Wherein I’m Cited with James Cone?

A few days ago, I wrote a poem partly quoting James Cone. His work means a lot to me.

Today, I found out that an essay I wrote ten years ago is quoted in a book about music, theology, and justice. In the bibliography, I’m cited next to Cone.

I know it’s because of how the alphabet works, but I’m incredibly humbled. James Cone is brilliant. I’m, at best, a broken clock. A newly encouraged one. James Cone still inspires, and the long march isn’t done.

Here’s the book, in the publisher’s words:

Music, Theology, and Justice

Edited by Michael O’Connor; Hyun-Ah Kim and Christina Labriola – Contributions by Awet Iassu Andemicael; C. Michael Hawn; Maeve Louise Heaney; Chelsea Hodge; Michael J. Iafrate; Ella Johnson; Hyun-Ah Kim; Christina Labriola; Ann Loades; Bruce T. Morrill; Michael O’Connor; Michael Taylor Ross; Don E. Saliers; Jeremy E. Scarbrough and Jesse Smith

Music does not make itself. It is made by people: professionals and amateurs, singers and instrumentalists, composers and publishers, performers and audiences, entrepreneurs and consumers. In turn, making music shapes those who make it—spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, politically, economically—for good or ill, harming and healing. This volume considers the social practice of music from a Christian point of view. Using a variety of methodological perspectives, the essays explore the ethical and doctrinal implications of music-making. The reflections are grouped according to the traditional threefold ministry of Christ: prophet, priest, and shepherd: the prophetic role of music, as a means of articulating protest against injustice, offering consolation, and embodying a harmonious order; the pastoral role of music: creating and sustaining community, building peace, fostering harmony with the whole of creation; and the priestly role of music: in service of reconciliation and restoration, for individuals and communities, offering prayers of praise and intercession to God.


Using music in priestly, prophetic, and pastoral ways, Christians pray for and rehearse the coming of God’s kingdom—whether in formal worship, social protest, concert performance, interfaith sharing, or peacebuilding. Whereas temperance was of prime importance in relation to the ethics of music from antiquity to the early modern period, justice has become central to contemporary debates. This book seeks to contribute to those debates by means of Christian theological reflection on a wide range of musics: including monastic chant, death metal, protest songs, psalms and worship music, punk rock, musical drama, interfaith choral singing, Sting, and Daft Punk.

Revelation in a Time of Coronavirus and Late Capitalism

The headlines are all the same. They’ve been the same for fifty years, or for a hundred. They’ve been the same since Gutenberg. Since Revelation.

There is pestilence. There is war, and rumors of war. There is sickness, God, is there sickness. There is famine, there is poverty, there is ecological destruction. In John’s vision on Patmos, the world is poisoned by the fallout of a star, called Wormwood, and what’s a star, anyway, but a nuclear reaction? And I don’t want to get too strange, but in Ukrainian, Wormwood is Chernobyl. I don’t think John had an actual, technicolor vision of the 80s, but Ukrainian milk still has a half-life, even now, in 2020. Speaking of now, and of pestilence and disease and these riders and their horses, John did not foresee coronavirus, but he knew plagues would spread and economies would crumble whenever power rests with a selfish, greedy few.

I’m not calling the seer of Patmos some proto-democrat. But he was a prophet, in a long tradition of prophets. Even now, some 3000 years since Moses, we don’t really use the word in its proper context. We think it has to do with fortune telling, a literal seeing of the future, or with esoteric Bible codes and arcane symbols. We forget, or never learned, that the Hebrew and Christian prophets were never primarily like their sibylline counterparts, that Jerusalem and Patmos weren’t Delphi. We forget, or never learned, that prophecy in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a speaking of present truth to present power.

The book of Revelation gets a lot of attention. It is vivid, scandalous, and scary. It has been used to justify all kinds of hatreds, and as a cipher for thousands of agendas.

Though it is also many other things, the book of Revelation is primarily a sociological allegory about life among oppressed peoples (specifically, Christians) in the Roman Empire in the first century of the common era. It’s apocalyptic, not merely because of its prophetic tropes, but because Roman society was, itself, apocalyptic. I don’t mean that apocalyptic visions dominated the social, artistic, philosophic, or theological mores of the day; I mean that the Roman Empire was an oppressive, idolatrous, all-consuming beast of a socioreligious, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical thing. That the things John of Patmos described 2000 years ago should be easy to recognize in our own headlines now speaks to his prophetic status, even though prophetic need not mean predictive. The Hebrew and Christian prophetic voices were prophetic in part because they understood the externalities systemic injustice produces. (It’s a crime of language that we call these things ‘externalities’; they’re only external if you’re among the parties producing them and able to shield yourself from them).

That Revelation, with its images of death, and war (and rumors of war) and poverty and famine and plague, sounds very much like a modern litany of fears is no accident and need not be the function of oracular gifts or actual visions of a far-flung future. The prophets understood what power does, and they spoke against it. The patterns are predictable. Concentrated power in the hands of a few elites leads to poverty, famine, hunger, pestilence, disease, and environmental disaster. It’s all right there in the ancient writings. You don’t need to believe these writers had literal visions of the future to understand that they foresaw it. Their vision, as it were, is in their recognition of the putrid fruits of voracious greed and inverted totalitarianism. God did not show them a literal vision of the inverted tyranny of late capitalism. God didn’t need to. True prophecy is not (and never has been) about mystical predictions of the future. Prophecy is what happens when men and women bear witness to justice in the face of injustice, and usually against all conventional wisdom. This is the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, of Jesus, of Martin Luther King, of Liberation theology. If the prophets of old speak to us now, it’s because they understood the conditions we will always find ourselves in when we don’t take a stand for the kingdom of justice, peace, and love that would find us in solidarity with the margins and with each other, instead of in competition for things that need not actually be scarce, in service of obscenely wealthy powers who convince us that there’s not enough to go around and control us with that fear.

