Listening Closer: Psalms for Refugees, Terrorists, and Other Neighbors
Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
My heart hurts. The last two weeks have given it a beating. And here I am, in my warm home, after a hot meal, with a house full of love, in a (relatively) safe neighborhood, having just come home from a church where I worship freely, preparing for the good job that is waiting for me on Monday morning.
Who am I to complain about hurt?
I hurt because the news from everywhere tells me I’m surrounded by hurt. And it’s so easy to feel helpless in the face of so much darkness. On November 13th, Paris was attacked by terrorists. Then came the news that America — the America built by and for refugees — stands ready to turn away thousands upon thousands of frightened, wounded, desperate souls because we might accidentally let in someone who wishes to commit harm.All I know is I need God’s promises. And, in the tradition of all psalmists, I find them easier to hope for if I sing them.
These events should not have been shocking — they are the inevitable outcome of rising resentment and fear, both outside our borders and within. Such violence and mercilessness will continue so long as wealth is hoarded by the powerful, so long as the poor are denied compassion and education, and so long as individuals and nations indulge their capacity to react without concern for the truth. (A little information can go a long way.)
But they seemed shocking to me anyway, in part because of what I had just experienced in my own community.
I work at a university where, just less than two years ago, a stranger — an American, actually — came to campus with a gun and started shooting. He wounded several and killed one. Our community responded in unity, with prayer, and with shows of compassion for the killer and his family, as well as the victims. Our campus ministry team counseled students and led us all in lament, in prayer, in help, and in hope.
Then, just two weeks ago, we experienced another ugly attack. Many of those same campus ministers, desiring to increase appreciation in our community for our military veterans and our students in military service, prepared a special chapel service to be held the day before Veterans Day in a church across the street from campus.
But they faced a challenging question: Since this was to be a worship service in a church sanctuary, would it be inappropriate to include the Pledge of Allegiance and the Presentation of the Colors as part of the program? Our chapel services are designed to be inclusive of believers from many denominations and traditions, and some of those who attend believe it is best to hold pledges of national allegiance separate from church worship services.
They decided, at first, to keep these rituals separate so that a large and diverse community could still come together to hear stories of faith and service.
But some felt that this effort to show respect for certain Christians’ convictions about worship was a “slap in the face” to military veterans. And they took their grievance to FOX News. And the news hastened to air an incomplete story. That incompleteness was the spark that set a fire, which spread to social media. Like a bad game of telephone, misinformation and distortion increased. There were reports — quite contrary to the leadership’s intent to honor veterans — that our school had “banned” the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and any kind of patriotism. Glenn Beck even branded the leaders “PC fascists.”
For the next several days, our community was assaulted with words of confusion, rage, hatred, and obscenity. Some said that we should be handed over to the cruelty of ISIS for our crimes. Some announced that we could not possibly be Christians.
No one seemed to notice the facts, which were easily accessible online. School leaders did, in fact, respond to anger by listening, and by revising their plans: the Pledge, the Colors, and the National Anthem were included in the event, and they were followed by worship and prayer. Veterans, military students, faculty, and staff expressed respect and gratitude for one another. And we prayed together as a community.
But condemnations, hate mail, presumption, and spectacular misunderstandings continued among those outside of our community. They did not want to hear that things had been peacefully resolved. Good news would have been an inconvenient disruption to their campaign of vitriol. One sent a Facebook message declaring that he would commit to doing everything in his power to keep our community “in a negative light” for years to come. Others, confusing these events with another overblown controversy — the one about those not-so-Christmassy Starbucks coffee cups — demanded to know why the school was canceling Christmas.
It was a small event relative to the incomprehensible scale of the global refugee crisis, the violence of ISIS, and the grief being experienced by Paris and its allies. And things have quieted down. The university ministries team continues to faithfully serve our student body, undeterred from their commitment to bless a diverse community, whatever storms may come. (God bless them.)
Nevertheless, it felt like just another wave of fear, hostility, and refusal to accommodate diversity. Darkness can rise at the slightest provocation — from religious extremists on the other side of the globe, or from my very own Christian neighbors here in America.
