Can Music Stop a Bullet?
Why Guilt is a Terrible Motivator for Social Justice
Imagine a country where abortion is illegal, where the church has a prominent role in shaping the culture’s sexual behavior, and where “government” and “handouts” are two words rarely used together. While that might sound like some future GOP utopia, it’s not.
It’s present day Honduras.
Virtually any type of abortion is illegal in Honduras. Catholicism is the country’s dominant religion, and many parishioners find the church’s prohibition of contraception easier to follow than the church’s prohibition of sex outside of marriage. Which leads to a lot of single mothers with children and a government that offers no welfare system to help.
Which is in part how I found myself at an orphanage in a secluded village east of Tegucigalpa.
“I was talking to a girl whose graduate research is interviewing pregnant women in Tegucigalpa who weren’t necessarily planning to get pregnant,” said my friend Ben, who moved to Honduras in 2014. Ben and I have known each other since high school. We were housemates during seminary in Pennsylvania and roommates during a summer ministry internship in Mexico.
“They got pregnant for three main reasons,” he said. “They felt that using contraception was prohibited by the church, the guy didn’t want to use a condom, or they were told that birth control would do harmful things to their body.”
Hogar de Buen Pastor, the children’s home where Ben ministers to orphans ages 0–18, houses about 100 kids. Ben told me that many of the children know their birth mother and perhaps even see them at Christmas. It’s just that their birth mother already has several other children from multiple absentee fathers and couldn’t have possibly taken care of another. So they turn to the orphanage. Remember there’s no legal abortion, welfare system, or Department of Child Protection.
The orphanage is currently at maximum capacity.
I shadowed Ben for a few days. He works many roles at the children’s home: teacher, mentor, coach, supervisor, and father. I got the sense that his job is really rewarding but really difficult. I had to ask him, “You’ve been here for 2 years now. Does life here feel normal to you?”
“Honestly it does,” he said.
“But do you still compare it to life in the States?”
“I know most people would probably look at what I’m doing in terms of what I’m giving up, but I try to view it in terms of what I’m called to,” he said. “What I’m doing here feels like what I was made to do.”
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — James 1:27
Ben’s exactly right. He’s quite literally carrying out God’s definition of religion. When you think about it, isn’t it ironic Ben has to make prayer cards? Pray for Ben, ministering to the fatherless in Honduras. If you weren’t aware, it’s customary in Christendom to make and distribute prayer cards when you’re going to do something abnormal. Growing up, when my youth group from small-town Pennsylvania took a missions trip to New York City, we made prayer cards. Ben gave up a full time job to work with orphans. Definitely not status quo. Better make some prayer cards.
I’ve been a part of several churches in my lifetime, and I’m always asked to be able to articulate what I believe, agree to a doctrinal statement, and “keep myself from being polluted by the world,” but I’ve never been asked about or held accountable for the amount of time or resources I spend ministering to the vulnerable. Perhaps that’s why Ben moving to a developing nation to minister to the fatherless seems so, abnormal — even though God’s concern for the vulnerable is threaded throughout Scripture. (I’m indebted to Generous Justice by Tim Keller for opening my eyes.)
“I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. — Malachi 3:5
It’s easy to feel guilty after spending a week at an orphanage. I felt guilty landing in Miami, looking out the airplane window at the pristine neighborhoods and perfectly symmetrical interstate cloverleaves. We have it made here.
I felt guilty as I was unpacking my luggage. I have so much stuff.
I felt guilty as I returned to cell phone reception and checked my bank account to see a direct deposit had cleared. I’m making more in one paycheck than most of the people I just visited make in the course of a year.
But it goes deeper too. I feel guilty about the interests and studies I’ve pursued when I visit a developing nation, or hear news out of Aleppo, or compare myself to others who are actually on the front lines making a difference. I majored in music, why didn’t I choose being a defense lawyer or a non profit consultant or a doctor?
It’s the same sentiment that Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble expresses in the documentary The Music of Strangers as he reflects on his relative life of ease in America all while feeling helpless as his homeland is torn apart by war: “Can music stop a bullet?”
I sympathize with that restlessnes. After watching the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, I spoke with a lawyer friend. “Seeing how much effect a lawyer or a documentarian can have on helping the poor makes me wish I was doing something other than retail finance.”
“I feel the same way,” my friend replied.
“But you are a lawyer?”
“Yeah, a corporate lawyer. Maybe I should have been a defense lawyer.”
Perhaps we all feel guitly at times. But guilt is a terrible motivator.
