Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again, Because a vision softly creeping, Left its seeds while I was sleeping, And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence.
Sometimes the Really Important things are not said.
Sometimes the Really Important things are never spoken about.
Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence (1964) resonates for so many because we know and experience this each and every day of our lives.
There is an extraordinary need for connection which holds together not only humanity but Creation as a whole; we experience and manage this in so many ways, not least through the ways in which we communicate love with each other.
When asked what was behind the lyrics of the Sound of Silence Garfunkel once summed up the song’s meaning as:
…the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.” (1)
Was he driving at the need for authenticity; for communicating what we think and how we feel with clarity and awareness of how others think and feel? Or was he probing deeper at the loveless silence of a lack of care which turns a blind eye to injustices and suffering of those around us?
Certainly, it is widely recognised that emotional intelligence can increase the effectiveness of how we connect with others and achieve more for the Common Good, whether it is used in the context of respectful inter-religious dialogue, international conflict resolution and mediation or in the context of engaging meaningfully with our MP who votes to cut disability benefits or our neighbour who lets their rubbish overflow onto the street!
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
“Fools,” said I, “You do not know.
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
But there is also a dark side to emotional intelligence which Simon and Garfunkle may not have explicitly sought to convey, but which is also prevalent today; the power to manipulate others. We are living in a time of large-scale manipulation for financial gain and every other imaginable type of power.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.”
We need healing.
Our World needs healing.
We need to move beyond the (short-lived) comforts behind the barriers of fear and inauthenticity which the prophets keep reminding us of-if only we would listen to what they say. We need to begin hearing and listening, talking and speaking, writing songs that we share; we need to love and show that love by acts of care. In short, we need to grasp the Gift of Life-that which Jesus described would truly connect us to each other and heal our Alienation and Fear; the ancients first described this gift as shalom– wholeness, well-being, oneness, salvation and peace…
You can listen to two versions of the Sound of Silence below… I like the edge and desperation conveyed in the Disturbed cover…see what you think…and of course-what you feel! 😉
(1) Eliot, Marc (2010). Paul Simon: A Life, John Wiley and Sons, p.40
[NB Please click on hyperlinked words for more information].
Before the war, I didn’t pay attention to how much water I used. But now, water is like gold for me. It’s practically holy. (29-year-old Ali)
Water sourced from underground wells in Aleppo (Photo: Aref Haj Youssef/Reuters)
Aleppo is heartbreakingly broken. Disembowelled by conflict and war, her treasures dismembered and her citizens fleeing since 2012, seeking refuge and hospitality in a world increasingly shaped by fear.
These images depict the devastation and ruin of Aleppo in Syria, an historic and globally significant city.
During a recent visit to the Pergamon museum on Berlin’s ‘Museum Island’ I saw, for the first time, a very personal slither of history which impacted me more than the museum’s centrepiece-the Ishtar Gate or Gate of Babylon.
The Aleppo room belonged to a prosperous merchant and Christian citizen of the Syrian town of Aleppo named Isa ibn Butrus (Jesus son of Peter). He commissioned the painted panels for the entrance room in his house at the beginning of the 17th century. These paintings make up the oldest collection from a Syrian dwelling house from the Ottoman period and have preserved the work of craftsmen from the best workshops of the time.
As a Christian, Isa ibn Butrus’ desire was to communicate inclusive hospitality to the many travelling merchants he would have no doubt hosted in this entrance room. The room was painted in a variety of themes which included Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments such as the depiction of ‘Mary with Child’ which sit alongside courtly scenes like those portrayed in Persian book illustration.
The selection of encircling Psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles further add to the impression of a peaceful community of different religious beliefs living together.
Around the time that Isa ibn Butrus was hosting traders and brokers in the busy Silk Road trading city of Aleppo, another man, John Matthews ventured forth from Wales to make his fortune trading with Mercers in Aleppo- who knows whether their paths actually crossed?
We do know, however, that John Matthews did not take to farming on his return to Carno in the late 1620’s and that he turned the farmhouse into a Public House. The Inn he named ‘The Aleppo Merchant’ became an exotic watering hole for the surrounding farms and villages, licenced by the King to sell ‘spirituous liquors’.
So, history weaves on, shifting fortunes, forging alliances and connections in unexpected corners of the globe, displacing people from one side of the world to the other.
