Skip to site content

Sing a Song of Justice

Is social justice an appropriate theme for Christian worship, hymns and songs? If the Bible is our guide, then the answer can only be yes.

A brief sampling of Scripture’s own hymnal, the book of Psalms, easily makes the case.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps 82:3f).
 
“Who is like you, O LORD?
You rescue the poor from those too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them” (Ps 35:10).
 
The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble (Ps 9:9).
 
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more (Ps 10:17f). 
Because the God of Israel is a god of righteousness, themes of justice and deliverance from oppression figure prominently in the Psalms as well as the poetic verse of the prophets. Many churches today, however, have failed—in their music ministries—to express themes of justice and Christian concern for the marginalized, even when social concern is an integral part of a congregation’s outreach into the community.
Many reasons might be offered for this lack of musical attention to themes of social justice. Theologically, the case can be made that themes of ethics divert attention from the true theme of Christian worship, which is the story of salvation through Christ and the majestic God to whom the believer has been reconciled. Instead, an ethically focused hymn or chorus centers more on human action and risks neglecting God and his mighty acts on our behalf.
Consider the old Washington Gladden hymn, “O, Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” still found in many hymnals: 
“O, Master let me walk with Thee,
In lowly paths of service free;
Tell me Thy secret; help me bear
The strain of toil, the fret of care.”
Gladden’s prayer invokes divine aid for the believer seriously engaged in sacrificial service. It focuses our attention on the church’s mission and the frustrations encountered by any program for social change. Indeed, a steady diet of such verse could arguably lead to a subversion of the biblical gospel in favor of a gospel of social reform or self-improvement.
But perhaps “steady diet” is the operative term here. If music and singing share in the teaching ministry of the church, then Christian discipleship is an appropriate theme, even if a subsidiary one.
Furthermore, it is quite possible to celebrate themes of social justice and never lose sight of the biblical God. This is precisely the approach of the Psalms, which lift up not so much human acts of mercy as they do the merciful God who champions the oppressed. 
God-centered hymns on themes of social change have been around for many years, as illustrated in the 1860 verse by Henry W. Baker, “O God of love, O king of Peace”: 
O God of love, O King of peace,
Make wars throughout the world to cease;
Our greed and sinful wrath restrain.
Give peace, O God, give peace again.
Baker’s hymn reminds the church of its call to peace-making. But rather than reflecting on the work of the church per se, the verse exalts the God who is the King of peace and thereby the true source and possibility of peace on earth.
Another reason for widespread neglect of social ethics in Christian singing might be a fear of “politicizing” Christian worship. After all, it is difficult to sing about God’s advocacy for the oppressed without at least drawing attention to controversial political issues such as homelessness, welfare policy or tax debates.
But that argument is more of an explanation than a defense. Political controversy is a poor standard by which to measure the worship of the church, particularly when the themes in question are so central to the character of the God we worship.
One argument that cannot be offered is a lack of resources. The good news for the church is that songs and music abound on the theme of social justice and advocacy for the oppressed.
One of many such contemporary resources is Songs for Renewal, a book of hymns and devotions produced by Renovare, an organization committed to spiritual renewal in the church. An entire section of the songbook offers musical reflections on the God of justice, as does this composition by Ken Medema, “Let Justice Roll,” a meditation on Amos 5:24: 
Let justice roll, roll down like water,
and righteousness like a flowing stream.
It’s a call to leave your treasures
and your trinkets on the road.
It’s a call to join the weeping,
and to bear the sufferer’s load.
It’s a call to join the fasting
that shall lead to final feast. 
Let justice roll, roll down like water,
and righteousness like a flowing stream.
So why shouldn’t the church sing a song of justice? Clearly, there’s no good reason not to.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.