Music propels movements. In the early 1900s Billie Holiday sang a haunting song, “Strange Fruit,” that stirred up resistance to southern lynchings. Spirituals and gospel songs animated the Black church, but also allies such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in their fight for freedom.
Perhaps the most recognized anthem of the Civil Rights movement was Mahalia Jackson’s “We Shall Overcome.”
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
In 1963 she sang this anthem on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. During the next speech she leaned forward and whispered, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” That dream became for a generation their vision and purpose.
Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God was his robust and earthy “I have a dream” metaphor for liberation, healing and hope. Contemporary terms such as kin-dom of God, the Beloved Community, and the Harmony Way capture the same spirit.
I’ve always wondered if the song of Mary from Nazareth inspired the Jesus movement. It’s easy to imagine mother and son singing together the Magnificat while working together in their home and walking the paths of Galilee.
Repeated often enough, lyrics on our lips can become heart songs that shape our thoughts and living.
Is that what happened with Mary’s song? Did it become an earworm for Jesus?
God, you scattered the proud in their conceit. You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things while you have sent the rich away empty.
For decades after she first sang these words, and decades further still from her son’s death, the Magnificat was passed down through the community to Luke, who chose to include it in his Gospel. But why? Did Mary’s lyrics inspire Jesus’ tenacious persistence in blessing the poor and liberating the oppressed?
Messiah University professor Drew Hart’s latest book, Who Will Be a Witness? (Herald Press, 2020), is, like Jackson’s “We Shall Overcome,” a call to hope and action. The phrase that’s become my 2020 earworm is “bet on God’s delivering presence by joining the Messiah’s revolutionary movement.” Those words are in a chapter Hart calls “Trouble Won’t Last.” It’s a fitting prayer for this calendar year.
In the same chapter he makes it clear hope is tied to action and to becoming “Jesus-shaped through discipleship.”
At Christmas we celebrate the good news that God turns out to be just like Jesus. But what does it look like for us to become like Jesus?
Mary’s image of a downside-up world can challenge white Christians to understand we’re shaped by systems of racism, that we continue to benefit from those systems and that we have power to interrupt them.
The radical Jesus Hart outlines works against oppression through nonviolent resistance, strategic revolutionary symbolism and the politics of love. It’s a Jesus hardly discernible in colonialist white theology like the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Becoming like Jesus means we do the things Jesus did: defending women, the orphan and all strangers.
I wonder what songs from the new Voices Together hymnal will inspire our movements and give us hope in the new year? Maybe Adam Tice’s new hymn, “We Dream of a Turning” (No. 209) or Israel Houghton’s contemporary favorite, “Lord You Are Good” (No. 33). Perhaps the Lingala song, “Na nzela na lola (As Long as We Follow)” (No. 413).
Music can propel our movements. It can give us hope. Hopefulness is putting your feet on the ground each day and fighting for your health. Hope is what filled our cities with protests after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Hope is what is stirring a new movement, Mennonites Against Militarism. Hope is singing for the hundredth time, in the face of white people ignoring their privilege, “We Shall Overcome.”
Looking back on 2020 and forward to the new year, here’s a Voices Together song I can sing and a reality I will fight for: “I see a new world coming, where everyone is free, and all will be God’s people in justice, joy and peace” (No. 416).