Saturday, 8 August 2015

Redemption Songs/Songs of Freedom

Over the last couple of years I've been listening attentively to all sorts of religious music in the process of rethinking my own practice.  There's been nothing systematic about it.  Often what I've been listening to is music I've known for a long time, but because I'm more focused on the question I'm listening with different ears.

How can we get past heavily theological, formulaic music and find something that creates a genuine emotional connection?  How can we get out of the atonement bubble and sing about everything that matters in our lives?  Are we prepared to weep and get angry as well as celebrate and praise?

I've expressed my frustration at the music currently promoted in my church and others like it.  I've contrasted this with the ancient Israelite practice shown in the Book of Psalms, and with some other Christian practices that are often unfairly derided.  But I've also found a lot of what I'm looking for in songwriters from other traditions, including Richard Thompson's Sufi songs and George Harrison's Hindu spiritual awakening.

Last Sunday I found myself playing music for evening church with the theme of redemption and a set of bleeding Jesus songs.  I even swallowed my pride and played 'The Mystery of the Cross', but only because I wasn't consulted before the songs were chosen!  Yet as I drove home I found myself singing this little gem from Bob Marley instead.


Old pirates, yes, they rob I, 
Sold I to the merchant ships, 
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my head was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, 
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy, 
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets, 
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it's just a part of it, 
We've got to fulfill the book.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs, 
Redemption songs.

I'm sure most of my readers will know that Marley was a Rastafarian, a deeply spiritual man like Thompson or Harrison as well as an iconic musician and songwriter.  But how much do you know about the Rastafari?

The Rastafarian faith was born in Jamaica in the 1930s.  It takes its name from the Emperor Haile Selassie 1 of Ethiopia (who reigned from 1930 to 1974), who before his coronation went by the name Ras Tafari.  Ras is a title, roughly equivalent to "Duke", and Tafari was his given name, meaning "one who is respected or feared".  His dynasty traced its ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and saw themselves as the direct heirs to Solomon's throne.  The Rastafarians hold that the Emperor is the Messiah and Son of God, the second advent of Jesus.

This means the language and stories of the Bible are re-purposed as a tale and promise of liberation for exiled Africans everywhere.  The coming of the Emperor/Messiah is a sign to strive for freedom and work towards their return to "Zion" (understood as Ethiopia or more broadly as Africa) from their captivity in "Babylon" which is interpreted as the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Europe and America.  This journey can be understood literally as a physical return home, or spiritually as a personal and social transformation wherever they are.

The faith is highly eclectic, drawing on Christianity and on writers of African consciousness such as Marcus Garvey and the "Holy Piby", an alternative Bible written by Robert Athyl Roberts in the 1920s as the basis for an Afro-centric religion.  It started to take its current form with Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, when a number of Jamaican preachers started teaching that he was the returned Messiah.

Haile Selassie himself was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and made no claims to divinity.  On the other hand he didn't go to any great lengths to discourage the movement which revered him.  When he visited Jamaica in 1966 he was greeted by over 100,000 devoted followers.  He granted audience to their leaders, to whom he gave gold medals, and ensured that senior Rastafari were part of any official party that greeted him as he toured the country.  A master of diplomacy, he didn't outright refuse to entertain their mass emigration to Ethiopia, but gently suggested that they should first devote themselves to the task of liberating Jamaica.

His death in 1975 following his deposition in a military coup did present a serious problem to the Rastafari.  Some still maintain that he didn't die, and that he is in hiding in a monastery from where he will return to reclaim his throne.  Others suggest that there is a further advent still to come.

Described in this way it sounds odd to Westerners like myself, but I suspect that this is because we are not descendants of African slaves. Rasta provides a spiritual basis for a form of African consciousness, a source of pride in their culture and identity, a framework within which to understand their current poverty and oppression, and a hope and goal for liberation and equality.  Its power is shown in the fact that it has as many as a million followers worldwide, not as a result of highly organised and well funded proselytisation but through grass-roots activism via a highly non-hierarchical and unstructured "church".


Rita Marley was among the 100,000 who greeted the Emperor in 1966 and her faith was confirmed by seeing stigmata on his hands.  She introduced her musician husband Bob to the faith and he became one of its most prominent activists and spokespeople. spreading the word through his infectious and joyful music and his social and political activism.

'Redemption Song' was written sometime in 1979 and recorded on Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1980 album Uprising.  It has become a much-covered standard for musicians of African descent and it provides an eloquent testimony to the power of Rasta and the poverty of the Christianity experienced by Marley and his contemporaries.

Rastafari are in the habit of saying "I and I" in place of "you and I", emphasising the unity of all people and the idea that if you suffer, I suffer, if you rejoice I rejoice with you.  Hence, at the beginning of the first verse he is identifying himself with his ancestors who were stolen from their homelands, sold to slave traders and brought to Jamaica to work the plantations of wealthy Europeans.  Despite this, God is still with him/them, making them strong and enabling them to survive.

The beginning of the second verse is drawn from a speech by Marcus Garvey.  Its import is that while their bodies had been freed from slavery, Jamaicans still needed to free their minds from the ways of thinking inculcated by their masters.  Only then would they be truly free to chart their own course.  Marley clearly believes that the time for this liberation has come and nothing can stop it, not even nuclear warfare or the slaughter of prophets.  The entire body of Marley's work is a joyous testament to this liberation and this hope.

The sting for practitioners of Christian music, and for Christians generally, is in the chorus.

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? 
'Cause all I ever have, 
Redemption songs.


Because when "I" was being enslaved and oppressed, where were the Christians?  They were not singing songs of freedom, they were singing redemption songs, encouraging the oppressed to accept their oppression now and hope for freedom in the next life.  In the process they were providing comfort to the oppressors of Babylon, either actively supporting them or looking away while they abused "I".

No wonder they had to re-purpose and re-create the faith to find what they needed.  None but ourselves can free our minds, and Christianity was keeping "us" in chains.  It's sad because I'm convinced Jesus did not mean it to be that way.  This is what he did in his first public sermon in his home town of Nazareth.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Will we dare to sing this?  It is much safer to stay in our atonement bubble, where no-one's cage will be rattled and we can dream of a happy afterlife without having to care about those who suffer here and now, or challenge their oppressors.  But if we fail them, those who suffer will just have to look elsewhere, to our eternal shame.  "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me".

Or as Bob put it so much more simply, "Set the captives free!".


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