“My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.”
Our unaccompanied voices belted out the sturdy tune. Heels kept a strong, audible pulse on the wooden floor. A group of several hundred stood in large circle around the perimeter of the chapel to sing Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning as we concluded worship.
And I realized, as if for the first time, we were praising and protesting at the same time.
Like Mary, we were giving honor and glory to God, the Source of life. We were reminding each other God desires to be at the center of lives and practicing praise as an antidote to self-sufficiency, hubris, and indifference.
And while singing “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name,” we also joined with Mary in heralding the day when those confident in their power, possessions, and privilege would fall. We were joyfully and boldly proclaiming God’s justice for all oppressed by Empire and its dehumanizing structures. We were not just expressing disapproval or anger but praying with confidence echoed in the words of Arundhati Roy in her book War Talk: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
It was a profound reminder of the way corporate worship can both disrupt and reform us, de-center and reorient us, and help us see the relationship between personal piety and communal responsibility. It was an exercise in how prayer invites both joy and lament, love and anger, contemplation and action.
While the link between praise and protest might make some uncomfortable, it’s deeply woven into Scripture. The Psalms offer soaring praise and name injustice against individuals and communities with searing intensity, even invoking a sort of retributive justice that makes us squirm.
The Prophets offer grand, poetic visions of God’s unchanging holiness, strength, and beauty. The fifth chapter of Amos praises,
“The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.”
- Amos 5:8-9
And just a few verses later the prophet decries “trampling on the poor” and prays that “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Consistent with the moral arc of the whole Hebrew Bible, human beings’ relationship with God is measured by the quality of care extended to the vulnerable, poor, and outlier, not the lavishness or size of their sacrificial offerings.
Praise and protest are intertwined in the life and ministry of Jesus, too, and the Gospels reveal the discomfort it caused among those in authority. Rooted in a life of prayer, he moved among the people in acts of healing and compassion, restoring the dignity and worth of those on the margins and subverting the privilege and power of the elite. This was a ministry lived out on the streets, sometimes disruptive and untamed by social norms or mainstream religious piety, as John Bell and Graham Maule describe in their powerful hymn.
“Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the streets,
where injustice spirals
and real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus, I am angry too.
In the Kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with you.”
Jesus waits, heals, and dances, too, calling us to follow his way of prayer and action, of praise and protest. It is a call that honors the range of human experiences and emotions, even anger and rage.
If we “live ourselves into new ways of thinking” as Fr. Richard Rohr asserts, worship is one of the most formative and integrative things we do in Christian community. What we say and sing shapes us. We become what we practice together.
So I wonder what might change in our lives and our churches (and, yes, even in our country) if corporate worship invited us to more intentional expressions of praise and protest? What if the texts and music we sang addressed personal salvation, peace, hope, and comfort, and also called us to justice, equity, restitution, and compassion? Could we find ways to express heartfelt gratitude to our loving Creator while finding our hearts broken open in repentance or righteous indignation at violence and greed threatening human lives? How might our songs invite us to lift hands in joyful praise and surrender while also inspiring those same hands to work with God for the wholeness and well-being of the whole creation?
I have quoted several hymns in this piece that speak to these questions and I’ve included a longer list of possibilities from varied song traditions in an accompanying blog post. They are just a starting place. More important are conversations about the language we privilege, noticing how it forms our relationship with God as well as our response to what is happening in our communities and the world around us.
As someone who has participated in marches and civil disobedience with my faith family over the past years, I don’t intend to minimize the power in acts of solidarity or the need for voices raised in public protest and resistance. But I don’t want us to miss the seeds of change sown through songs we share in sanctuaries, fellowship halls, and faith formation spaces, as well as on the streets. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to sing with Mary, whose prophetic aria of praise and protest gives us courage to “sing a new world into being,” too.