Paul L. Caron

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Harvard Law Prof Ruth Okediji: Music And Faith Foster Hope In Difficult Times

Harvard Law Today, A Show of Faith: Harvard Law Professor Ruth Okediji Explains Why She Believes Music — and Faith — Foster Hope in Difficult Times:

Okediji (2024)Shortly before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed an electrifying version of the spiritual “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned.” As Jackson sang, some in the audience closed their eyes in reverence, while others swayed gently in time with the music. At Jackson’s final note, the crowd, once transfixed, burst into applause.

Although an undeniably powerful moment, this was not the first time — nor would it be the last — that music would serve to ground, fortify, and uplift African Americans in the fight for civil rights, or others who are going through difficult times, says Ruth Okediji LL.M. ’91, S.J.D. ’96, the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor at Harvard Law School.

In fact, Okediji says, faith has long played an important role in the lives of many Black Americans, with worship music providing strength, joy, and hope, even amid oppression. And one way that faith is made manifest in biblical Christianity is through music, particularly hymns, she adds.

“A confidence in the Bible and its life-giving precepts made it possible for people to, day after day, week after week, month after month, get up again, and say, ‘We’re going to continue with faith and in this struggle, whatever the day might hold.’”

Hoping to introduce a new generation to this rich tradition of hymns, the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies, of which Okediji is the founder and faculty director, held a worship night at Harvard Memorial Church on February 28, which featured Grammy-award winner Naomi Raine of Maverick City Music, Harvard College’s SoulFood worship team, as well as Restore Worship from Cambridge’s Pentecostal Tabernacle Church. Dr. Kia Martin Ed.M. ’01 Ph.D. ’08 and Rev. Dr. Theodore Hickman-Maynard, associate dean for Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School AB ’00, also led sessions of vibrant and powerful worship.

In an interview with Harvard Law Today, Okediji, who is also a world-renowned expert in intellectual property (IP) law, a lead negotiator for African countries on IP issues, and director at the Berkman Klein Center, spoke about the origins of the event, the role of faith and worship music in the Civil Rights Movement, and some of her own favorite hymns.

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