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‘Radical truth teller’
Question of the Day
Singer-songwriter Derek Webb, formerly a member of the contemporary Christian band Caedmon’s Call, won rave reviews for his 2005 solo album, “Mockingbird,” which dealt with themes of war, politics and social justice.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Webb, whose most recent release is “The Ringing Bell”:
Question: What is your relationship with Sojourners, an organization that expresses Christian commentary on faith, politics and culture?
Answer:Sojourners seems to be about people who think spiritually and yet socially. They see the implications of spiritual ideas in terms of social action. I definitely make those connections as an artist. There is a natural connection that has happened between us over the years.
Q: What are the tattoos on your arm?
A: It’s 16th-century church history. I didn’t go to college, but I’ve studied a bit of church history over the years. It’s kind of fascinating to me. It was a remarkable point in the history of the church … being called back to standing on the Bible as its rule of faith.
Q: Where do you think the church is now?
A: The world is in such a remarkable moment in terms of wealth, technology and poverty and all these things colliding. In the West, we have a luxury of taking time to respond to our neighbors. There are people whose lives we are tied to in a lot of senses.
The church should be the first in line to go and act and speak on behalf of the world’s poor. The church is the only institution on the planet that has the moral imperative, the actual command, to go and love the poor. That this is how we show what we believe to people. And yet the church has been very slow to act. It’s been kind of in the back of the line in terms of Africa. It’s taken an Irish rock star to rally the church to really want to do anything.
I’m a follower of Jesus and yet when you look at what He said … there are all these laws and commandments. You keep them or don’t keep them. You are either right or wrong. [But] when asked point-blank what are the most important things we are supposed to do, Jesus said: to love God and to love your neighbor.
When asked, “Who are my neighbors?” He tells a story that basically makes it into the same command as loving your enemies. Love the people who hate you, who oppose you, who seek to do you harm. Love those people. Take care of those people. Also your neighbors as well.
People are worried about alcohol and dancing and cursing and smoking and all these moral outward things. Jesus would say there are two commands that are the context through which you do everything else you’re going to do.
I think the church is slowly, but steadily, coming to life, in terms of what her role is in the global conversation, in terms of wealth and poverty, war and peace. The church has things to say about these topics. She has been very silent for a long time, and she is starting to speak.
Q; What role does your music play in bringing social justice?
A: I feel like it’s my job to write as honestly as I can. Just really trust my instincts and artistically spill my guts. Whoever resonates with what happens are the people who come to shows. Who those people are isn’t really my concern. My music is purely instinctive. Whatever I am compelled by, these are the things I write music about. It is the way I communicate. I have a certain kind of spirit. I have always been kind of a rebellious kid. Growing up, I was a real trouble case. It has been a process to learn, “What are the right things to rebel against?”
A mother and her children who have to walk 15 miles a day every day to get dirty water to put into their bodies with a broken immune system that will eventually kill them is the right thing to rebel against. That’s why I’m here, working with people like Sojourners. That’s why I’ve got a lot of really strong ties with organizations like Blood: Water Mission, who are building wells in Africa.
The music I write comes right out of that. As far as I feel I have a responsibility personally, my music will reflect that.
Q: Do you like the book of Micah with its theme of social justice?
A: Prophets were never very popular. There were no celebrity prophets. They were the guys whose job it was to be really radical truth tellers. That was their job. That’s why they weren’t very popular. They would come into the city and they would tell the truth to everybody. Nobody wanted to hear that. I think that any artist, any follower of Jesus that has gifts for creativity, has a certain responsibility of being a radical truth teller. There is a certain work that comes with being an artist and being somebody who follows after Jesus.
There is a day coming when there will be no more poverty, no more war, there will be no more hunger, no more thirst, no more disaster or tears. My work as an artist is to put my hands to that day coming today. To pray that day into today. As an artist, I take that work seriously, even if it’s trying to write an excellent song and trying to perform it as well as I can.
Q: Why did you decide to leave Caedmon’s Call to embark on a solo career?
A: After a while I realized that there are too many things I see going on that need to be talked about, that I don’t feel anybody is talking about. There are certain issues. The church is kind of being unequally yoked to a political party, the conservative party, in this country. Why are we not talking about the fact that we as a church have been co-opted? That we’re being played like a puppet in political circles. Why does nobody see this and why does nobody talk about it?
People have kind of made what is a mystical, radical, countercultural way to look at the world … Christianity … into a moralistic, two-dimensional little formula, a little system of living, by which you can make God like you, and feel good about yourself, in terms of your spirituality. … You know there’s a problem when you start to believe it’s a morally distinctive characteristic of being a Christian that you’re the only person at the party not drinking, rather than being the person who is being known for showing love and compassion toward people who disagree with you and seek to do you harm.
By Robert N. Tracci
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