I took my kids to the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin last week to see Ladysmith Back Mambazo perform. It was an attempt to connect two increasingly American children to some of their roots which, I hope, still lay anchored in the fertile warmth of African soil. They made it all the way to intermission and then fell asleep in a remarkable display of ability that they don’t ordinarily possess on any night of the week when I actually want them to fall asleep.
Anyway, parenting is complicated, but the show was brilliant. The sounds of multi-layered A Cappella harmonies forged in the foothills of Kwazulu-Natal transported me back to another land and another time. I was spellbound and my mind wandered through a lifetime of memories.
My mind went back to the small outside apartment in my parents garden in Cyrildene, Johannesburg, where my older brothers sat me down as a young boy and played me Graceland by Paul Simon for the first time. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was my initiation into the rich harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I was spellbound. It was also a fully illegal listening party as the album had been banned in South Africa under apartheid, and so there was a magic to our listening which felt like an uprising of young boy rebellion against a system that we could see was wicked to its core. None of us had any idea how to overthrow it, but we felt like we were involved in some small way in its slow loss of power through the rebellious act of enjoying the art that eroded and undermined its grip.
Art that displayed a possibility of unity.
Art that celebrated the cultural magnificence of a people we were told were unsophisticated and a danger to our very being.
Art that was so beautiful that it exposed the ugliness of those who sought to silence and suppress it.
I am well aware that there was a fair amount of controversy around Paul Simon’s motives and actions in recording parts of the album in South Africa at a time when the country was under a UN cultural boycott, and there was passionate disagreement in the anti-apartheid community about whether that album should ever have been made at all. If you want to see both sides of that argument, I would recommend Joe Berlinger’s excellent documentary, Under African Skies. Activism is complicated, and so is the artistic pursuit.
That album taught me something though, something I have never forgotten. It taught me that one of the best ways to counter the ugly things of the world is through creating beauty. Ugliness isn’t defeated through more ugliness. Power grabbing isn’t weakened through more power grabbing. Violence can’t always conquer violence. Beauty protests in a way like nothing else can. The ability to make beautiful things is a divine imprint on humanity that isn’t eroded by even the most heinous of schemes to dehumanize people.
Back to the theater, as I listened to song after beautiful song that Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang, I was reminded that these were gospel songs of protest. They were songs that spoke of the goodness of God even while experiencing the wickedness of men.
What a beautiful protest!
You can’t stop that sort of beauty. It always emerges, even if it seems to get drowned out temporarily by the ugliness of empire and dominion.
It got me thinking about the role of church in society. We have embraced the power grabs of culture as the way to be heard, but as I look at the life and teachings of Jesus and as I study the remarkable instructions given to the church in the New Testament, I see a people who are called to live lives of beautiful protest, people who resist the systems of the day by showing the beauty of another way.
We protest the immorality and ethical decay in society by pursuing the beauty of humble piety and communal holiness in our churches.
We protest blind consumerism by practicing the beauty of simplicity, generosity and contentment.
We protest abuses of power by embracing the Sermon on the Mount and refusing to imitate the power grabs of society in what is supposed to be the safe spaces of our churches.
We protest deceit by living beautiful lives of integrity and truth.
We protest a zeitgeist of fatalism by being people of beautiful, resurrection rooted hope.
We protest injustice through the beauty of radical neighbor love.
We protest societal division through the beauty of complicated and patient friendship.
We protest … through beauty.
The world is not as it should be, that much is clear. The people of God need to be a protesting people, this is true. But, what if the mode of our protest was through the unstoppable creation of a beauty that everyone actually longs to see?
As I left the Paramount and stepped out onto Congress Avenue, my heart was full of hope. A choir had reminded me of the power of counter-cultural songs of protesting beauty, and as I carried my sleeping daughter to our car, my heart was emboldened by the thought that I had perhaps given her a glimpse into how she could oppose the ugly systems of the world by living a beautiful life, a kingdom life, a life of protest.