I am grateful to serve in a community that strives to be both multicultural and grace-filled. I am grateful to live in America, a nation that (I was taught) prioritizes religious freedom, and (I was also taught) is willing to embrace those who are different — including the poor, the needy, and the persecuted.
But these past few weeks have made my country look like an insecure nation, under no god but Self-Interest, easily divisible, with persecution and injustice for all. Perhaps there is a lesson here — that we should not seek hope in the promises of politicians, or in the pride of patriots, or in Facebook memes. I need to go back to the Psalms — including contemporary psalms — for solace.
Particularly, I sing along with this appeal for redemption: “Changes Come” — a lament, from Over the Rhine’s Ohio, that comes from a place of spiritual brokenness. (You can find the lyrics here.)
When the band performed the song at Cornerstone in 2003, singer Karin Bergquist said that they wrote it after watching the news while American forces drove tanks through Baghdad and Bethlehem at the beginning of the Iraq War. It was as if they sensed that this would blast fuel through a firehose on a dangerous fire, amplifying international conflict. It was as if they knew no earthly power, no guns, no tanks, no political candidate, would be able to resolve the rising tide of violence, vengeance, and hatred.
All they could do was pray:
I wanna have our baby,
Some days I think that maybe
This ol’ world’s too f—-d up
For any firstborn son.
There is all this untouched beauty,
The light the dark both running through me —
Is there still redemption for anyone?
Turn the world around…
I sing along with Leonard Cohen’s “Different Sides.” This one goes out to anyone who feels weary of being caught in bitter debates with neighbors or enemies.
In it, Cohen sings:
We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line that nobody drew.
Though it all may be one in the higher eye,
Down here where we live, it is two.
I, to my side, call the meek and the mild;
You, to your side call the Word.
By virtue of suffering I claim to have won,
You claim to have never been heard.
Both of us say there are laws to obey,
Yeah, but frankly I don’t like your tone.
You want to change the way I make love
(I want to leave it) I want to leave it alone…
Cohen also offers us this appeal for reminders of God’s promises: “Amen.”
Tell me again
When the victims are singing
And Laws of Remorse are restored
Tell me again
That you know what I’m thinking
But vengeance belongs to the lord
Tell me again…
I can’t think of a more appropriate song for the refugee crisis than this one, which I featured in this column once before: It’s Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” — a song that should break any American heart that has hardened against the needs of the poor.
Some friends on Facebook suggested additional tracks for this playlist.
Nathan Scoggins reminded me to play a U2 song — one sung in the voice of refugees who cry out for mercy from those who withhold help: “Crumbs From Your Table.”
Joel Edwards recommended we heed these words sung by Mavis Staples: “In Christ There Is No East or West.”
Along the same lines, Rob Birks pointed to Mike Scott’s “Bring ‘Em All In”.
And The Innocence Mission offers this hymn: “It is Well With My Soul”.
And finally, I would offer this, for the broken heart of Paris. It’s a piece by composer Zbigniew Preisner, written for the soundtrack of the Krzysztof Kieślowski film Three Colors: Blue.
In the film, Julie (Juliette Binoche) is the widow of a famous composer. Her husband has died before finishing a symphony intended to symbolize Europe’s hope for unification, and Julie may be the only hope for its completion. But she has been traumatized by the loss of her husband and child. What is more, she is angry at the revelation of dark secrets. She has been treated unjustly. She has been humiliated. She wants to wipe the slate clean and start again.
But the world needs this music. And for Julie to complete it, she will need to pick up these burdens and carry them forward. She must venture back into her grief and give birth to a holy prayer — binding up the wounds of the past, bravely dreaming of reconciliation. She must, ultimately, embrace suffering — and forgive.
Those reading subtitles as the chorus rings out may recognize the lyrics, sung in Greek by a choir over the closing montage of the film. It’s from 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
As I listen to this song, I feel it questioning me: What is the state of my heart as I reflect on the events of the past several weeks? Am I writing this column in anger and frustration? Or humility and love?
I’m not in the best condition to say. All I know is I need God’s promises. And, in the tradition of all psalmists, I find them easier to hope for if I sing them.