Imagine no “Imagine”

January 3, 2012


I would stack my bonafides as a John Lennon admirer up against anyone’s. I’ve blogged about this admiration in the past more than once. Lennon was a great confessional songwriter and singer, both within the Beatles and as a solo artist.

Having said that, his legendary peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—I mean lyrically speaking. The song’s melody rules, and since music is more important than words, I’m hardly immune to the song’s virtues. I understand, emotionally, why the song is so well-loved.

But the words… Ugh!

The song contends that without countries and religions—with the misguided nationalism and fanaticism that sometimes attend to them—we would have nothing to “kill or die for,” which is obviously nonsense. This can be seen with just a tiny bit of reflection. After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?

Besides, who wants to live in a world in which there is nothing to kill or die for? Not me—and I say that as someone who opposes killing far more frequently than the general population. I’m bipartisan in my opposition to most wars. I’m opposed to the death penalty. And don’t get me started on abortion and euthanasia!

While I’m not a pacifist, I have great respect for the long tradition of Christian pacifism. But even Christian pacifism isn’t premised on the idea that there’s “nothing to kill or die for.” Far from it!

First, all Christians would agree that there is plenty to die for. As I discussed in my Christmas Day sermon, I would sacrifice my life for my children—without giving it a second thought. (I hope I never have to, but that’s beside the point.) As a matter of love, all Christians should be willing, if necessary, to die out of love for God or neighbor. Jesus did, and plenty of martyrs throughout the the ages have followed his example.

As for there being something worth killing for, the question may seem ambiguous from a Christian point of view. But not so fast: as theologian Miroslav Volf points out in his landmark book Exclusion & Embrace, the pacifism of many Christians, including Anabaptists (e.g., Mennonites and the Amish), is made possible in part because they believe not only that vengeance is God’s to repay, but that he will also repay it—in the Second Coming.

Volf believes, as do I, that the practice of Christian non-violence requires belief in a God who uses violence in order to ensure that justice is fully and finally done. The Christ who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and submitted to death on a cross is also the sword-weilding Rider on the white horse of Revelation 19:11ff.

So, is there something worth killing for? Of course! But we Christians ought to trust God to handle the killing, if not in this life then in the life to come.

With all this in mind, I was unbothered by Cee Lo Green’s New Year’s Eve performance of “Imagine,” in which he modified Lennon’s original line, “nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion too,” to “nothing to kill or die for/ and all religion’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: his new line stinks, but it’s no worse than the original.

All religion isn’t true. It can’t be. It can’t be true because no one practices some abstract thing called “religion.” People practice Christianity or Buddhism or Islam or Hinduism or Judaism, etc.. These religions make important truth claims that often contradict one another. You see my point?

If it were the case that all religions boiled down to a few central truths—how much could they all have in common?—then that “truth” would be so obvious and innocuous that no one would bother dying for it or killing to defend it, that’s for sure. So maybe Green is onto something without even knowing it. His defanged religion would be as harmless as “no religion.”

In which case, what’s the fuss?

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