“Get Up, Stand Up!” – Song of Protest, Pentecost, and Empire

The first thing that came to my mind when I thought of music that echoed the themes of protest and resistance was Rastafarian music. The spirit(uality) of Rastafarian music can be discerned in its questioning of hegemony and in its powerfully evocative lyrics insinuating non-compliance with the Empire. The song “Get up, Stand up” written in the early 1970’s by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh within a socio-political context of colonialism, racism, Christian fundamentalism and economic imperialism advocates for justice and the need to fight for it. What is also striking is the song’s critique of a politicized faith and an apolitical religion that is defined by personal piety and afterlife events, thus negating life and its struggles in the present. While the context of its composition and context of interpretation and appropriation differs, the demonic spirit of the Empire and its sub-empires continue to torment people across time and space. Yet, I believe the Spirit is imbedded, alive and active in the song as it is anti-hegemonic, earthly and transgressive.

I would like to reflect on this song drawing inspiration from its echoes of the anthem of resistance, focusing on empire from my context. If empire can be understood as a dominating system exercising control over people and communities, the social and political ideologies of the empires of heteropatriarchy (male heterosexual dominance) and economic imperialism needs annihilation. The queer community is one of the most discriminated-against communities in India. They are criminals to the law, outcasts to society and an abomination to religion. In fact, women and children are no less a victim under this Empire. The recent gruesome rapes of an eleven-year old, an eight-year old and an eight-month old in various parts of India validate its venomous character. Also, the silent protests staged by farmers in the state of Maharashtra to question the unfair economic policies and to seek the right to own lands is reminiscent of imperial violations. It is in this context that the words “Get up, Stand up” take meaning. The protests staged by the “downpressed” (Rastafarian word for oppressed) for their rights echoes the need to fight for justice. If heteropatriarchy – a ‘divinely-ordered’ system of oppression – has always been the bedrock of religion, capitalism is no less. The rhetoric of a politicized Empire-bound faith – the idea of heaven as a reward for the suffering (women – to honour the Divine by capitulating to men at all times, the poor – to partake in a nation’s progress by ‘relinquishing’ their bodies and lands, and the queers – who are advised by the religious faithful to abandon their sexuality for a greater otherworldly cause) negates the earthliness of lived realities, and the song rightfully alludes to this religious vacuity. Every protest – fight for human rights – is a conscious spiritual practice that rejects the status quo and reverses the social order.

How can the spirit of Pentecost be appropriated to these contexts? The Spirit came upon all ‘flesh’ (yes, as against the ‘spirit’), and all ‘flesh’ came from socially unstable backgrounds. The spirit of the Pentecost does not lie in coming together and speaking one language, as the Empire wants, but in speaking their own. The Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit made the vulnerable agents of justice and transformation. Likewise, today’s vulnerable – the women, the queers and the farmers – “stand up” to break cultural, gender and economic assumptions and discriminations. And just as Peter reminded the people of their actions against the violated one – Jesus, the vulnerable communities of today remind us that our actions (and silence) have violated many as well. (I digress from my context to another and state this: On the day of Pentecost Peter stood up and spoke to the people in Jerusalem. Two thousand years later several Peters stood up, spoke and shouted in and around Jerusalem. The Peter of the Bible questioned the Empire of his time; the Peters of today, of Palestine, question theirs. They draw our attention to the violated women, men and children brutally killed. Jesus is being killed all over again). The unity and the voice of the subaltern, empowered by the Spirit, remind us of every violation and subsequently expunge every power, every Empire.

As my fellow-seminarian Yajenlemla Chang says, “Protests are […] sources of fellowship with the divine – whose righteousness and justice […] permeates all aspects of life.” To live we protest; to protest we live. The event of the Pentecost and the anti-imperial song galvanizes action – to “Get up, Stand up” and confront the Empire – like Peter did, like the Rastafarians did, and like the vulnerable and subaltern communities do. The spirituality of the Pentecost lies in the Spirit’s life-affirming act of empowerment and in the defiance of the “downpressed” against inhuman and unjust power structures. The Pentecost reminds us that where the Spirit is, there is freedom; freedom from the shackles of the Empires of today.

P.S. This article was written for Council for World Mission’s Pentecost reflections on Empire. The content here has been edited. For CWM’s Pentecost publication click here. To listen to the song “Get Up, Stand Up” click here.


[Image by Jackie Ramirez from Pixabay]

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