Some years ago “shut up and sing” became a rallying cry for those who believe artists should remain silent on political issues. “Art is about beauty,” the syllogism goes, “therefore, artists should focus on their craft and leave the ugly details of politics to those who know best- the powerful rich.”
When the disaster in Haiti happened some years back, the cry went out for prayers and charity from churches all over our nation. But the handful of sermons that actually addressed the issue of why the island is poor, were accused of mixing religion and politics. The consensus is clear: churches are to pray for our troops and remain silent on war. We are to give charity to the poor and remain silent on why there are poor. The mandate is not hard to figure out- “shut up and pray.”
Picasso was once criticized for being political in his art. He made an interesting reply that I will paraphrase: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if a painter or ears if a musician? On the contrary, an artist is, at the same time, a political being, constantly alert to the heart rending, burning, or happy events in the world.”
“No,” Picasso went on, “art is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war, for attack and defense against the enemy.” His sentiment may be close to what Jesus meant when he said, “I’ve come not to bring peace but a sword.” The “sword” of love is a blistering ruthlessness against all that is inhuman, even if religion is the source of that inhumanity.
It is not enough for a Christian to love peace; we must also hate and dismantle that which makes for war. It is not enough to love the poor; we must wage war on the economic systems and the political structures that enslave any part of the human family. We must wage war on every ideology that plucks out the eyes of its believers, even if that ideology is our own.
The murals we see painted in an inner city, the butterflies carved on the walls on concentration camps, are not only appeals to beauty, they are cries for justice, which means a beauty all can share. If art is more than songs in the background and paintings on the wall, certainly religion must be more than weekly hymns and rituals. The “sword” Jesus puts in a Christian’s hand is a lifelong struggle, an endless revolution on behalf of the weak and vulnerable, that they too might know beauty.