Sunday, March 17, 2013

Could John Lennon Be Smiling in His Grave


“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one”

Imagine that John Lennon had never written those lyrics.  And imagine hearing them instead from a politician – say, at an acceptance speech at a Democratic National Convention. They would be viewed as nothing short of insane.  Irreligious.  Unpatriotic.  Anti-capitalist.  When it comes to American iconoclasm, Lennon captured the whole trifecta.  

            And yet, because he was a songwriter and not a politician, Lennon’s Imagine has gone down as arguably the most spiritually inspiring pop song in history.  I don’t doubt for a second that Unitarian Universalists view the song as essentially a religious hymn.  But even in the more mainstream faiths, devotees of Imagine surely abound.  And that is because Lennon has touched on many of the most sacred themes of organized religions.  Like all of the traditional religious leaders, Lennon is proclaiming the supreme value of a charitable mindset, where we strive to work together to feed the poor, clothe the needy and heal the infirm.   And he is not just calling for this ideal of a universal brotherhood; he is saying that we have the power to make it happen.  In other words, his song is asking us to envision what traditionalists have called the Messianic Age, the only differences being that for Lennon, instead of there being one Messiah, we are all, collectively, called upon to serve in that capacity, and instead of envisioning a heavenly realm above, he is asking us to envision a heavenly future on earth.   That heaven will be a place clearly recognizable by worshippers of all the great faiths.   It will be a place where greed is gone, sharing is the order of the day, and peace reigns supreme.

Nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. … The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them.” 

Lennon, Isaiah … all of a piece, right?  It’s called faith in the future.  And it rests upon a vision of humankind living righteously.  It’s a vision that has become increasingly rare in the thousands of years after Isaiah, and the more than four decades since the writing of Imagine.   

I’m not asking you to think of Lennon’s utopia as realistic, any more than I’m asking you to find realism in the words of Isaiah.   But for all the great songs he gave us, I think you owe him this much: just imagine the world he was talking about.   And now, if I may, let me ask you to imagine something else that might make that happen.   Imagine a man, emerging from a position as the leader of perhaps the most entrenched and conservative religious bureaucracy in the world, and becoming a passionate and tireless advocate for economic equity.   And imagine this man not merely preaching the value of private charity.  In fact, imagine him making a clarion call for the idea that private charity alone is inadequate to fighting the scourge of poverty, or to creating the type of access to health care that we all deserve, or to allowing rich and poor alike to enjoy the equitable educational opportunities that modern democracies require to function properly.

            Imagine this religious leader calling for a commitment throughout the world to the importance of public institutions, as a means of working for justice and fairness.  Imagine him advocating for progressive tax policy.   Imagine him saying that if Jesus were alive today, the last thing he would do is live in a gated community, earn his keep by producing goods that are destroying the environment, use his earnings on one luxury item after another, and look down upon the poor.  Imagine him saying that if we want to call ourselves religious people, we must act in a way that honors the highest principles of our religion.  And that nowhere in any of the world’s great religions does it say that we have the right to extol the value of greed.

            Imagine this religious leader saying that nowhere in any of the great world Scriptures does it talk about the existence of an invisible hand that will magically take care of us if all strive to work purely for our own self-interest.   Imagine this religious leader pointing out that Adam Smith is not a religious leader – but just one of many economists who had a theory.  

            Now imagine a pope who does not come from the continent of Europe, but rather, from the relative “backwater” of Argentina.  And imagine this pope naming himself after St. Francis of Assisi, that tireless advocate of the poor.  And imagine this pope living in a modestly furnished home, carrying his own bags while traveling, choosing public transportation over limousines, cooking his own food, and settling his own bills.

            And imagine this pope one day realizing that it is not enough for him to behave in a way that eschews greed, but he must actively preach against it – and use the powers of his conservative pulpit to call for progressive legislation that would make “economic equity” into one of the supreme religious virtues.

Just imagine it.  

And then imagine that when I was flying to New Orleans a few days ago, a woman asked me how it is possible that religious people (meaning Catholics) can actually vote Democratic even though the Democratic party is pro-choice on abortion and increasingly tolerant of gay marriage.  That’s easy to imagine, isn’t it?  In fact, it actually happened.  But so did the part about there being an Argentine pope whose lifestyle suggests that he takes his religion seriously.

So, even though this pope is anti-choice on abortion and doesn’t believe in equal rights for gay couples, I’m still going to imagine that he can become a lion in the fight for economic equity.  Join me in imagining that.  And maybe, someday, the world will live as one.

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