On Monday I read the story of Mexican migrant children being separated from parents when they were picked up by US border patrol. There is even an account of a 6 year old blind boy torn from his mother's arms. Inhuman behaviour by government agencies that should shock us. Lest anyone think I'm singling out the USA its only weeks since Windrush Generation scandal put stories in the news of the shameful deportations of fully legal Caribbean migrants to the UK. Government policy dictating that illegal immigrants face a hostile environment soon meant that even legal migrants faced the same hostility.
That evening, still brooding on the news, I enjoyed a concert in London by legendary singer Joan Baez. A first for me, despite being inspired by her songs since my teens in the seventies, and she was as superb as her reputation. Her superlative ranking however has to be because of her consistent attention over 60 years to social justice, civil rights, the environment, condemning war, and generally echoing the call of a suffering world. Remembering the story I'd read earlier, as she sang "Deportee (Plane wreck at Los Gatos)" I broke. The song tells 1948 story of Mexican migrants working on the Californian fruit farms deported to Mexico by plane. The plane crashed. The media stories named the crew, but then spoke of "deportees," unnamed. This travesty was memorialised in a poem by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Baez's fellow folk musician activist Pete Seegar. Yet despite the attention, the Mexicans have only recently been named,
"Deportee" is a simple yet profound metaphor of the value ascribed to those we choose to devalue, dehumanise, to other. A story from 1948 highlighted the horrible inhumanities still being done by our governments today.
Another story stayed with me that evening. It was about the creation by US Christian Liberty University students of a movie "The Trump Prophecy" to show in selected US cinemas in the lead up to the November elections. It tells the story of a man in 2011 who apparently received a prophecy on how Trump would win the Presidential election and of how that led to a movement of prayer. The movie website claims to be "an inspirational message of Hope, highlighting the vast beauty and greatness of The United States, its electoral process and concludes by asking ... What does it mean to “make America great again?”
This provokes me to anger at many levels. I personally believe in the place of contemporary prophecy in the church. For all the abuse of the form that clearly takes place under that banner, it is entirely appropriate to believe that a God who spoke in the past can still speak now. Yet the Bible calls us to judge prophecy. `At the heart of that must surely be the question, does this sit with Biblical values and truth, surely an obvious question when the Bible is packed full of calls for us to live righteous and just lives.
"Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream." Amos 5.24
While not all prophecy need emulate the form or content of the the Old Testament prophets, surely that testimony must provide a plumbline for Christian living and the focused word of prophecy that sometimes empowers that? However I find very little of it in much so-contemporary so-called prophecy, and rather more political expediency. The Trump presidency makes a mockery of Biblical calls to seek the welfare of the poor and needy, to give home to the refugee, to protect the vulnerable and the young, to oppose injustice. And the Trump Prophecy must surely be an absolute travesty of Christian prophecy?
In contrast i find the protest songs and the singer activists of the 1960's and today, of which Joan Baez is an exemplar, to be packed full of a biblically inspired or at least endorsed call to peace, justice, truth and mercy. I don't even pretend Baez is a Christian, but her causes are surely deeply rooted in the historical Christian social justice agenda than those endorsed in The Trump Prophecy?
Baez's (first) encore was "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try." The song famously protests the evils of wars fought in the name of religion, of greed and injustice, of people caught up investing in eternity rather than the here and now. I protest those things too, and I believe that many experiencing the US Presidents policies being endorsed by so called prophecy will do so too.
There is another voice, a voice I believe would be recognised as one belonging to orthodox Christian faith. Reclaiming Jesus, a statement by 24 US Church leaders led by Jim Wallis and Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church (he of the Royal Wedding sermon fame!) is very clear: “We believe two things are at stake: the soul of the nation, and the integrity of faith,” It continues:
"We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness ... Therefore, we reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. ...
We believe we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class ... Therefore, we reject misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God"
Its a great statement, and it did make the news when 2000 attended a service last week and lit candles opposite the White House. However we need such statements in resounding in the soul of the nation, and song does that.
Joan Baez's and other topical songs and causes rooted in this tradition that date back millenia to the Old Testament prophets are not just protest songs, they are prophetic songs. May others rise to fill the huge space that Baez and others of that generation have occupied for six decades. Some like Pete Seegar have already sadly been lost to us, Baez at 77 seems determined to carry on, despite the Fare Thee Well Tour title, and clearly has the voice for it!
And wouldn't it be nice if some contemporary hymns and songs were in prophetic - and protest - tradition?