The current war which has engulfed Aleppo is complex and catastrophic. In the lull of the current ceasefire, 60 year old Abu Nidal describes the ongoing struggles to access clean water:
Everything is available to us except water
Watering holes, places where we can drink and be refreshed in community, are vital to life; be they merchant’s hospitality suites, rural inns or bore holes in the ground of a war-torn city. Today, entrepreneurial young men who remain are named the ‘Princes of Aleppo’ as they drive water-filled containers around the city helping others access the water they need to survive.
Other young men have already left in search of a safer place to live and build a future. ‘AlBsmehAl3Rbieh’, is a group of six rappers from Aleppo that formed in 2010, as Syria headed towards the civil war that has ravaged the country. The rappers all met while they were studying and made a song about the Syrian refugees’ journey to Europe. The video footage they shot with their phones as they travelled. I have not been able to source a translation of the lyrics (any offers?) but this is how they describe the content of the song on the youtube comments section:
…the major messages of the song talks about the way of the syrian megeration and how the guy in first section cant travel beacuse he cant collecting moeny and the sexond one is calling his friends to come back and the third section how he needs to work in turkey to collect money to travel to europ the furth talks about the journey crossing the see from turkey to germany crossing ” greece – macedonia – hungary – then germany … 🙂
The Christian understanding and practise of justice as ‘love and care of neighbour’ includes hospitality towards those who do not normally form a part of our close community, ie the stranger who may be studying, working or travelling. Christian hospitality is especially important and emphasised in the case of caring for those who are vulnerable and uprooted, fleeing violence or the effects of natural disasters etc.
Many of us do not associate justice with hospitality, but if we consider a facet of justice as sharing out the ‘goods of life’, then hospitality clearly has an important role in sharing material and relational ‘goods’ with those who find themselves vulnerable and stripped of both.
Not many of us are directly involved in forming refugee policy but almost every one of us will encounter, in the natural course of life, people who have been displaced from their usual ‘watering holes’. We can choose to reach out and connect and support, building acceptance and friendship. We will be changed in the process-for the better.
Yesterday, Nancy Kerr won the prestigious singer of the year title at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2015.
Already a respected interpreter of traditional material, Nancy’s emergence as a writer of rare style has drawn comparisons to William Blake in her reawakening of a radical folk mythology as a backdrop for contemporary narratives about love and conflict, motherhood, migration, hardship and jubilation, and the tensions between rural and urban life. 1.
In her introduction to her Bristol gig last November she spoke of the deep disconnect we have with those who provide the goods we consume and the sense of alienation that creates in society. Here are some lyrics from Hard Songs
If justice leads to anything it should lead to Hope.
This is certainly the biblical story of justice; a story which weaves the bright white threads of the Creative Desire of a God of Love through a tapestry of colourful and diverse patterns of human history.
For hope to exist there must first be despair or at least, the distinct possibility of it…for why and what would we hope for if we have nothing to hope against?
This is perhaps, what the late Stuart Adamson is getting at when he wrote his refrain ‘It’s the river of hope from the pool of tears’. While his own struggle for life-sustaining meaning ended pre-maturely, he -like many other artists before and since- makes vital links through his lyrics and music with the big questions of life; questions about justice which touch us all; rural and urban, poor and rich:
High above the forest in an unseen place
Where the clouds will gather on another race
In the dungeon depths of an unknown cave
There’s a stream that springs with a world to save
And it gathers up strength as it rolls along
And it gathers up hope for everyone
But it runs to plains where the farmlands weep
Through the brand new gardens where rich men sleep
He perceived that Hope connects us all as injustice connects us all. We each connect to Hope at different times and in different ways on our Journey when we encounter for ourselves the Life-denying, Breath-taking impacts of injustice. The penetrating question he asks: ‘will we know how to use Hope to good effect?’ echoes eerily down the corridors of human history. Sustained Hope is deeply transformative. Borne out of an encounter which often provokes and requires a change of direction in our thinking, attitudes, emotions and not least, our behaviours and patterns of life. Importantly too, it requires a lively imagination. Injustice has a habit of squashing imagination and suffocating Life-Breath. We forget how to dream the Dreams of Justice and Shalom; we forget to believe that they are Gifts which are contingent on our unwrapping of them. Hope awakened and energised by the lament of anger and tears reconnects us to Life-Breath:
I’m gonna find it, I’m gonna prove it
And show the whole damned world how to use it
When I find it, when I prove it
I know that some damned fool is gonna lose it
For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years
