Though I grew up in the church, for a long time I was ignorant of the vibrant threads of lament and justice that run throughout scripture. I imbibed the message that good Christians never complain or get angry or question God or call him to account, that “rejoicing always” means always putting on a happy face (dwelling in sadness was tantamount to distrust), and that social justice is a “liberal agenda” and a distraction from the gospel. As my faith has matured and my engagement with the scriptures has deepened, my eyes have been opened to the embeddedness of justice in the biblical narrative, and how any lack of justice is cause for lament.
Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2012) was instrumental in helping me see how social justice is an expression of God’s own heart and an important part of the church’s mission, not tangential to the gospel but an extension of it. My earlier conception of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, was so impoverished, as I had reduced it down to nothing more than a private transaction between me and God regarding the eternal destination of my soul. As I began to see, through reading scripture, that God cares about this world, and he cares about people’s souls and bodies, I came to realize how expansive the gospel really is, with real implications for the here and now. We may be in right relationship with God, or think we are, but are we in right relationship with our neighbors and, I would add, with the rest of God’s creation? That is, do we live justly, as God commands, which includes supporting policies that promote, as best as possible, the flourishing of all, not just ourselves or others like us?
Keller shows how the Christianese terms “sin” and “righteousness” have to do not only with personal morality but also with systems, and how “justice” is more multifaceted than merely “punishment.” Punishing wrongdoers and reestablishing rights is one type of justice, called rectifying (or retributive) justice, or mishpat in Hebrew. But primary justice (aka distributive justice) is making sure goods and opportunities are more equitably distributed in society. It’s proactive. “Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else” (11). Keller says that when these two Hebrew words appear together in the Bible, the best translation of the compound is “social justice.” So, for example, when Psalm 33:5 says, “He loveth righteousness [tzadeqah] and judgment [mishpat],” perhaps a better modern translation would be “The LORD loves social justice.”
The truncated “ticket to heaven,” “me and Jesus” understanding of salvation shows up in countless Christian worship songs, which form, or malform, our imaginations. I’m not at all dismissing the need for personal salvation (that is a critical component of the gospel!), or suggesting that we ought not to be looking toward eternity. What I am saying is that our relationship with Jesus, including our transformative experience of his love and grace, should have a profound impact on how we relate to and advocate for our neighbors, and our conception of heaven should be as huge and as glorious as the Bible alludes to (the entire world renewed and in harmony under the headship of Christ)—and we should start living into that vision NOW, even as we await Christ’s return. I often wonder whether, if there had been more biblical justice–oriented songs circulating and in church use during my upbringing, my deep hurt over the brokenness of the world and thus my sense of social responsibility as a Christian would have developed sooner.
Founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell, The Porter’s Gate is a music collective whose mission is to be a “porter” for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. Their first album, Work Songs (2017), explores the concept of vocation in both the public and private spheres. That was followed up by Neighbor Songs (2019), centered on the communal aspect of Christian living and of God’s future, and the embodied love at the heart of the gospel.
And now, released this month, are two companion albums: Lament Songs and Justice Songs. Recorded by a diverse group of musicians in July 2020 on a farm in Virginia, the albums interweave fragments from the Psalms with biblical prophecies and apocalypses, blessings, Gospel stories, and protest chants, crafting a robust kingdom theology that promotes constructive engagement with contemporary issues and a looking toward the reconciliation of all things in Christ. “We fight for the victories we know You will win” (a lyric from “Justicia”) is a good encapsulation.
Political corruption, police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, economic exploitation, and war are all referenced, either implicitly or explicitly, as forms of oppression that need to be toppled, as they are an affront to God, marring his image.
Full of heartbreak and hope, the songs are shepherding me out of my tendency toward cynicism and helping me recapture the beauty of God’s vision for the world. They’re saturated in biblical language. An antidote to the all-too-common escapism theology present in some Christian music, they catalyze the church to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), to bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), and to participate in God’s work of renewal in the world. God has not redeemed us to wait idly by while sin tightens its grip on society. No, he calls us to sow the seeds of his kingdom in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. To walk in the power of the Spirit, into dark corners, bringing light.
