As climate protests remain in the media spotlight, Mark Porter considers how music is used by Christians in response to ecological violence. 

In the spring of 2022, three Christian Climate Action protestors stood up in the middle of Shell’s annual general meeting and began to sing Amazing Grace. As with many climate protests, the event was carefully planned, and they’d thought about and prepared in advance exactly what they were going to do. As they sang their way through the different verses, the lyrics alternated between the familiar and the new. Whilst the first verse proceeded as anyone would have expected, verse two began to head in a different direction. The lyrics offered prayer for God’s grace on those in the room, but went on to suggest that this grace would come as the gathered public divest themselves of shares in Shell. Verse three proceeded with the traditional lyrics, but verse four began to imagine a liberated creation where the Niger river is clean and Shell has become a bust and worthless company. The final verse included most of its traditional lyrics, but firmly pointed towards the earth as the location of redemption, an image largely lacking from the text of the original hymn.

The protestors on that day were undertaking a careful balancing act, crafting lyrics in which hostility and healing sat incredibly close alongside one-another. The lyrics are far from moderate, and do not shy away from hoping for the destruction of Shell as a company, but they insist on holding this vision alongside one of a beautifully redeemed creation (Romans 8:21), holding out a hope for everyone, including the shareholders and oil executives in the room. The balance was not simply a lyrical one, however, and it was also reflected in the goals and the internal emotional dispositions of the protestors themselves. In conversation a month or so after the action, one of the protestors put it like this to me: “I’ll be quite blunt about it … I liked singing it at them, I’m very angry with Shell. But you have to temper that with love and the desire that they should be forgiven, not just punished.” In the midst of the Shell AGM, the anger is real, and in the face of ecologically destructive actions, a hostility towards the earth and its ecosystems is met in the opposite direction by a hostility towards this course of action. At the same time, there is a sense of Christian calling to redemption and healing (2 Corinthians 5:19), that there is something more to offer than simply opposition (Matthew 5:44), and that it is important for the protestors to be able to feel and express this themselves as much as it’s needed to convey this message to those listening to their singing.

The climate crisis is often marked by fears and claims and counterclaims surrounding attributions of peacefulness and violence, and these are strongly connected to perceptions regarding the legitimacy and acceptability of particular viewpoints: Climate protestors are doing violence to our cities or they are maintaining a strictly non-violent ethos; the police or public are handling protestors with undue force or they are simply performing their appropriate duty; humanity is doing structural violence to the Earth and its ecosystems or they are simply taking an economically logical course of action; failure to address climate change properly will lead to increasing violence in the world or attempts to address climate change faster than society accepts will lead to potentially violent civil unrest.

In the midst of an ecological crisis which stirs up a range of different emotions and reactions, protestors and many others often find themselves carefully policing and managing their own emotional dynamics, narratives, and interactions, aware of their own unhelpful tendencies, but also aware of the ways in which particular emotional attitudes will be perceived by others. Music often plays a role in the way these emotions are channeled. It is there to express important emotions, but also to prevent certain feelings from bubbling over too strongly. It is there to direct and channel emotional energy in the way that seems most appropriate for particular situations or groupings of people.

One hymn and song writer who I spoke to struck the balance in a different way to the Shell climate protestors:

“I do still feel pretty hopeless. It’s 2022. And I have children, and I look at the world. … What am I giving my kids? … We try to not be materialistic … Reduce, reuse, recycle was the big phrase in my childhood, and it’s gotten us nowhere. And I feel like the problem is so much bigger. And some of the key players are so many layers above me that I as an individual really can’t touch it. But at the same time, I don’t want to say, well, let’s just give up, the world’s on fire. So yeah, I sit at home and I write angry lyrics. And then I throw them away.”

There is a tension here, between the emotions that have become accepted and appropriate within church communities, and the emotions which are stirred in response to the issues we are facing as a planet. Work, reflexivity, and adaptation is needed to figure out what to do with this. Existing Christian patterns of expression may be more acceptable, but perhaps they also deflect away from the issues that need to be dealt with. Gut reactions seem to offer an avenue for catharsis, but perhaps they also can lead to increasing alienation or enmity rather than a solution to any of the problems we are facing. In the incompatibility between how we have learnt we should feel and how we are currently feeling lies a space in which new paths need to open up. We should not ignore the friction and simply push one or the other to the side. A new situation means we need to channel our feelings and our actions in a range of new directions, and we are going to need to learn to do this.

Mark Porter is a postdoctoral researcher based at the University of Erfurt in Germany. He is programme chair of the biennial Chris-tian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives conference. His latest book, For the Warming of the Earth: Music, Faith, and Ecological Crisis, was published at the end of June by SCM Press. Alongside his academic work, Mark is an active church musician who has served as worship leader, director of music, organist and choir leader for a variety of churches in the UK and in Germany.

As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.

Anger, Love, and Singing for Ecological Redemption
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