The ugly consequences of injustice in our world can help to wake us up from our False Rest and we need to find and enter the River of Hope to lead us to our True Rest. Hope isn’t blind, but rather clear-eyed, tear-washed vision:
Past the chemical plant where the junk flows in
By the nuclear project where the children swim
Under bridges in a city where the bodies float
And the summer smell keeps the flies remote
…When we are awake, we cannot not see; we cannot be blind in the face of the reality which we perceive and we cannot fail to ask the question ‘why?’:
Through the swamp of a ghetto where the mission was lost
Where the dope is king and the silver boss
Past the trash and wreckage from the garbage trucks
Past the oil slick where the jail boat docks
…When we are awake, we cannot be lulled into a false sense of security by the false prophets of peace who promise power and force will secure Hope and Shalom-Peace:
To a home in some sea at the nations end
Where the submarine is freedom’s friend
If we need that river like we did before
There can be no need for it lives no more
This clear-eyed vision is one which sees injustice for what it is-a travesty of lost human opportunity to be Creative, Connected and truly Alive; an ugly hole in the tapestry of life which provokes grief and despair; a Party-Spoiler of the highest order:
For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years
For it’s the river of hope, from the pool of tears
It’s the river of hope, it’s the river we lost for years
A recent interview with Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, highlights the biblical tradition of prophetic lament which both recognises and mourns the disasters of injustice precisely because it has sourced its clear-eyed vision of what the Community of Shalom-Peace should look like in scripture and revelation:
…the laments in the books of Psalms and Lamentations are all an expression of grief but they are also an expression of hope. They are an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed. Such prayers are partly an address to God but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Unless that kind of grief and rage and anger is put to speech, it can never become energy. So I believe the transformative function of such prayers is that it transforms energy and rage into positive energy.
Brueggemann refers to ‘honest speech’ as a mode of waking us up to ‘honest action’ which has the energy to transform:
We live in a bourgeois cocoon of niceness and anything that breaks out of that is very threatening and disruptive to people. We have to work towards having honest speech with each other. When we have honest speech we have to speak out about the things that are unjust and unfair. We need a more honest and abrasive speech to bring our talk into connection with our social reality.
Whilst he recognises that we all have different responses and functions in response to the injustice and brutality in the world around us, he nevertheless draws our attention to the authorising of scripture of those who pursue ‘honest dialogue’ at a time when manipulative monologue, smoke screens and chimera have become the norm:
It is in the narratives and the psalms. Beginning with the Exodus narrative and the Elijah narrative and the Jesus narrative, they are all storied about public transformation that happened by courage of uncredentialed people. These kinds of narratives feed our imagination and give us energy and courage.
He also reminds us that ‘honest speech’ often erupts on the margins, where the encounter with the brutality of injustice and the brightness of hope are most keenly experienced; artists frequently encounter their truest voices at the margins as I’ve highlighted in previous posts here and here and here:
If you think about the Song of Miriam or those dangerous songs (many of which are in the mouths of women) we are invited to join that kind of singing which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality. Such singing and storytelling is an insistence that there is another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world. These are very important models and authorizations for us.
Importantly too, Brueggemann recognises that Hope, to be effective, has to be contextually relevant and imaginative in its response to injustice; which is to say that Hope dreams in Colour:
It is highly contextual. There are a variety of strategies that run from face-to-face engagement to pressure on public policy. We have to engage on every front because the issue is so urgent and the problems are so complex that there cannot be a single strategy. As we grow in our commitment to racial equality or social justice we have to be very imaginative. We have to find ways that have transformative potential.
Hope, like a river, can transform a landscape, but it needs to be channelled by vision which flows from the pool of tears and encounter at the edge of Goodness.
[Please enjoy listening to The River of Hope by Big Country and read Walter Brueggemann’s full interview below]
As a mother of teens I am learning fast that rap is not an art form for the faint-hearted (I’ve already weathered the metal phase…more on that another time!), but when I came across one Iranian rap video which has been trending through twitter during the course of the last week, it took my understanding of the protest element of rap lyrics to a whole new level. As I listened, I could hear the familiar themes which litter the Biblical Psalms – lament against war, injustice, oppression, tyranny…
Lose your life but do not accept injustice. Can you not hear people begging for help? Why should people be killed with bullets, bombs and tanks? Even if I am drowned in my own blood I will not shut up!