The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide songs for corporate worship, and all these would (potentially) be appropriate in that setting; for churches that aren’t used to the practice of lament or to engaging justice issues, some advance education and pastoral guidance will be in order. Some songs will naturally land better in some churches than in others. Some are challenging—and that’s a good thing, as challenge tends to grow us.
As one would expect, God is supplicated throughout the songs. Entreaties include
- Come, Jesus, come
- Be our light
- Drive out the darkness
- End all the violence
- Do not be silent
- Be near!
- Illuminate the shadows
- Take pity!
- Keep the enemy back
- Be our refuge
- Break oppression
- Make me an instrument
- Help me restore
And God is abundantly praised, and his promises laid claim to.
The songwriters on the two albums are Isaac Wardell, Latifah Alattas, Kate Bluett, Jessica Fox, Jon Guerra, Casey J, Wendell Kimbrough, Leslie Jordan, Dan Marotta, Orlando Palmer, John Swinton, Gregory Thompson, Liz Vice, Keith Watts, Tina Colón Williams, and Paul Zach.
As the writers would acknowledge, the general content and ethos of the songs are not “new” or alien to Christianity. If you cringe at the thought of bringing current events into worship or singing a confession of corporate sin or expressing sadness or outrage to God, just know that faithful Christians have been doing it since the beginning, and your discomfort may be because you haven’t been exposed to church traditions outside your own. Ecumenicism is an important aspect of The Porter’s Gate’s identity, says Isaac Wardell—an ecumenicism that says, “I come with gifts of the Spirit of my tradition, but I come also with the poverty of my tradition, looking for the charisms and the gifts of your tradition.” And I love that about the project.
Because I’m eager for others to see the biblical groundedness of the songs (which will be obvious to many upon first listening, but maybe not to those who are more selectivist in their Bible reading), and because I’m a musical worship leader who approaches worship music with great discernment of the theology it espouses, I’m going to point out just some of the scriptural connections in the songs.
Acknowledging that the world is not right, and mourning specific instances of that unrighteousness, is the first step in justice work. It’s called lament. Lament cries out, “Why, God?” and “How long?” Honest expressions of woe are not irreverent. The Bible is full of such language. The fact that lament is addressed to God means that faith has not been abandoned; on the contrary, lament leads to a renewed confidence in God.
The first song on Lament Songs, “Wake Up, Jesus” (feat. Liz Vice), takes as its conceit the story of Jesus’s calming the storm after being woken up by his scared disciples, but it is sung in medias res, from the vantage point of one who is caught in a storm that is still raging. “Jesus, when you gonna wake up? . . . Won’t you rise up?” Again, maybe you’ve always assumed this kind of forthrightness is forbidden in prayer, but it’s in perfect sync with the way the biblical psalmists, for example, relate to God; take Psalm 44: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? / Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. / Why do you hide your face / and forget our misery and oppression?” (vv. 23–24). (See more biblical examples of this demand at https://artandtheology.org/2019/07/09/rise-up-artful-devotion/.)
When the instrumental intro to the second song begins, we recognize the famous passion chorale tune by Hassler, and we ready ourselves to sing “O Sacred Head . . .”—but instead we get “O Sacred Neck.” The word change is jarring. Why are we talking about Jesus’s neck? Then with the next phrase, “pressed down by blows and knees,” it becomes clear that the reference is to black victims of police violence, like George Floyd, who died in May after an officer, arresting him for trying to make a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes while he pled for his life and then died. (Two other officers assisted in restraining him, and another prevented onlookers from intervening.)
How might we bring this horror before God? And how might Christ’s death speak into it?
“O Sacred Neck, Now Wounded” toggles between descriptions of Jesus’s murder and that of unarmed black men and women, highlighting the sacredness of every neck, head, and body, as well as the unfortunate continuity of humanity’s cruelty to one another, dating as far back as Cain and Abel. The added refrain alludes to that first murder.
And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:8b–10)
Yes, Cain, we are our brothers’ keepers. And we’ve been doing such a poor job of it.
To say that human life is sacred is to say that all people have unconditional, intrinsic worth. The “son of God” epithet in verse 1 is applied to Floyd not as a messianic title but rather in recognition of the universal fatherhood of God; whether we are reconciled to God or not, we are his offspring (Ephesians 4:6; Acts 17:28–29), created in his image (Genesis 1:26–27).
