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In the face of a climate crisis, what songs can be sung?

09:05 20/06/2024
In the face of a climate crisis, what songs can be sung?

A guest post from Mark Porter

 

A couple of weeks ago, on 31st May, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz was taking part in a panel discussion at a large Catholic conference in the city of Erfurt in the east of Germany. Around 20 minutes into the discussion, which took place on the stage of the local theatre, a number of climate protestors began to stand up at different points around the audience. As they took their positions and unfurled their banners, the protestors began to disrupt the dynamic of the meeting, loudly calling out questions regarding the government’s handling of the climate crisis. The chancellor, clearly somewhat annoyed by their tactics, responded through the microphone, insisting that they have no right to disturb the discussion through their shouting, and emphasising the need for them to listen.

Applause from the audience served to signal a degree of support for the chancellor’s response to the protest, but as he set out some of the government’s record on these issues, the protestors continued to speak out. The dynamic in the room took on an increasing sense of tension, and eventually the organisers decided to call for a break. As the event staff sought to take back some control and restore a sense of order, attendees began to sing “Lord, give us your peace” and the situation was restored to a state of calm, proceeding further in the way that had originally been planned.

I was not there personally in the theatre that day to witness this unfolding of events, but as reports circulated online regarding the disruption of the meeting, I had a strong gut reaction to what I was reading. Whilst it may not always be considered the most Christian of reactions, it would be fair to say that my initial response to the different reports was one of annoyance, and I tweeted as much a couple of minutes later. I wasn’t annoyed that the event had been disturbed – I had a great deal of sympathy for the project of the protestors. Nor was I particularly surprised at the attempts to shut the protest down – it seemed fairly logical that the organisers would seek to eject anyone who disrupted what they had planned. Instead, it was the last little element in proceedings that really stuck in my mind – the singing of the audience. The musical resources of the Christian faith had been used to back away from a tension, and I wasn’t sure I felt particularly comfortable with the way they had instinctively been put to use in order to do so.

In a moment of protest which was centred around one of the most crucial challenges we are facing as a planet, Christian music had served to establish a sense of solidarity. But it was a solidarity with each-other and those on stage rather than with the concerns of the protestors. It had served to establish a certain sense of peace. But it was a peace of polite political discourse rather than a peace of healing for the earth and for its ecosystems. The gathered audience had drawn on the habits of Christian rituals and practice, and these habits had prepared them to smooth over a moment of dissent, to ally themselves with the speeches of those on the stage, and to allow the event to move on to a different topic of discussion.

Following the chanting, some of those on stage went on to assert the importance of other social issues alongside that of the climate, and the danger that too much focus on a single concern simply serves to polarise the society. In some ways the chanting seems to have reinforced and played into this narrative. Its focus on peace served to draw attention to the unpeacefulness of the protestors’ message, strengthening rather than lessening the fear that too much climate action is simply not something that many in the population are really willing to tolerate either on the part of protestors or on the part of politicians.

So how else might the gathered Catholics have responded to the situation in the Erfurt theatre? What else could they have sung? What other roles could music have served in this situation? This is not an easy question to answer, and there are good reasons why the audience ended up taking the particular route that they decided to go down.

The first, and most obvious alternative might be to imagine what would have happened if the audience had simply switched sides in the conflict, latching onto some of the chants of the wider climate protest movement and insisting on the importance of the disruption. It seems a slightly unlikely scenario given the degree of scepticism that many in the population often possess when it comes to more disruptive forms of protest. More than this, however, in the absence of a specifically Christian protest repertoire it fails to build an immediate connection to the gathered Catholics’ sense of faith and identity. There’s need for a little more creativity than this first alternative might immediately allow for.

Perhaps they could have sung about the way that God’s justice draws together the need for a just society and the needs of the rest of creation. In this scenario, music would be able to draw together both a sense of faith and the issue immediately at hand. At the same time, it could have helped to imagine a world beyond the different social polarisations that the chancellor and moderators seemed so concerned by. Music, here, might have served to unify the audience in solidarity as a group, taking the concerns of the protestors seriously, but seeking to transform the conflict rather than simply smoothing over it. Perhaps this could also have shaped the tone of the further discussion.

Another possibility might have involved singing in sorrow in solidarity with the species that are dying and the ecosystems that are collapsing. In a debate dominated by the concerns of human populations, this could have helped to extend the discussion wider, to change the terms of reference, and to set a mood in which a different mode of discussion might be appropriate. At the same time, it could have served as an emotional intervention in the dynamic of the conflict, focussing on a less-polarising emotional register whilst nevertheless insisting on the deep emotional importance of the issues under discussion.

Neither of these alternatives is perfect, and perhaps both of these possibilities would ultimately have felt somewhat odd or out of place. I still don’t know what the right course of action would have been for the audience back in May or what would have helped this particular group of people and politicians to imagine and embody new alternatives for the future. Part of the reason why this question is not immediately quite so easy to answer is that, despite our growing ecotheological awareness and sensitivity, our existing repertoire and practices often fall short of giving us the resources we need to perform our solidarity with the creation, to speak out for ecological justice as a part of our faith, and to navigate in a productive manner the current tensions that are playing out in our countries and our politics. Indeed, until new ways of imagining and interacting are fully embedded in our repertoire and our rituals none of them will be an automatic resource for us to turn to in these spontaneous moments of reaction and coming together.

Thankfully, a number of different individuals and communities are already beginning to think about how to meet these needs. For the Warming of the Earth is my exploration of some of the different musical possibilities that different Christian communities are trying out in their responses to our growing ecological crisis. Many of them have felt that little niggle that we might need to try out something a little bit different, that our existing musical practices often serve us poorly in grappling with a world in ecological crisis. They have wondered how our ritual practices might potentially change in response the changing world around us and have begun to meet this challenge in creative and interesting ways. From evangelicals writing climate albums to climate protestors singing songs of faith and protest; from composers writing repertoire of ecological grief and mourning to forest churches figuring out how to sing and listen in the presence of trees and non-human beings, they are experimenting and exploring so that our instincts and our habits might one day help us to lean in a different direction.

Our different ritual and musical practices both express and shape the different ways that we have learned to interact with the world around us, and these practices can open us up to confronting the different challenges that we are facing, helping us to imagine new ways of being, feeling, and acting, or they can serve in less productive ways, insulating us from the different crises we need to grapple with, hindering us from engagement, and providing a vision of the world that fails to do full justice to the realities we see around us. The many conversations I engaged with in writing this book have helped me to imagine the possibilities of my faith and worship in new and often inspiring ways, and I hope that the book might help to do the same for others.

***

Mark Porter is a researcher, teacher, and musician with a long-standing interesting in Christian musical practices. He currently works at the University of Erfurt in Germany.

For the Warming of the Earth: Music, Faith and Ecological Crisis is published this month, and available to order via our website.