies to God:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9, ESV)
This Psalm and others like it, be they laments or expressions of doubt, are protests against the hard realities of a sin-stricken world. Psalm 88 is another good example, with the author believing God to be the source of his suffering and protesting against it:
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Psalm 88:6-7, ESV)
Speaking of what he calls the “Lament Psalms,” Bill Muehlenberg quotes biblical commentator Dr. Marvin Tate’s thoughts on Psalm 88:
Psalm 88 stands as a witness to the intent of the Psalms to speak to all of life, to remind us that life does not always have happy endings. Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintry nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.
Not for nothing has Bono said the Psalms are “also the blues.”
It’s worth mentioning the Psalms first not only for chronological reasons, but also because of the influence they had on later forms of Christian protest music. In fact, the Psalms inspired many of Martin Luther’s hymns that he wrote to power the Reformation. Most obvious is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” inspired by the refrain of Psalm 46: “The God of Jacob is our fortress.”
There are others that Luther drew from the well of the Psalms. “From the Depth of Woe I Cry to Thee” was based on Psalm 131. We sing these hymns today thinking of them as largely spiritual works, but they were songs of “consolation and defiance” for a movement that bore not only religious consequences, but social and political ones as well. In other words, this music encompassed all of life.
The lamenting aesthetic of the Psalms also influenced nineteenth and twentieth century spirituals and gospel music, though these styles of protest music found additional Old Testament inspiration in other books of the Bible. “Wade in the Water,” credited to brothers John Wesley Work, Jr. and Frederick J. Work, depicts the Exodus. Many of these songs served the purposes of both worship and protest, another example of Christian music overcoming a sacred/secular dichotomy.
It’s harder to find contemporary examples of protest music. Bruce Cockburn has been carrying that torch for awhile, but a large portion of music made by Christians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has concerned itself more with the inward spiritual life while ignoring larger social and political realities. Alternative rock bands in the early ‘90s associated themselves with all kinds of issues related to politics and justice, but outside of the occasional DC Talk song decrying racism, counterparts among the ranks of Christian alternative bands were not to be found.
Derek Webb is one contemporary Christian artist who has tackled protest music in his career. His 2007 album, The Ringing Bell, at times explored the relationship between Christianity and politics. That same year he gave a concert at Wheaton College, where he delivered a particularly incendiary performance of “A Savior on Capitol Hill,” which cynically laments the messy, sinful side of politics and the temptation to view politics as the sole means of redemption and restoration in the world:
I'm so tired of these mortal men
With their hands on their wallets
And their hearts full of sin
Scared of their enemies, scared of their friends
And always running for re-election
So come to D.C. if it be thy will
Because we've never had a savior on Capitol Hill.
Why are there so few examples of contemporary Christian protest music? Christians are taking up the causes of justice, from human trafficking to ethical buying to racial reconciliation. Christians are awakening from a long sabbatical away from creating, building, and participating in culture. Perhaps the view of salvation and redemption as solely personal acts with no corporate public impact has led to the dearth of Christian engagement with political and social issues. It wasn’t always this way, as this all-too-brief survey shows. As Christians discover the historical doctrines that are fueling their return to applying faith to all of life, maybe they’ll also discover the rich history of protest music that sought to depict and encompass all of life, too.
- Greg Ayers is a writer, editor, and communications professional living and working in the Washington, D.C. metro area.