Prophets are stoned, crucified, and assassinated on the balconies of their motels for a reason, and I think we all know what it is.

John of Patmos (like Jesus) lived under explicit tyranny. The tyranny we live under is what theorists call “inverted,” but it produces all the same things. It must likewise be resisted.

It Bears Repeating

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?”

-Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,” speech, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Apr. 16, 1953.

The High Cost of Cheap Goods: Going to Hell In a Hand-Held Device

091208- Mike Daisey @ TBA08 1c
Mike Daisey image by djbrokenwindow via Flickr

Three Pillars Trading Company is a client of mine. I’m producing blog articles for this fair-trade, sustainable import business, and from time to time, I’ll be sharing pieces of them here. My first post at Three Pillars is about the disgusting conditions that factory workers in Shenzhen, China endure while they put together our computers and hand-held devices. Yes, as fellow Apple fanboy Mike Daisey exposes, even our MacBooks and iPhones.

An excerpt:

Monologist and raconteur Mike Daisey recently spent hundreds of hours exploring the treatment of industrial workers in the Shenzhen region of China. His findings are nothing short of chilling, and he’s taking to the stage (and Internet) to get the message out. Mike makes the stunningly simple observation that while most justice-minded people work very hard to integrate their ethics and consumer choices when buying socks and sneakers, very few of us ever really stop think about the fabrication and delivery chains that produce our favorite hand-held devices.

Continue reading here. Whatever you do, be sure to click through and watch the video interviews TechCrunch conducts with Daisey. They’ll make you angry, sad, and sick. The fact that people like Mike Daisey exist might also make you feel some hope. As I’ve said before, if I ever link to anything I’ve been paid to produce, I’ll say so. That’s the case here, but, as you might know, I only take jobs from organizations I can get behind.  It would be great if you surfed from here to my cool new client, but much more important to me and to Three Pillars is that you please, please, please hear what Mike Daisey has to say. In fact, here’s a direct link right to the TechCrunch article with three video segments. They are worth your time.

As for Three Pillars, one of the chief goals of their blog is to provide a place of interest and information gathering around the the kinds of issues that people interested in fair-trade goods are likely to also care about. If you do make your way there, I know the Three Pillars folks would appreciate any feedback or comments you might have about how to make the blogging experience on their site all it can be. My job is strictly on the content side and I get to pick the issues I blog about there.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.

While we’re on the subject of sustainability, and since I used “hell” in the title (that’s just a figure of speech, Rob Bell), I’ll also say this: after watching Daisey speak, I’m seriously worried about the state of the Western soul. Most of us don’t know that a company as seemingly with it as Apple is party to the things happening in Shenzen. We get great products for low Western prices, but at an unknown human cost to people with even less access to power than most of our own unemployed homeless.

I’ll be honest. This makes me feel like shit. Since I read Karl Rahner in div school (Savvy Sister, are you a fan of his? I am.), I’ve always thought his take on original sin made the most sense: everyday, we’re part of sinful, evil systems that we don’t even know about. Doing something as simple as buying a banana (let alone an gallon of gas or an iPod) might end up supporting unspeakable evil. The same goes for your retirement funds. Unless you’re in a socially aware mutual fund, chances are your IRAs are funding weapons and Chinese petro companies with dirty hands in Darfur. Shit, when I worked in finance, even the so-called “socially responsible funds” invested in Big Pharmaceuticals and Big Banks because after taking out cigarette makers,  arms makers, gambling companies, pornographers and environmentally destructive firms, Banking and Medicine were the only two industries left. If you want a brief rundown on how powerful those industries are, consider if this is true where you live like it is here: most of the most consistent new construction going on prior to the banking crisis and even after was and is for new banks and new drugstores. I’m not saying prescription drugs aren’t legit or that there’s something wrong with taking medicine as directed, but we all know that on the R&D and supply ends, opportunity for corporate abuse is rife. I don’t think I need to say anything at all about banks and financial institutions. You know where I’m going.

Where does all this bullshit evil come from in the first place? I know the following:

  1. everyone we meet is fighting a great war.
  2. Karl Barth, (Karl Rahner’s Protestant Number) said that evil is the aggregation of humankind’s repeated choice of Das Nichtige (very basically: choosing “Not God” (aka “Nothingness”) instead of God, who is life) played out in history.   He’s not very far from Rahner here when it comes down to it: Evil is a given, and it gets amplified as we continue to choose it (or, finally, participate it in unknowingly because it’s so entrenched).  Its the manifestation of everything that isn’t God, actualized by aggregate choices and non-choices framed by the earlier actions of others (which, in fact, may not have been truly free choices, given #1).
  3. be kind, because (see #1).

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase
Crunch.

A dear friend of mine, wry with a sort of common-sense Pennsylvania German-Lutheran fatalism would say this leaves us pretty screwed.  But I’m not so sure about that in the end. Shortly after I got out of the mutual fund industry, another friend of mine with many years in the retirement-planning business told me that it was impossible to invest with your conscience. As you might expect, I disagree. You probably do, too. Whether you’re a person a faith or simply a person of faithful ethics, you already know that voting with your dollars, so to speak, requires certain sacrifices. I’m due for a phone upgrade this month. Oh, how I want an iPhone. But maybe I won’t get anything. I know the phone I would have bought will still be made in shit-hole conditions and will still be sold. I know it will be the best looking chunk of original sin on the market. How funny that it’s made by a company who’s logo is a piece of bitten fruit. Well, not funny ha ha. Funny strange. Actually, not so funny at all.

So, friends, what we do we about all of this?