“We’re living through a time of great… difficulty,” Reverend Billy intoned from the stage at Joe’s Pub last Sunday afternoon. “Do you know what I’m talking about?” Of course we did: Three weeks after Election Day, our country is still reeling. Not only from a campaign season of unfathomable ugliness and cynicism — a “year of living hate,” as the Reverend calls it — but from its aftermath, in which “living hate” is quickly becoming our new normal.
It’s what some might call a come-to-Jesus moment for the American left, but Reverend Billy is urging us to come together instead, to stop hand-wringing and start direct action. For nearly thirteen years, he and his Stop Shopping Choir have combined music and performance in protest of corporate evils like Walmart, Disney, and Monsanto. But they are not stuck in the Bush-era concerns that inspired their formation: Their most recent stop was at Standing Rock, to spend five days with the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance. Now they’re back in the city with GATHER!, a series of rollicking Sunday-afternoon church services continuing for the next three weekends.
Not content merely to entertain, they’re out to save souls the old-fashioned way. In just over an hour, the Stop Shopping Choir very nearly brought the house down with a handful of original gospel songs about climate change, mass extinction, consumer greed, and murderous racism. The performance I attended, which fell between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, included several liturgical rituals: an infant baptism, the canonization of an undocumented woman and her two American-born daughters as Saints of the Church of Stop Shopping, and the reading of a litany of names of slain black men, from Emmett Till to Eric Garner.
But it’s Reverend Billy’s homilies that bind the service together, just as they tie the protest movements of our time — Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, climate justice — into a dense, interconnected knot. Far from preaching to the converted with didactic, bumper-sticker-ready platitudes, he instead poses questions: What will you do now? How much would you risk to save others’ lives? What new forms of resistance can we imagine? His message resonates with the words W.H. Auden wrote on the eve of World War II, during another “age of anxiety” — “We must love one another or die.” GATHER offers a fresh injection of that radical love, reinvigorating its audience to continue the fight.
GATHER!… after the year of living hate
Performed by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir
Joe’s Pub at the Public
425 Lafayette Street
Through December 18
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 1, 2016