At General Assembly, a music leader gave a heartfelt plea for us to be more creative in our use of imagery in music. “Standing on the Side of Love,” she said, is a wonderful song but unintentionally hurtful to those who cannot stand. She urged us to be more poetic. For example, she suggested that sitting is a powerful image for taking a strong position. This is true, but does not resolve the problem she raised, since there are people who cannot sit.
I have given this a lot of thought in the past, and where it has led me has been to songs that have no metaphor whatsoever, including the “dead metaphors” that characterize so much of our language (e.g., in “I have given this a lot of thought,” the verb “give” is a dead metaphor). I have considered some of the most basic metaphors we use in our hymns and other songs and who is excluded by them, and I must differ with the speaker’s confidence that we will be able to find, create, or rework lyrics that include everyone.
Vision imagery leaves some people out; some people cannot see.
Hearing imagery leaves some people out; some people cannot hear. (I have always liked “From All the Fret and Fever of the Day” for its use of deafness as a positive attribute, calling on us to be “deaf to all confusing outer din.” But it goes on to say, “Intently listen to the voice within.”)
If we want to be sensitive to those who cannot speak, we should avoid imagery about raising our voices in speech or song. Songwriters love to urge us to sing, but some people can’t voice any sounds, so all imagery of singing should be avoided.
Many people cannot have children or grandchildren, and are grieved by that. We should avoid phrases like “for the children of our children” (“Circle Round for Freedom”).
Some people cannot walk, march, or run a race, and replacing those words with “go” is no help. Some people cannot go anywhere. They live their entire lives hooked to machinery in a bed. “Come and go with me to that land” is no more sensitive to such folks than “We are marching in the light of God.”
In fact, we should avoid journey imagery.
About all that is left to us, the only attributes that apply to every living human being, are that we breathe and our hearts beat. Not without assistance, in some cases, so “Just as long as my heart beats” (Hymn #6) is probably a painful phrase for some to hear, but we could use those images without actually excluding anyone.
The other avenue still open to us is to skip imagery about human beings altogether. In the same service in which this issue was raised, we sang the rousing hymn,
Ain’t you got a right
Aint you got a right
Ain’t you got a right
To the tree of life?
No problems there, in the chorus. The verses were chock-full of imagery such as people on a journey, though.
The fact is that we would have a very short list indeed if we really eradicated all songs that refer to abilities that some of us lack. I suggest that instead of walling ourselves into that corner, we take a different approach. From my own experiences I find that the language makes little difference if we do two things.
First, we use a wide variety of images to portray human experience. They won’t all fit mine, but because we’re using a variety, many of them will, and it will be okay.
Second, and by far the more important: we make our communities places that welcome and celebrate all people, regardless of their abilities in all of these areas. In my experience, songs touch on a nerve of mine when the nerve has already been stomped on by the community. When the community practices justice on all these points, and many songs reflect my experience, the occasional use of imagery that might otherwise seem exclusive just seems irrelevant. Being one of the temporarily able-bodied, I can only extrapolate from my other identities to imagine how I would feel–how I will feel–when I am unable to walk, or talk, or hear, so please correct me if I am missing something.
By the way, the best music-and-sensitivity advice I heard all week came from Fred Small, who led a workshop on songleading and advised us not to identify the origin of a song only in the case of “minority” music, but in all cases (or none). As he pointed out, when we say “This song is from the African-American tradition,” but we don’t say of the next one, “This song is from the Irish tradition,” we imply that Irish is the norm and African-American is a special case. Amen.