If guilt motivates us to engage with the poor and marginalized we do really stupid things. Because we won’t be doing it for the right reason. We’ll be expending ourselves to make ourselves feel better.
One day, while visiting one of my retail accounts, I inquired about a “Buy a Mattress, Give a Mattress” flyer. “Don’t get me started,” the associate said. “The company just wants a photo opp. Last week, we crammed our team into this lady’s tiny apartment and paraded her and her kid in front of the camera so we could pat ourselves on the back for how much we care. But no one seemed to care how uncomfortable the lady felt having us all jammed in there. And that mattress we donated cost us next to nothing.”
When guilt motivates us, we’ll start to think that if our hashtag activism gets enough shares and likes that excuses us from getting our hands dirty.
We Millennials will call out the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers for their pursuit of material things because of enlightening trips we were able to take via our parent’s credit card.
We’ll justify the amount that we give not based on a standard of generosity and sacrifice but on the standard of “other people don’t do anything.”
We’ll spend $3,000 on plane tickets to hand out $300 worth of goods, and unwittingly put the locals out of business.
We’ll think our “I Voted” sticker exempts us from “I Visited.”
Or we’ll simply do nothing.
Ben wasn’t motivated to move to Honduras because of guilt. For him, Honduras just made sense. It synthesized his training, talents, and passions. He already had a working knowledge of Spanish, a love for soccer, and a soft spot for people in general. Did I mention he also knows how to build a railroad?
Ben is also a bit of a local celebrity. I watched him score a goal for the village soccer team he plays for, and within a few hours the whole town knew about it. No seriously, we’d pull over on the rocky, narrow road to let a truck pass and the driver would see it was Ben and ask him about the goal. (It probably helps a little bit that Ben is the only gringo in the league.)
Guilt causes you to look at the things God has given you and ask why do I have this? Gratefulness causes you to look at the things God has given you and ask how can I use this?
Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian clarinettist I mentioned earlier discovered what that looked like by the end of the documentary. He travels to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan teaching recorder to refugee children.
Can music stop a bullet? No. But it can bring hope to a child in the bleakest situation as evidenced by the smiles we see spread across each of the children’s faces as they finish playing their first Syrian folk song. It was a powerful scene that perfectly illustrates what C. S. Lewis wrote:
[Art] “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
Not all of us are equipped to be teachers doubling as international soccer stars in the village of Zamorano, Honduras, or criminal defense lawyers in New York, or UN Peacekeepers on the front lines in Jordan. Some are. But that should inspire us, not paralyze us — just like the Olympics should inspire us to hit the gym, not demoralize us to eat McDonald’s.
Remember that Jesus ennobles even the seemingly trivial task of giving someone a cup of cold water in His name (Matthew 10:42). And James commends the often unnoticed act of visiting a widow. So ask yourself, how can I use my abilities, training, and passions to serve the vulnerable — the fatherless in our schools, the widows in our churches, the immigrants in our workplaces, and the poor in our cities?
Imagine what Christians could accomplish if they felt as motivated to help the vulnerable outside the womb during non-election years as they do the vulnerable inside the womb during election years. Because if Honduras teaches us anything, it’s that a country with strict abortion laws doesn’t end marginalization as much as shift it.
If you don’t know where to start, take James literally. Visit. Spend time with the fatherless or with a widow. See where it leads. One of my musician friends is giving free concerts in nursing homes during the holidays. Others in my church have helped partner with and launch a NYC chapter of Safe Families for Children, an organization that supports single parent households to prevent children from being sent to foster care. Another friend started a non-profit that uses the arts to raise awareness of human rights issues around the globe. Last week our church heard from Avail, a pregnancy center in NYC. Another friend used his blog to try to better understand what led some women to have an abortion.
I volunteer at Operation Exodus, an after school and Saturday program for at risk Latino youth in Washington Heights. Many of the students come from single parent homes. Operation Exodus believes that early intervention with a focus on literacy and career focus can help keep kids from joining gangs, getting involved in drugs, ending up as another statistic in our prison system, and perpetuating the cycle of broken homes. I’ve been mentoring there for the past two years, and I often question how much of a difference I’m making. Some days, I have to hope that Jesus also ennobles the act of cleaning up a cup of cold water given in His name, then spilled all over the floor in His name by one of my 5th graders. Results aren’t always immediate, but I know God is working.
God has placed you in the community you’re in and gifted you with specific interests, training, and passions to serve the marginalized in multifaceted ways. Whether you choose to serve with a clarinet, a colander, or a career is for you to decide.
But for Christ’s sake, do something.