Furthermore, to see Christ in the beaten down is biblical, as Jesus himself said that the hungry, the homeless or the immigrant, the sick, and the imprisoned bear his face, and that dishonor given to such as these redounds to him (Matthew 25:31–46). (For an exploration of how Christ can be seen in the black man, a comparison that artists in the first half of the twentieth century especially were wont to flesh out, see The Cross and the Lynching Tree by theologian James H. Cone; my review here. For a discussion of how the “prosoponic likeness” of Christ is borne by “the least of these”—which is different than saying they share one ousia, “substance”—see Natalie Carnes’s Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia.)
In response to misunderstandings about the song, The Porter’s Gate’s released a statement about it here. There other theological facets at play that I won’t go into, but it’s definitely a song that rewards multiple listenings and thoughtfulness. You might consider bringing it into conversation with 1 Peter 2:24.
All the songs on Lament Songs are first-rate, and I have to resist the urge to walk through every single one in detail in this post! “How Long” is an adaptation of Psalm 13 that originally premiered on Bifrost Arts’ Lamentations album in 2016 but is freshly recorded here. “Drive Out the Darkness” best captures the prayer of my heart this year, and the vocals by Paul Zach on “In Times of Trouble”—oh my, so gorgeous, such nuance of expression! “O Jerusalem” expresses longing for the New City, its welcome table set and its choir tuning up.
“Precious Woman” is a lament for the mistreatment of women. It’s broad enough to speak into different circumstances and could be used as a lament for the murder of Breonna Taylor (an African American medical worker who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville apartment in the middle of the night with the wrongful assumption that she was a drug trafficker), the silencing of survivors of sexual harassment or assault, the marginalization of divorced women in churches, or the lack of affirmation or opportunity women receive for their leadership giftings. If this song were to be used in worship, it would need some verbal set-up, more than just a cursory intro, and I would recommend choosing a specific intent for it. It may be better sung by just one or two vocalists rather than the whole congregation.
The intended final song, “The Lord Make His Face to Shine Upon Thee,” was supposed to be the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:24–26 married with an adaptation of a prayer by Martin Luther King Jr., but the permissions didn’t arrive in time, so it was cut from the album and will be released later as a single. Its lyrics are:
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee May the Lord make His face to shine upon thee May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance onto thee And be with thee in thy coming in and going out And in thy labor and rest And be with thee in thy joy And be with thee in thy sorrow Until that day Until that day Until that day when there will be No sunset and no dawning
This benediction bears echoes of Psalm 121:7–8—“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”—and also brings us to the penultimate chapter of the Bible, Revelation 21:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (vv. 22–27)
“We worship a God who loves justice, whose ways are just,” writes The Porter’s Gate in their introduction to the Justice Songs album. Its offerings, therefore, “give God praise for who He is and also cry out to see His justice here on earth.” With an overall tone of fiery confidence, the songs boldly resist evil, asserting God’s supremacy over it. They are pledges of allegiance to Jesus Christ, Savior, Rock, Deliverer—we are patriots of his kingdom!
Justice Songs opens with a rousing call-and-response song, “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” that combines material from the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel with an Isaianic prophecy commonly read during Advent:
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3–5)
Verse 4, syncopated with hand claps, lists divine epithets like “God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). “Father of the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5), “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). “He’s troubling the water, and we’re marching through”—an oblique reference to the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about the liberation of the Israelites through the miraculously parted Red Sea, the paradigmatic “day of the Lord.”
For the Christian, Jesus Christ ought to be central in our pursuit of justice. “We Believe in the Name” confesses the saving power we put all our trust in and includes a litany of divine names to buttress our endeavors. We oppose injustice in the name of Jesus, who came to break the chains of oppression in all its forms (Luke 4:16–21)!
