The Psalters: Unsanitary Allegiance

Published in Geez Magazine | Fall 2008 (Issue 11) | Circulation: 1,500

It’s the day before Canada Day – less than a week before July 4 – and border guards have stopped a big black bus as it crosses the frontier between the two countries. Dreadlocks, piercings. Boxes full of anti-capitalist and anti-war literature. Fireworks. Cases full of vegetable oil, “dripping out the back” from the fuel lines.

“Any of you ever been arrested?” the officer asks. There’s an awkward pause as the mood points towards a reluctantly offered “no,” until one by one each passengers offers their confession: “Well, yes, I have been arrested a few times.” (All of them for political direct action, “neat stuff,” they laugh). The guard makes fun of them, pokes through the boxes and becomes genuinely excited about what this touring “theological circus” is all about. And, surprisingly, waves them through.

Dumpster dive, join the feast

This is the Psalters, a band of misfits and Christian radicals who travel on their ‘Big Black Bus,’ offering their music for free in churches, bars, coffee shops, studios and wherever people will have them. Geez caught up with two of their members, Jay Beck and Scott Krueger, as they tour with authors Shane Claiborne, Chris Haw and their new book, Jesus for President.

I mention their song “Dumpster Dive,” a bluegrass hymn the Psalters co-wrote with Claiborne about finding communion in the urban wilderness, specifically in garbage bins. The chorus – chanted out from a wall of banjo, harmonica and raucous percussion – proclaims: “Come now and join the feast / From the greatest to the very least … Right here in the belly of the beast / Cops and soldiers, you can come too / Just lay down your guns and come on through.”

The song is featured on their album Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles, an expansive collective of Psalters anthems which traces the ancient liturgical service of the early church, with musical styles evoking nomadic cultures, Middle Eastern rhythms, monastic chanting and, yes, bluegrass.

In a Christian music scene dominated by catchy tunes, poppy fluff imitating hit radio, and a cookie-cutter message of personal salvation (or, at its indie fringes, well-packaged if edgy testimonies of redemption), the Psalters are something else completely – a ragged band of misfits who sing, lament, prophesy, admonish and praise, all the while seeking ways out of what they call “Empire,” comparing today’s economic and political realities with the Rome of Jesus’ time.

The Psalters vision began in 1993, when Krueger read about King David’s temple musicians, or ‘psalters,’ who performed sacred music and played in the midst of dramatic changes and struggles for the Hebrew people. He began researching the passion, struggle and sounds of the original psalters, and by 1998 had gathered enough musicians around his vision to release the band’s debut album, Prayers to Be, which offered praise music defiant of pretty much every contemporary worship standard. The next year, the band appeared at Cornerstone, a major alternative Christian festival in the U.S. One of the Psalters albums came in a cloth bag and featured a small chime for people to bring to concerts and join in.

“Music has always been central to our faith,” Krueger told Geez. “When the church needed to move, needed to change and needed to grow in a direction towards God and away from the sins of the culture and church at the time – a lot of times it was music that expressed the need for exodus, to move towards Christ and away from the sins of the culture. We’re trying to resurrect that tradition of prophetic music.”

In a multi-million dollar Christian music industry – surrounded by a multi-billion dollar dominant culture – the Psalters are a tough sell. Pledging their allegiance not to nation-state but only to God, the band’s ecstatic and noisy music explodes with Kurdish drums, holy wailing, face paint, but even more, a call to give up everything and live with integrity. It’s not just a call for the religious or the radical, but the Psalters make the church a special project for redemption.

“Instead of standing there with Christ – who always aligns Himself with the oppressed and the outcast and the hated – we go and hide,” Krueger says of fellow North American Christians. “It’s as if we’re hiding in trenches and afraid to go out to those battlegrounds and suffer with our Lord and Savior, and suffer with our brothers and sisters in a world that’s hurting.

“That’s critical and central to our faith – walking with each other when we’re hurting. It makes our worship more than noise and clanging cymbals.”

Claiborne, who has known members of the Psalters for about 10 years, says it’s not just their ideas that attract people to this unusual and challenging praise music – it’s the integrity of the Psalters lifestyle and vision.

“What people are drawn to is the authenticity of a group like the Psalters,” he told Geez. “A lot of Christianity is about lip service, but there’s very little to show with our lives.”

The Psalters, he points out, drive everywhere in their big, black-painted bus running on recycled vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels. They offer their music and concerts for free, and spend much of their time with refugee and marginalized populations, whether on the streets of American cities or defying U.S. sanctions in Iraq, as Krueger and fellow Psalter Joshua Szczesniak did on a walk to Baghdad in 2002, risking 12-year prison sentences to visit hospitals, befriend Iraqis and protest the impending invasion.

Citizens of which kingdom?

As a U.S. presidential election looms, and religion is once again hauled out onto the battleground, the Psalters are a reminder to Christians that Jesus was neither Democrat nor Republican. In fact, they acknowledge the irony that the elections are but a convenient excuse for their Jesus for President tour (and their “Jesus for Prime Minister” stop in Toronto, Canada). What they hope to inspire is a new type of allegiance, and a new identity for Christians that they have learned from refugee populations and struggling movements.

“It’s about where our hope and our allegiance lies as a people of God at a time when a lot of people are asking big questions and thinking about change,” Beck said. “Refugee cultures (are) our inspiration for what captures the sound of Christ. You hear Christs’ words: ‘What you do to the least of these you do to me.’ We take that as meaning that’s where he is. So what’s their sound? Where is that exodus cry, that hope of deliverance?”

The Psalters’ “refugee sound” is perhaps what makes their music so challenging for privileged listeners – they have no desire to be mainstream, only to be faithful; this, to some, might seem either inaccessible, or smug. Where is the line between solidarity with the ‘other’ and appropriating another’s culture? And how much can – and should – the privileged strive to identify with the oppressed as we encounter Christ there? These questions haunt the Psalters’ music, and hopefully will haunt all of us reading from within the dominant culture.

Love crosses borders

The Psalters are not just talking to citizens of the United States. All of us participate in the global economy at the expense of the poor, they explain. We first need to face the injustices of this world, but we must also learn to grieve for what is happening. This was one of the pillars of the Biblical prophets, Beck said – the art of lamentation. The other pillar was the promise of deliverance, and that comes to those who embrace their status as “cultural refugees” instead of relying on their government and politicians to “save” them every four years.

“Jesus called us to act like strangers in a foreign land – his kingdom is not of this world,” Beck said. “(Refugees) can’t rely on a power system because they have no access to one.

“We’re called to identify ourselves with (Christ), not with the governments and systems we’re under.

The Psalters sound may not be for everyone – for some, it will take a concerted effort, and the right mood, to appreciate the wild energy, the driving rhythms and the mystical fervour of these modern-day temple musicians. But these self-described ‘unsanitaries and lepers’ continue to captivate and challenge all of us to break through the borders imposed on us.

“Our love doesn’t stop at borders,” Beck said. “Love crosses borders. Our question is, ‘What does it mean to be born again?’”

David Ball lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where he works with the Student Christian Movement. This self-described anarchist sometimes sings in the choir at his local Anglican parish.

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