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Good Trouble

Music seems to be playing all the time in our house. Sometimes cello, beginner piano, the blues, or Hamilton, something is always floating in the background. We have been listening to a lot of Rhiannon Giddens' album Freedom Highway especially, though. If you have never heard the album, I highly recommend it. Giddens' album was a nominee for the best album at the Americana Music Awards, and, in 2017, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (usually called a 'genius grant') in response to her musical corpus. The album is wonderful, but we have largely been listening to it because my daughter has realized that when my Kindle tablet is plugged in she can say, "Alexa, play Rhiannon Giddens!" and suddenly the room is filled with the rhythmic pulsing of "At the Purchaser's Option."

Giddens' album is full of themes that can be difficult to talk about. She sings about slavery, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, and the death of young black men that pervade news stories today. In our house, as our children have begun singing lines from the songs, their questions about what the lines mean and why this could happen in the U.S. (whether in the past or the present) have grown increasingly pointed. Finally, my daughter asked the other day, "If these songs are about bad things why does she sing about them?"

Pausing to look up from the dishes and gauge just how seriously she was posing this question, I decided an answer was needed. She had asked her question with a demanding, accusatory finger point that oozed a smug certainty that said, "Bet you can't answer this one old man!" At a bit of a loss, I pulled my best professorial trick out of the bag: "Why do you think she sings about it?"

She shook her head and with no doubt in her voice said, "Because that music is making some good trouble."

"Good trouble" is a phrase that got used a lot in our house this summer. My wife and I were each arrested this past summer. Just after speaking at Synod Assembly, we each participated in acts of civil disobedience on different weeks as part of work being done by the "Poor People's Campaign" in Kansas. The campaign intentionally references the work being done by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 at the time of his death and has, nationally, been led by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Its aim is to inspire a moral revival that, I would say, seeks to evaluate the success of our national discourse and politics based on the the way we uphold fundamental human rights in the face of systemic racism, the war economy, poverty, and ecological devastation. It is a vision that is unsettling in all the right ways. It reorients our ways of being with one another in the world. It is a hope that keeps the impossible, complex problems of the poor in front of our eyes so that we strive for a sense of solidarity that takes us beyond the usual ways we make sense of the world around us.

The Poor People's Campaign continues, but through May and June, it began with 40 days of action; at over 30 state capitols across the nation people engaged in acts of civil disobedience meant to bring attention to these pressing issues that threaten some of our most vulnerable citizens. We talked extensively with our children, employers, and others about why we felt compelled to participate; for me, those conversations were a way of sharing my sense of ultimate concern. It was a way that I could talk with others about those things that so worry me, things that keep me up night, that I would take every other concern I have and subject them to these issues. At the end of the day, that's a decision I can feel at peace with.

Sharing that part of myself, this penetrating, ultimate concern, has not been easy—and I don't think it ever will be easy. My heart pounds, my voice breaks, and I have trouble looking people in the eye as I tell them about why this cause has moved me so deeply. I feel a little bit vulnerable whenever I talk about this experience. What if this person thinks this campaign is stupid? That civil disobedience is a bad idea? That what I did was just a waste of my time and state resources? That people don't really have basic rights like I think of them? Or, what if they agree that this is important, but have a really different sense of what kind of 'moral revival' we need in our state?

Honestly, those sorts of questions come up. Even in congregational communities where we share the courage of a conviction to care for the widow and the orphan, how we care can be the subject of intense disagreement. Yet, I take hope because in every conversation I have had with folks about my decision to participate in the 40 days of action with the Poor People's Campaign, it has opened an avenue for others to talk about their own anxieties regarding the fraying fabric of our communities and the vitriol that too easily passes for discourse today. Maybe it's naïve, but those are the conversations that I think help us begin to make sense of our world in ways we thought otherwise impossible.

In hearing others give voice to their own anxieties, it is the conversations with our children, though, that have been some of the most interesting: especially regarding civil disobedience. Being arrested is a sign—as both kids have well learned in school—that you did something really wrong; that you got into a lot of trouble. Don't we want to stay out of trouble? Without missing a beat when this question came up from our five year old my wife echoed Rep. John Lewis, saying, "Sometimes there's good trouble."

The line cast me back to my own childhood and hearing gospel choirs in Louisiana sing, "Wade in the Water." It's closing line, "God's a-going to trouble the water" references a healing story in John 5. A man waits by a pool that heals the first person who gets into it after an angel comes down and troubles the water. In the case of John's gospel, this curious tradition becomes an opportunity for Jesus to heal a man on the Sabbath who never gets into the water quickly enough. There's a good troubling of the water, a healing troubling, that calls out to us and bids us to reimagine what we think it is possible to heal today.

For whatever memories came back to me, you could see a certain glint in our daughter's eye about this idea, 'good trouble,' that made me think she wasn't remembering lines to a hymn. It wasn't hard to see that this phrase would be coming back out when an opportune time arose. I just didn't know that listening to Rhiannon Giddens was going to provide one of those times. I asked her why those songs we were listening to were making good trouble. After shooting me a withering look that clearly indicated this was a question with an obvious answer, she opined, "When she sings she makes the bad stuff into something good. You have to sing or that can't happen. Like when I sing." Immediately, she launched into her favorite protest chorus by Yara Allen right over the top of Gidden's album.

"Somebody's hurting our children, and it's gone on far too long, and we won't be silent anymore."

Allen's simple tune has been a favorite for my daughter this Summer. She sang it all around Lindsborg riding her bicycle and swinging at the park. I even caught her trying to teach it to a few other children one day. Still, I was a little dumbfounded in this moment as she turned round to play Legos in her room again. For all my own anxieties about the complexity of my concern and communicating that to others, there's a solace in her reminder that we don't need heroic acts. We can all sing up a little 'good trouble' if we just won't be silent anymore.

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