Beast of Burden

Mockingbird Cover“All God’s creatures have a place in the choir,” as the old Bill Staines song reminds us. The question is, who assigns the part and what song does it sing? Yesterday during General Conference there was a protest on the floor calling attention to oppression, violence, and exclusion, but there was something about it that stirred my soul to ponder my uneasiness. It seems that the black body continues to be a beast of burden for both the right and left politic.

From The Faith of a Mockingbird:

Macomb County was certainly divided along racial lines; but on a person-to-person level, people were relatively civil and peaceful to one another. To Kill a Mockingbird forces us think about how our social systems work and how people work together within those systems. For example, we can compare two very different groups—the choir members of First Purchase AME church and the jury members of Tom Robinson’s trial.

First, let’s consider how a choir does what it does. A choir is a collection of vocalists, each using his or her individual voice for the purpose of sharing music. Individual voices are important, but only as they pertain to the group as a whole. The music isn’t always pretty—sometimes discord is purposefully composed into a piece to give it depth and movement. The most important thing is that the individual voices work together as one entity in order to share what the composer has written. There is a beauty in a choir’s purposeful unity that goes beyond the composed harmony. Individual voices, each with their own gifts, are all pointed in the same direction, which offers us a model of how we should come together in unity as diverse children of God.

Hearing a choir sing can be a profound spiritual experience if all goes well. On the other hand, it can be a rather hellish experience when a choir isn’t unified. A single, overpowering voice can stick out and distract from the harmonies of the whole. Other times the sopranos are flat or the basses forget to count or the altos aren’t loud enough. (I believe tenors are a gift from God—they are never wrong.) In these cases, it’s easy to know when someone misses the mark, but it is much more difficult to know when the pitch of an a cappella choir as a whole begins to bend. If an a cappella choir begins in the key of F, but through the course of an unaccompanied piece they mistakenly modulate to the key of E, it is nearly impossible to be able to tell that they are no longer singing what the composer intended. Neither the choir nor the audience can immediately tell when the choir is missing the mark. The only person who can really tell is the one with the tuning fork.

Humans have a knack for getting slightly out of tune and veering away from what our Composer intended. This is why systematic racism and prejudice can sometimes be difficult for us to see. If we aren’t confronted with these issues in our daily lives, it often becomes hard for us to identify with the injustices of the world. Atticus says to Uncle Jack, “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving [race] comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.”[1] Race wasn’t a divisive issue for Atticus like it was for many of Maycomb’s residents, and so Atticus just couldn’t understand their point of view on this issue. If we already consider ourselves “colorblind,” we may dismiss or have trouble identifying with the reality of racial tensions that still occur in our country today. For example, a 2004 University of Chicago study revealed that when job applicants submitted resumes with culturally white names, they received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews over those with culturally black names.[2] And in a study that looked at public schools during the 2011–2012 academic year, 74 percent of high schools in which blacks and Latinos make up a majority of the student body offer Algebra II, as opposed to 83 percent of schools in which whites are a majority.[3] Countless studies attest to the racial inequalities that subtly (and maybe not so subtly) exist in our country today—not to mention the studies conducted about gender inequality and the other races that fill America’s melting pot.

A choir missing the mark is easy to fix. You stop, wait for the conductor to reestablish the key, and start again. A jury that’s missing the mark is much more difficult to discern and even more difficult to correct. A jury’s job is almost counter to a choir’s job. A choir is given a piece of music with the hope they will sing what is written. A jury is given many notes from many perspectives with the task of putting them together into their version of a song of truth. Individually we can make great strides in reconciling racial tension, but sometimes that can cause us to become blind to the collective bias of our differences on a grand scale (end excerpt).

It seems to me that on the right side of the floor the African Delegation is being used as a bargaining chip of political maneuvering to maintain current Disciplinary language on human sexuality (if not to make the language more clearly defined toward hetero-normative). On the left side of the floor the Black Lives Matter movement was coopted to be a Trojan horse for a Queer demonstration that otherwise might have met great resistance. Sitting from the bleachers I feel as if the black body is being used as a beast of burden to plow someone else’s political field. Certainly the African Delegation is against inclusion and there are people of color fighting for gender and sexual inclusiveness, but there seems to be something terribly amiss.

This is why we need the gospel. The gospel is the piece of music that we are called to sing together. We don’t have to guess and barter and weigh truth—instead it is offered to us in the person of Jesus. Even though by definition a jury is never “wrong,” Tom’s conviction is clearly discordant with the gospel’s melody of justice. His story reminds us that every day we must stop, listen to our Conductor, and sing in tune with God and our neighbor as we work, play, and rest.

[1] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960), chapter 9, page 117.

[2] Marianne Bertrand, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” Capital Ideas 4, no. 3 (Spring 2003),

[3] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection: 2011-12, “Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness” (March 2014),


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One Comment

Claude Dumis

Having grown up during the period of time when schools in the South were segregated I can understand the challenges facing the Church that is still very segregated but not required to be that way. I do feel that the Church is missing the Mark when we don’t intentionally strive from the outset to welcome and love ever one without exception the same way that we say we love God. This is the way we show our love for God. Not ever one will be able to hit the mark and no one will have a perfect score but the victory is in the striving. Then we can let God do the Judging.


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