Alicia Keys is right. “We gotta pray.”
Keys released We Gotta Pray after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a white New York police officer for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a stranglehold. The Staten Island decision was the second decision in a matter of weeks that sparked protests and raised questions about racism, law enforcement and the administration of justice in the United States. Keys tweeted that she had written the lyrics sometime ago, but “the lyrics have never meant more to me than during this time.”
While fans posted favorable comments on music sites, We Gotta Pray received a mixed reaction on YouTube, where more than a few intolerant and racist comments appeared. These comments, ironically, expose the need for artistic expressions, like this one, that capture both the failure and success of humanity to rise above its ignorance and hardness of heart.
We Gotta Pray conveys a message about change
The video version of We Gotta Pray conveys a powerful message about systemic injustice around the world in modern times. The video maintains a hopeful tone through images that depict prayer and peaceful protest. The inclusion of archival photographs of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Gandhi remind viewers that change is possible. Taken together, the lyrics and the video communicate the message that all individuals have an extraordinary capacity to become agents for change, a change that begins in the heart with the transformation of one’s attitudes and behaviors.
The video references two quotations that drive this message home. A quotation from Gandhi emphasizes forgiveness, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Another, from Martin Luther King Jr., speaks of loving your enemy as a pathway to peace, “Non violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him”.
To carry the spirit of Christmas forward, we gotta pray for a change of heart
The message of We Gotta Pray is a good reminder of the ‘reason for the season’ that we are preparing to celebrate. During the Christmas season, goodwill, random acts of kindness and messages of “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth” abound for at least a few days. But, in order to carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the world as a force for transformation, “we gotta pray” for that change of heart if we want “to get ourselves back to the garden”, to quote from another protest song.
While the lessons of human history teach us that there is no easy way back, no quick fix to repair the brokenness of human relationships, a visit to a stable where a babe is laying in a manger may help to soften our hearts.
At the stable we discover our potential for goodness
In the Christmas story as retold in the Gospel of Luke, angels link the birth of this baby to peace on earth and among people. Papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa reflected on the relationship between Christmas and peace in a recent Advent homily. The coming of Jesus ushers in a new age for humanity and teaches us “the first peace is the vertical, between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. From it depend all other forms of peace.” This peace comes not only from the subsequent death of Jesus on the cross, said Cantalamessa, but also from the gift of grace that came into the world with his birth.
In the manger where a tiny, perfect, yet utterly helpless babe lays, we recognize that we too are vulnerable, and that we hold within our self a tremendous potential for goodness. Through the diversity of the group gathered around the manger - in the baby’s Jewish parents, in the poor shepherds, and in the rich magi of the East who come from a different religious tradition - we experience equality and mutual respect. We gain insight into the way of peace as we discover the graciousness of God who welcomes and honors us without distinction based on race, religion or socio-economic status.
Grace and peace are the gifts waiting for us at the stable. These are the gifts that lead us to a conversion of the heart and that can guide us back to the garden. But, we gotta pray.