The psalmist speaks of God Himself being the rescuer of the oppressed in Psalm 72
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need, the destitute who have run out of luck. He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out, he restores the wretched of the earth.
He then goes on to say
He frees them from tyranny and torture – when they bleed, he bleeds; when they die, he dies.
Solidarity in suffering and advocacy on behalf of the blighted is a powerful witness to the integrity of the human spirit which recognises that another’s suffering casts a shadow over each of us. When one suffers we all suffer. However distant we are from those who fall under tyranny, their fall is our fall too. However, what sets this solidarity/lament rap apart from the nature of a biblical psalm (musicality aside!) is the very personal feelings of revenge which the rappers have towards the oppressor. Walter Wink points out that revenge defeats the power of genuine resistance against evil by mirroring and perpetuating evil. The psalmist reminds us that revenge belongs to God
O LORD, the God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth! (Psalm 94:1)
That’s not to say that passivity is all we have in the face of injustice and oppression, resistance can be very active and very passionate without becoming violent, as Martin Luther King Jr. points out in his principles of non-violence:
Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice…The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. .. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
John Paul Lederach writes extensively on conflict transformation as an integral part of a reconciling faith. I close this short reflection with his words, hoping and praying that they come to pass for the people of Homs:
To reduce violence requires that we address the presenting issues and content of an episode of conflict, and also its underlying patterns and causes. This requires us to address justice issues. While we do that, we must proceed in an equitable way toward substantive change. People must have access and voice in decisions that affect their lives. In addition, the patterns that create injustice must be addressed and changed at both relational and structural levels. (Lederach 2003,21)
When it comes to issues of justice patriarchy has often had a poor track record.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines patriarchy as
social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power
There is little question that patriarchy, as described above, has indeed spawned injustice, prejudice and inequality and even condoned and perpetuated misogyny – the hatred of women. However, this is not the focus of this particular post; I want to consider the protective, relational aspect of ‘Father’ –pater– as one which is important to the affirmation and realisation of social justice.
This morning, as I was rushing through the usual family routines I was stopped in my tracks (yes I was late on the school run) by an impassioned interview on Radio 4’s Today Program (2.34.30). Matt O’Connor, founder of Father’s for Justice was speaking of the process which currently takes place in the UK’s Family Justice System to decide post-separation parental contact. He judged this process to be unfairly prejudiced against the rights of fathers to have ongoing contact and involvement in their children’s lives and went as far as to say that it was as “an abusive, secretive regime…which almost makes the regime in North Korea look tame”. His protest was passionate.
When protest becomes passionate or shrill it can be easy to ‘switch off’ (especially for those reasonable Brits amongst us!), and surrounded as we are by global protests and uprisings such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, we can become blase, or simply lose track of the reasons behind a given protest and fail to discern the part we have to play in redressing unjust situations.
Yet, protest is foundational to justice, it sounds the alarm. The history of Christianity is replete with examples of protest; rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, Jesus affirms throughout his ministry the importance of protest. He re-draws relational boundaries which are mutually respectful and inclusive. He affirms those despised and excluded by a corrupted patriarchy which had become polarised under the oppression of the Roman Empire and extends a protective arm to fend off rabid acts of violence against the vulnerable. Yet, even in closing one of the Bible’s most blistering protest accounts, Jesus softens and confesses the reconciling love of a protective heart:
[and yet]… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. (Mat 23:37)
In a world where children and women are minute by minute being sold into slavery at a rate unprecedented in history, forced to be child soldiers, stripped of their rights and their dignity, there is surely an intolerable deficit of community protest which requires everyone to participate in protecting and nurturing the vulnerable against harm?
The Father’s song is one of shalom, which brings peace and well-being to all.
One of the scriptures which inspires me deeply as to the fundamental importance of justice to a planetary flourishing which reflects the infinite wisdom and love of God is this one:
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:25
Or, in fuller version in The Message:
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
It reminds us that in bringing justice there can be a tremendous and powerful re-ordering, indeed destruction of the old order, like the powerful roll of a river in indignant flood but it also speaks of the faithful provision and quiet sustaining of a never-failing stream which produces flourishing and life.
Here is a man who it seems to me, has captured the beauty and essence of the sustaining stream in his music-making. Enjoy!