Chant and the oppressed

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As I read a very challenging article by Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis here, I thought of what I had written more than ten years ago after a personal pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel with a friend. Here is one part of the journal I wrote.


The night before I left for my pilgrimage, I watched a documentary film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who was killed in 1945 for his role in resisting Hitler.

The failure of the Christian community to resist Hitler, especially the timidity of the Catholic Church in Germany, has played an important role in my commitment to justice since my early years in college in the mid-sixties.

One phrase of Bonhoeffer’s in the video particularly touched me that night. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

I love chant and much medieval music. The music seems to give us a glimpse of the heavenly realm.

As I prepared to leave I wondered whether this statement might need to be expanded – “Only the one who cries out for the Jews and the Palestinians may sing Gregorian chant.”

But I wondered whether that might be pushing things.

The first day in Bethlehem, after visiting the Grotto of the Nativity, Omar and I went to St. Catherine’s, the attached Roman Catholic church. We passed into the crypt where we passed the tombs of the Holy Innocents and went to the chapel of the cave of St. Jerome, where he translated the bible into Latin.

It was almost noon and the Franciscan friars were preparing for prayer. We approached the grotto and were stopped by the door that led from the crypt. We turned, went upstairs to the church of St. Catherine’s and began to leave. As we left the friars were beginning to chant.

Truly, I thought, “Only the person who cries out for the oppressed – the Palestinians and others – may sing Gregorian chant.”

A few days later, visiting Jerusalem we stopped into the Church of Saint Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s an old Crusader church built in the twelfth century, on the grounds of the ruins of the pool of Bethsaida. It served for a time as a Muslim school but is now a church on the ground of the seminary of the Missionaries of Africa. As I entered the church I heard Omar humming and was astounded at the acoustics. I sang a few notes and realized that there is an incredible reverberation in the church, up to seven seconds someone later told me.

I wanted to sing a chant. All I could think of was the Regina Coeli, an Easter hymn in honor of Mary. This was quite fitting I later realized since this church was on the site of the house of Ann, the mother of Mary, and there is a shrine to Mary’s birth on the crypt.

As I sung, I heard my voice echoing in the vaults – my prayer continued by the stones. When I stopped singing, the sound continued. The prayer echoed in the church and it echoed in my heart.

That night in a conversation with the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem I shared my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s challenge.

But only a month later did I realize what I had done that day in East Jerusalem. In occupied land I sang chant. Had I, by singing chant, unwittingly committed myself to cry out for the Palestinians?

So I will continue to sing chant – but I will raise my voice even more for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. For only if you speak up for the oppressed may you dare to sing the praises of God.

May my chant and my cries of protest echo as forcefully as the hymn in Saint Anne’s.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem


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