Billie Holiday & What We Can/Can’t Say

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In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit.” It is a protest song against racism and addresses lynching African-Americans. A longer analysis is available here.

During the 1940s, some establishment people objected to the subject matter. Her label refused to record it because they feared southern retailers would object. So, she recorded it elsewhere.

In different eras, some people avoided certain subjects. These include racism, abortion, same-sex relationships, and the environment.

What has changed?

In some sense, nothing has changed. I was speaking with another minister recently. This person shared two versions of an upcoming sermon. One version addressed the dispute between Tlaib and Omar and Trump. The other version used a different example.

The reason this person dropped the Tlaib-Omar-Trump story is a purple congregation. That is, the congregation consists of democrats (blue) and republicans (red). Together, they are purple. Any negative reference to one politician appears to be an endorsement of the other. Thus, there are still topics that we avoid if we do not want a conflict.

What can we say?

First, the other minister made the right choice. Second, baby steps. If politicians are out of bounds, discuss social issues. If social issues are too controversial, use agreeable historic social issues. During WWII, the Nazis were the baddies. Period. Speaking or preaching against the Holocaust should not cause anyone to shut down. It’s not controversial.

From there, discourse can continue. Other social issues can creep in. Handled with deft sensitivity, people might get used to applying faith to contemporary questions. An awareness of where the other person is coming from is essential. Love people where they are.

Sometimes Love Speaks

After worship one Sunday, a man wanted to speak with me. He was a first-time visitor and told me how much the service meant to him. As we talked, he said he was happy to be at a Bible-based church. I thanked him. Then, in a hushed tone, he said, “You know, some Baptist churches let women preach.”

I tried to laugh it off. I said, “Well, if God calls someone to preach, then who am I to question it?”

It was that period after church when I am shaking hands. I’m available. But, it is not the best opportunity for deep conversations. Several people were waiting to speak to me. (Aside: I’m always happy to schedule a time to meet with someone.) He said, “Well, there are also Baptist that let same-sex couples in.”

I could not laugh it off. I said, “We are one of those churches. Everyone is welcome and can take part here.”

Billie Holiday threatened the establishment by singing truth about racism. People did not want to deal with the embarrassing reality of lynchings. Sometimes we have to say what we think we cannot say.

The man who visited my church did not come back. I’m sorry. I would have loved to have an indepth conversation about biblical covenant relationships. We could have discussed the growth in understanding human sexuality. I might have learned from him. I hope I could have been open enough to do that. But, we never had the chance.

We are all on a journey together.

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