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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