I asked my students the other day, “What is the greatest influencer in our world today? What dictates how we live?” The students spent some time writing thoughts, then sharing with their partners, then we wrote on the board. The first few answers weren’t shocking: Internet, social media, electronics, and money. No surprises. I added coffee because, well, because it’s true.
Then a student said, “judgment,” and agreement sounded through the class. I asked if anyone who wrote something prior wanted to change his or her answer. Many of them did. Of the fifteen students, two hold a US passport. None of them are African American.
. . . When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds . . .
Pointing to the word “judgment” on the board I asked the class, “What does this mean? How are you influenced by judgment?”
“We live in constant fear” the student said, “that no matter what we do or what we say, we’ll be judged.” Again, muffled talking of understanding sounded through the classroom. Everyone could relate.
“You know what’s interesting about this list?” I asked, pointing once more to the board. The chatting slowly dies off. “What do you notice is NOT here?” Their eyes squint as they study the list. “If this is supposed to be a list of what influences our minds the most, what should be up here?” More eyes squint. A couple mouths agape, looking for what they don’t see. Then one speaks up, “school.”
“YES!” What else?
“Yep. And . . .” I stand wide; arms open and legs beyond my shoulders – my get-ready-because-some-great-Truth-is-about-to-come stance. Almost in unison a few students guess, “religion?”
“How are these three NOT on the board?” I ask, genuinely surprised.
“Because they really don’t,” was one kids simple answer.
The rest agreed.
. . . In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force . . .
“We’re going to annotate a song today,” The students pass along the papers, “but before
we do, lets look at this quote.” The PowerPoint flips to a picture of Andrew Hozier-Byrne, an Irish musician known most commonly by his middle name, Hozier. The song is “Take Me to Church.” Many of the kids know and like it, but few, if any, understand it.
Intended as a swipe at the Catholic indoctrination so intrinsic to Irish culture, Byrne uses song to speak against any construct (especially religion) that condemns sexuality, which he believes, "undermines humanity at its most natural.” The students begin to shift a little in their seats. “In this same interview,” I click to the next slide, “he says this, ‘There is no greater celebration of life, and nothing more human than a sexual act.’” The kids squirm a little more. I press a little harder, “What, according to Hozier, is the greatest most natural act a person can engage in?” It takes a few seconds, but eventually, a few students speak up, “Sex.”
“With whom?” I ask.
They’re not sure so the reread the quote on the board, but that doesn’t help. “With anyone?” one students asks.
“Well, lets see.” And we dive in.
. . . The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back . . .
“How many of you agree with Hozier?” How many of you agree that, ‘[your] church offers no absolutes’ and that ‘She tells [you], "Worship in the bedroom’”? Nobody raises their hands, but I suspect at least one might want to. I keep moving. “How many of you agree that ‘Every Sunday's getting more bleak’ and that there’s a ‘fresh poison each week’”? A few students raise their hands, but no one is surprised at whom.
“Okay,” I say, “Where does, ‘I was born sick’ come from? Where have you heard that before?”
“The Bible – we were born with a sinful nature.”
“Good, but how does Hozier respond to it? What does his next line say?”
“That he loves it, in a way” he ponders for a bit, “He doesn’t really agree with it, so he’s kinda making fun of it.”
“Yes!” The energy is growing, and its contagious, “What do the next two lines mean then, ‘Command me to be well. Aaay. Amen. Amen. Amen.’?”
“It’s sarcastic, he’s using the words of the church to mock them, kinda like he did with ‘but I love it.’”
“AGH!! YES!” (I start hopping around when I get excited) “and why does he feel the freedom to mock the church?”
There’s silence for a bit, but then, “Because he worships in the bedroom.”
The class is completely silent. All eyes are on me, waiting, but all I do is nod. I don’t want to stop their brains are travelling, wherever that might be.
After a bit, we dive back in, “Take me to church. I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies, I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” We read and I ask, “What does this mean, why is he sharpening a knife?”
“The Catholic church requires confession.”
“Not just the Catholic church, but go on.”
“Right, anyway, he’s saying that while the people are confessing, the priests are sharpening their knives.”
“For what?” I ask.
“To kill them.”
“Why? Why would Hozier paint the church in this way? As men sharpening their knives?”
Again silence. I tell them to discuss in groups and that we’ll need an answer in the next few minutes.
When we reconvene, they’ve got the answer, and it comes through the voice of shy and pastor’s-kid sort of girl, “He’s saying that even though the church says you need to come and confess your sins, once you do, they judge you. They kill you.”
I look around the room at the several faces. In the fifteen students, four countries are represented. Some of the students are missionary kids, some are atheists, many are undecided. I put my hands in my pockets, “How many of you would agree?” I look around the room, “Not necessarily that worship happens in the bedroom,” a few nervous laughs break out, “but that you feel judged by the church, that when you “confess your sins,” you are destroyed for it?”
Several hands instantly shoot up, then a few more. Then everyone’s hand is raised, including mine.
. . . Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .
We’ve finished the song and I’ve just assigned them the same process with a song of his or her choosing – do next class. While the students are copying down the assignment I ask, “What’s purpose in doing this, you think?”
“Because it’s fun,” one student blurts out.
“Nope, but I’m glad you think so.”
“Because it’s media, and we said media is one of the greatest influencers on our world.”
“Exactly. And how many of you listen to your music on the way to school?”
They all raise their hands.
“While you are out with friends?”
Hands stay up.
“At home in your room.”
“And how many of you read the lyrics with your parents?”
All hands go down.
“In your church?”
Hands stay down.
“And before today, in school?”
“If this is one of the greatest influencers in the world today, why are we no studying it!” I look back at the list, “I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE NO ONE SAID EDUCATION!!!” A few students laugh, I laugh, but it’s not funny. It’s just true.
I flip to the next slide on the PowerPoint, “Don’t just annotate the song and tell me what you think it’s trying say, I want you to find something in the song that you AGREE with, and tell me why.” The students write down the expectations, shove their books and computers into their book bags then wait silently for the bell. Then, like Pavlov’s dog, when it rings, they react.
Find something they agree with. That’s the point of the whole lesson, even more so than evaluating the songs they listen to. More than anything, I want them to identify with someone unknown and different, and not to critique, and not to pick apart. I want them to put together.
“Critique” derives from Ancient Greek κριτική (kritikē), meaning "the faculty of judgment", that is, discerning the value of persons or things. Often, it seems, value is placed upon persons or things we agree with, we understand. And if we can’t understand it, we break it down to something that we can.
. . . I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2
This is our hope, and this is the faith . . .
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day . . .
Steve Turner said it best, “Positively, the world is all that God made and Christ came to redeem. This includes culture because humans have never lived in isolation from each other, and when they get together they automatically create culture. It would be impossible to think of loving humans and yet hating human culture, of loving individuals and yet hating their music, songs, stories, paintings, games, rituals, decorations, clothes, language and hairstyles. God made us cultural beings” (Imagine, 44).
It’s easy to find differences, to identify beliefs and lifestyles that run contrary to our own, and it’s easy to fixate on them, to emphasis the dissimilarities. It’s easy to break someone down to a simple stereotype, but the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete, and that they focus on how we are different. Not how we are similar. Because it’s hard to empathize, to sympathize, and to allow for something we don’t understand.
But isn’t that what makes things beautiful? When we don’t understand it? If we can, it becomes simple. It becomes boring. It becomes a deathless death.
. . . And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of
the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!