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.)Continue reading “Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate”