Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate

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.

Enter The Porter’s Gate Worship Project.

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
  • Comfort
  • 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.

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Listen to Lament 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”

The Kiss of Justice and Peace (Artful Devotion)

La Hyre, Laurent de_The Kiss of Peace and Justice
Laurent de La Hyre (French, 1606–1656), The Kiss of Peace and Justice, 1654. Oil on canvas, 21 5/8 × 30 in. (54.9 × 76.2 cm). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA.

Lord, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.

Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.

Thou hast taken away all thy wrath: thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger.

Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease.

Wilt thou be angry with us for ever? wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations?

Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?

Shew us thy mercy, O LORD, and grant us thy salvation.

I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.

Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.

Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.

—Psalm 85 KJV

This psalm is a community lament, probably written during the period of Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile—to a ruined city, a fallen temple, and a mourning land. The people seek forgiveness for their covenant unfaithfulness and restoration, appealing to the benevolence God has shown them in the past. The closing section expresses confidence that salvation will come.

Verse 10 personifies four of God’s virtues: mercy (lovingkindness; Heb. hesed, Lat. misericordia), truth (Heb. emeth, Lat. veritas), justice (righteousness; Heb. tsedeq; Lat. iustitia), and peace (Heb. shalom, Lat. pax). Mercy and Truth meet together, and Justice and Peace embrace with a kiss. In medieval Christian writings these virtues came to be allegorized as the “four daughters of God,” a motif developed most famously by Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Many churches sing Psalm 85 at Advent or Christmastime, the birth of Jesus being a time when God’s salvation came near and “glory . . . dwell[ed] in our land.” All the virtues of God kissed each other in Christ, bringing heaven to earth. Others read the psalm as prophesying Jesus’s atoning death.

I love how Eugene Peterson translates this psalm in The Message, which suggests that these virtues of God are ones that humanity should emulate, and indeed what the gospel calls us to:

Our country is home base for Glory!
Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! GOD gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land response with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage. (vv. 9b–13)

Jesus lived rightly and bound up the brokenness he encountered, bringing wholeness. His ministry announced, verbally and in tangible ways, a kingdom to come, and we are to pave the way for that kingdom by embodying its values.

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SONG: “O God, Will You Restore Us” by Isaac Wardell | Performed by Bifrost Arts, feat. Yolonda Coles Jones, on Lamentations, 2016

O God, will you restore us,
And grant us your salvation? (×2)

I will hear what God proclaims.
The Lord our God proclaims peace.
Kindness and truth shall meet,
Justice and peace shall kiss.

O God, will you restore us,
And grant us your salvation?

“Here is the fast that I choose:
To loosen the bonds of the oppressed and break their chains.
Let righteousness and justice go out before you,
Then you will call out and I will hear.”

O God, will you restore us,
And grant us your salvation?

Near indeed is his salvation to those who call on him.
He will incline his ear and hear their prayers.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice will rain down from heaven.

O God, will you restore us,
And grant us your salvation?

The Lord will guide you on a righteous path,
His vindication will shine down forth as the dawn.
Your people will be called repairers of broken walls,
Making straight the path to proclaim his reign!

O God, will you restore us,
And grant us your salvation?

O God, will you restore us?
Please grant us your salvation.

Isaac Wardell’s “O God, Will You Restore Us” cleverly integrates Psalm 85 with Isaiah 58, which both center on themes of restoration, blessing, and social responsibility, even using similar word pictures. The refrain is based on the plea of Psalm 85:6–7, the heart of the psalm.

Opening with that plea, Wardell’s first verse then moves into Psalm 85:8, 10: God proclaims shalom. Verse two articulates what that looks like: the bonds of wickedness loosed, the oppressed set free. This verse is derived from God’s words in Isaiah 58:6, 8–9, in which he expresses the work he wants his people do be about—namely, justice. Only when his people practice true piety—emancipating captives, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless—will he answer their prayers.

The third verse is drawn from Psalm 85:9, 11, an image of abundance and refreshment. And finally, verse four sandwiches Isaiah 58:8, 12 between Psalm 85:13, which itself has resonance with Isaiah 40:3 (“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”).

Unmetered and in a minor key, the song has the feel of a Gregorian chant.

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“The Allegory of Justice and Peace,” or “Justice and Peace Kissing,” was a popular subject in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the art of the Italian and Flemish Baroque and the French Neoclassical, including works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Corrado Giaquinto, Pompeo Batoni, Artemesia Gentileschi, Theodoor van Thulden, Maerten de Vos, Jacob de Backer—and the artist featured above, Laurent de La Hyre. Although the image comes from the Hebrew Bible, where it is rooted in God’s dealings with his people, artists often used it for secular purposes, to express political peace. Some such paintings were gifted to rulers as a form of flattery.

The iconography that developed draws on classical symbolism and mythology, with both virtues being personified as women. Justice’s attributes include a crown, a sword, scales, and a fasces; Peace’s, an olive branch, an inverted torch (which burns weapons and armor), ears of wheat and/or a cornucopia (because peace leads to plenty), and a caduceus (one myth suggests that Mercury saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat and separated them with his wand, bringing about peace between them).

The Hebrew word for “kiss” in Psalm 85 refers seldom to an erotic kiss, says Sigrid Eder, but rather to a form of greeting or goodbye exchanged by near relatives or to the final phase of a peacemaking ritual. In medieval Europe, where the visual motif of Justice and Peace Kissing was first introduced, kissing was even more widespread than in ancient Judaism; it was common for people of equal rank, both male and female, to exchange lip-to-lip kisses. (See a compilation of medieval “kiss paintings,” showing a variety of contexts, here.) But the Baroque taste for undraped figures means that quite a few artistic renditions of Justice and Peace can be read as sexualized, as when one of the women has a bared breast, for example.

In Laurent de La Hyre’s The Kiss of Peace and Justice, the action is set within a larger landscape. An olive-wreathed Peace embraces a blue-beribboned Justice beside a fountain inscribed with Iusticia et Pax // osculatae sunt, from the Latin Vulgate. The women are surrounded by ruins—upturned roadstones, crumbled walls and detached columns, a cracked garden urn. But this an image of hope. A lion-faced spigot emits fresh, flowing water, which sheep flock to for refreshment, and trees part to reveal a vista. After the upheaval, healing and repair are underway. Justice and Peace have harmonized.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, which owns the painting, notes that its date coincides with the end of the Fronde, a period of civil war in France during which the parlement (law courts) and the nobility sought—unsuccessfully—to limit the power of the monarchy. So it’s likely the painting is an allusion to the climate of general reconciliation between parties.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 14, cycle A, click here.