Protest Songs Sunday, March 13, 2022 The Rev. Megan Collins
It’s been said when it comes to a sermon one should preach with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. Today, with such a talented group of musicians joining us, we are going to add one more thing to this formula, music. As we think about the news we are holding in one hand, and the Bible we hold in the other, one particular kind of music seems especially relevant for us today, protest songs.
Protest music has been around for a long time. One of the earliest protest songs here in our country was Free America. It was written as a call to action during the Revolutionary War by a man named Joseph Warren. Some of the most well known protest music came later from the slaves who sung about freedom. Songs like Go Down, Moses pointed to the parallels of when God freed the Israelites in the scriptures. It is said to have been sung by Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad.
The Civil Rights movement then built on this tradition. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit includes lyrics about lynchings in the south. Nina Simone wrote songs about the bombing that killed four young black girls in an Alabama church.
From there folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary (who were, incidentally, one of my parent’s favorites) sang acoustic songs to speak to the nation about civil rights and then about the Vietnam War. Another folk artist Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land which was embraced by the working class. In the 70s and 80s groups wrote songs protesting the wealthy elite and the first feminist protest music became popular.
More recently, before the women’s march on Washington a few years ago, musician MILCK organized a group to sing a song called Quiet about feminism. Melissa Ethridge sang Uprising of Love and Laura Jane Grace wrote True Trans Soul Rebel in support of the LGTBQ community and to speak out against their oppression.
Now as Putin has continued his attack on the people of Ukraine, there have been videos of the destruction of entire communities. But then there have also been videos like these, where the people of Ukraine are singing in bomb shelters and while preparing to defend their home. Even as Russia tries to take away everything they have, they sing.
Sometimes just singing, singing anything at all, is an act of protest.
Music as protest gives a voice to those speaking out against the oppression and atrocities of our world. It provides a platform to condemn those that hurt vulnerable people. Music as protest is part of who we are. It seems God must have designed it that way because one of the earliest protest songs we have is not the one from the Revolutionary War. It’s from the Bible. It’s sung by a woman named Mary.
The Gospel of Luke, in the very first chapter, shares Mary’s song, which has become known as the Magnificat. Mary was a young Palestinian-Jewish teenager living in a Roman occupied territory at a time when patriarchy was the rule. She was, in every sense, on the margins. She had just found out that she is pregnant with Jesus, which she knows is good news but will surely lead to more problems for her. She goes to talk with Elizabeth. This is where the gospel of Luke begins, with two women, who would seem to have no power at all, telling the story in their voice. Mary sings the following words: And Mary said “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” - Luke 1:46 - 55
We are often tempted to make Mary a quiet or even weak character in the Biblical story. We sing things like Mary Did You Know? (she knew, by the way). But in the words of the Rev. Carolyn Sharp,
“Don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat. Instead see her as a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.”
Yes, Mary does ponder the words on the angel in her heart, but then she goes on to sing a powerful protest song. Her words speak of God bringing down the powerful, scattering the proud, emptying the rich, feeding the hungry, and lifting up the lowly. Mary sings about how God will turn the powers of this world completely upside down. The good news of Jesus in the gospel of Luke begins with Mary’s song against all of the injustices of her world. She is a young woman, with every reason to hide, but she is singing. Mary’s song has now been sung generation after generation in the church. We see in Mary how God works through people on the margins of power to change the world. Before Jesus is even born, Mary knows what his coming will mean. Her words are a true protest song because she calls for the world to be the way God intended it to be. It is powerful and full of hope and demands that what is will not dictate what could be as God works through Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis. He called the Magnificat
“the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
Mary’s song is revolutionary. In fact it was so revolutionary that India, Guatemala and Argentina banned the Magnificat from being spoken or sung in public. It was that concerning to the people in power. It is revolutionary, and it was also true. We see her words lived out in Jesus. We know Jesus will grow up and preach blessing for the poor and release for the oppressed. He eats with anyone - and especially those who were outcasts. In one great act of love he dies for all of us, no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, and then rises from the dead so that everyone could be free through his redeeming grace. Then he sends us out, as the church, to continue this work.
When we look at our world today, maybe we aren’t sure we are up to the task. Jesus has sent us out to love the way he loves us. But we see brokenness everywhere we look and it threatens to break us. We are inspired by Mary’s courage, and Mary’s song gives us hope that God is still doing that work of lifting up the lowly, but there is so much left to be done. Music won’t change all of that. Music by itself can’t change the brokenness we see in the world but when we sing, especially when we sing together, it changes something in us. It can restore our hope that God is still here and still working. It can give us the courage to be like Mary, and respond as she did when God calls to us, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Dave was talking to a colleague several years ago. The pastor had been asked about protest music, specifically with civil rights. He was asked “why do you keep singing? It won’t change anyone” and he replied
“We don’t sing to change them, we sing to keep them from changing us.”
The people of Ukraine sing to keep the war from changing them. To hold onto who they are, to their strength, to their hope, and to their faith. They sing in protest. They refuse to give up on the world that God has promised.
There is plenty to protest right now. There is war and division and people who seem determined to go after the most vulnerable people they can, all for their own gain and power. But you can’t give up. You can’t give in to despair. You can’t give up on the world you know God wants. You can’t ignore suffering because it is too hard, or you don’t know what to do.
God has made us a people of love, telling us to love one another as God has loved us. God has made us a people of hope. God has made us a people of courage, sending us to stand up for the lonely, the forgotten, the oppressed.
Mary was exceptional, no doubt, but the same God who spoke through Mary can speak through you.
Mary’s song was written a long time ago, but the same God who came to lift up the lowly and humbled the proud is doing that work today, too.
Jesus was born to Mary over two thousand years ago, but the same God who came into the world to save it is still here.
Don’t give up hope. Don’t stop protesting and fighting for the world God intends.