Alicia Keys is right. We gotta pray.
Keys released We Gotta Pray following a Staten Island grand jury decision not to indict a white New York police officer for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a stranglehold. The Staten Island decision was the second decision in a matter of weeks that sparked protests and raised questions about racism, law enforcement and the administration of justice in the United States. Keys tweeted that she had written the lyrics sometime ago, but “the lyrics have never meant more to me than during this time.”
The video that accompanies We Gotta Pray conveys a powerful message about systemic injustice around the world in modern times. The video maintains a hopeful tone through images that depict prayer and peaceful protest. The inclusion of archival photographs of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi remind viewers that change is possible.
Taken together, the lyrics and the video express the belief that all individuals have an extraordinary capacity to become agents for change, a change that begins in the heart with the transformation of one’s attitudes and behaviours.
The video references two quotations that drive this message home. A quotation from Gandhi emphasizes forgiveness: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Another, from Martin Luther King Jr., speaks of loving your enemy as a pathway to peace: “Non-violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
While listeners posting comments on music sites received We Gotta Pray favourably, reaction to the release was mixed on YouTube. The number of racist and intolerant comments posted there surprised me. The racism went both ways, against blacks and against whites, and many comments expressed intolerance of religion.
These narrow-minded comments, ironically, expose the need for artistic expressions, like this one, that capture both the failure and success of humanity to rise above its ignorance and hardness of heart.
The message of We Gotta Pray is a good reminder of the “reason for the season” that we are celebrating now. During the Christmas season, goodwill, random acts of kindness and messages of “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth” abound for at least a few days. But, in order to carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the world as a force for transformation, “we gotta pray” for that change of heart if we want “to get ourselves back to the garden,” to quote from another protest song.
While the lessons of human history teach us that there is no easy way back, no quick fix to repair the brokenness of human relationships, a visit to a stable where a babe is laying in a manger may help to orient our hearts in the right direction.
In the manger where the tiny, perfect, yet utterly helpless babe lays, we recognize that we too are vulnerable, and that we hold within our self a tremendous potential for goodness. Through the diversity of the group gathered around the manger — in the baby’s Jewish parents, in the poor shepherds, and in the rich Magi of the East who come from a different religious tradition — we experience equality and mutual respect. We discover the graciousness of God who welcomes and honours us without distinction based on race, religion or socio-economic status.
In the Gospel of Luke, angels announce the news of the birth of this extraordinary baby to shepherds in a field, and they link the birth to peace on earth and among people.
In one of his homilies for Advent, papal preacher Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, reflected on the relationship between Christmas and peace. With that little babe, a new age began for humanity. The coming of Jesus teaches us “the first peace is the vertical, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. From it depend all other forms of peace.” This peace comes not only from the subsequent death of Jesus on the cross, said Cantalamessa, but also from the gift of grace that came into the world with his birth.
Grace and peace are the gifts waiting for us at the stable. These are the gifts that lead us to a conversion of the heart and that can guide us back to the garden. But, we gotta pray.
Trail, B.C., resident Louise McEwan is a freelance writer, religion columnist and catechist. She has degrees in English and theology and is a former teacher. She blogs at www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca. Reach her at email@example.com