“We Will Make No Peace with Oppression,” the title of the third song, is a strong, compelling declaration of intent, and it’s actually from the current (1979) edition of the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This anthem is, I think, the catchiest song on the album, and I believe it’s going to make this BCP line mainstream. The song also makes use of the political slogan “No justice, no peace,” which dates at least as far as the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith, a Trinidadian immigrant, at the hands of a white mob. The sentiment behind it is that we will not be quiet until justice is served, but it can also be read as conjunctive: that justice and peace (as in “shalom”) go together, and you can’t have one without the other. To this The Porter’s Gate adds one of Jesus’s proverbs: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
“Illuminate the Shadows,” the title of track 4, is another evocative phrase, and its two meanings are reflected in the different verses. In verse 1 it’s essentially saying, “God, lighten our darkness,” bring your healing warmth into our suffering. But in the remaining two verses it’s used to ask God to search out and expose the darkness of our own hearts and of the systems we’ve built or benefit from. In other words: “God, reveal to us the evil that needs to be rooted out”—in our lives and in our nation. Help us identify the idolatries we’re committing by our unquestioning loyalty to and effectual worship of, for example, a political party, a national document, or a cultural identity or heritage. Verse 3 goes,
Illuminate the shadows Till every idol has been trampled on Illuminate the shadows Till every statue comes tumbling down
This could operate literally as much as metaphorically. We should all assess what it is we enshrine—whether in stone, on paper or social media, or in our speech and behavior—and, if it’s incompatible with the character of God, tear it down.
“Cast the evil ruler from his throne” may be interpreted as a dig against a particular president . . . but again, it’s drawn from the Bible. Scripture is full of God bringing judgment against the wicked, especially those in positions of power. Pharaoh was cast into the sea, along with his army, because he failed to listen when God’s people cried, “Injustice!”; he was unwilling to make any policy changes, and it was his ruin. In her Magnificat, Mary, the mother Jesus, sings about how God deposes corrupt rulers: “He has shown strength with his arm; / he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; / he has brought down the mighty from their thrones . . .” (Luke 1:51–52a). In one anonymously authored community lament psalm, God is called upon to vindicate his justice by making the evil of certain ruling authorities recoil back on their own heads:
Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who fashion injustice by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. But the LORD has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge. He will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out. (Psalm 94:20–23)
I bring up these sample passages because too often they get overshadowed in the Christian imagination—at least when one’s own favored politician is in office—by passages like Romans 13, which calls for submission to government leaders. State-sanctioned evil is real, and refusing to recognize it where it exists in contemporary contexts around the globe and to come before God in petition against it only gives it greater sway.
Protesting injustice is not just a civic duty but a Christian one. The refrain of the part-Spanish-language rallying song “Justicia” invokes the popular call-and-response chant from the front lines of today’s marches and demonstrations: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” Its forthright demand and sense of urgency are something Christians, who are zealous for God’s glory, should embrace. We want to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.
The next song, “Instrument of Peace,” is a setting of the so-called Prayer of Saint Francis (most likely a misattribution). It’s something I pray regularly, and I appreciate now having this tune with which to sing it.
A celebratory song of invitation in triple time, “The Zacchaeus Song” is in the voice of the titular figure, a tax collector who extorted money from the poor and, after a life-changing encounter with Jesus, paid reparations in addition to the defrauded amount and was then reconciled to those he had wronged (Luke 19:1–10). “Salvation has come to this house today,” Jesus says. In this Gospel story, repentance and apology are accompanied by concrete actions and programs for repair—a model that people of privilege would do well to follow, says Jennifer Harvey in her book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation: “We are called to figure out all the ways we are in debt because of having benefited from unjust racial/imperial realities and to unequivocally come down from the tree. We are called to give back to those with whom we have long shared and continue to share a thoroughly interrelated structural life.”
The Zacchaeus story has some edge, but because he renounces the wealth he stole, ceding it back to the wronged parties, and then some, the ending is a happy one: his sin is forgiven, God’s justice is served, and Zacchaeus’s relationship with the rest of his community is restored. So the tone of the song is every bit as light and bright as that of the children’s classic “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man”—but with more context, and exhortation!
The final song, “All of Your Ways Are Peace,” is one of consolation as we remind ourselves that the God we serve is a God of peace, truth, and justice, and though in this life those ideals will never be perfectly realized, they are worth fighting for at all costs, because where they take root, they proclaim who God is and the telos toward which he’s moving the world.