I have a lover’s quarrel with country music. I’m from the south, grew up listening to Hank Williams and country stars of the 1960s and 70s, though by the middle of the latter decade I was hooked on Led Zeppelin, Rush, and rock and roll, with all of the associated sins. I did my best as a teen, young adult and soldier to check every box I could. Though seriously, with all of the boozing and adultery in country music, I’m not sure why rock has such a bad reputation. I rediscovered country music about a decade ago, though it sometimes feels like juggling chainsaws, moving between rock, country, classic and hip-hop, from Pearl Jam to Puccini, from Kendrick Lamar to Kenny Chesney.
It is a lover’s quarrel with country music because so many of the songs speak of love and fidelity, simplicity and hard work, family and faith, things that matter to me, what we might rightly call virtues. But many other songs and far too many of the singers engage in idolatry, worship America’s new gods, the flag, the gun, football. The irony is lost on so many country music fans, the US Armed Forces honored and the US flag venerated by the same folks that celebrate the treasonous Confederacy, the flags of the warring sides side by side from the back of a Ford F-150 pick-up, a bold proclamation of racism.
The right virtues, simplicity and hard work, are celebrated in Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over Town” from his 2010 album “My Kinda Party,” where he sings about “the man who plowed that earth, planted that seed, busted his *** for you and me.” On the same album, he sings about being stuck between a “Church Pew or Bar Stool” in a small town, between “whiskey or the Bible.”
Which is all to say, I could have been at that concert last Sunday night. I’ve seen dozens of country music artists perform in concert. And Jason Aldean is a favorite.
We fret about becoming desensitized, numb, or take the opposite tack and are tempted to put our heads in the sand and worry about hymns and the dollar store. Maybe it is okay to worry about the dollar store, I don’t know, but there is something far more horrifying happening than a chain store in Blue Hill. There is this saying about re-arranging deck chairs…
It was only an aside by the youngest pastor on Tuesday’s video call with other Maine Conference colleagues that opened my eyes. I wish I could shut them again, but some things you cannot un-see.
For folks middled aged and older, my age basically, each new mass casualty shooting shocks… every single one. For those under the age of 35, the idea that you can be gunned down, in school, at a concert, at the mall, is perfectly normal. For Baby Boomers, safety was the default, only cops sat in the corner booth and looked for the exit. Now everyone does. The massacre at Columbine happened when 35 year-olds were graduating from high school, though school shootings actually started as a trend two years earlier, while they were sophomores. Millennials have never known a world in which assault weapons are not a constant threat.
There is nothing at all unusual to Millenials about someone, most often a white male, slaughtering innocents. What some of us experienced when we heard the news on Monday is the Millennials’ normal.
It has been a long slow slide into this new normal. Sort of like what happened to the Hebrews.
Jacob, that infamous trickster and thief, with his brother’s stolen birthright and stolen blessing, faced his own tragedy when Joseph, was devoured by a wild animal, or at least this is what Jacob was told. Joseph was the youngest, spoiled, a tattle-tale, entirely obnoxious. His big brothers considered killing him, but started by throwing him into a pit. Then the story becomes unclear, for two accounts have been combined. Either his brother’s sold him as a slave to Ishmaelite traders, or Midianites discovered him in the pit and kidnapped him, selling him to the traders themselves. In any case, the result was the same. Joseph became a slave in Egypt.
But the story wasn’t over. It would be pretty boring if it stopped there, no Twelve Tribes, no David, no Jesus. In fact, the story of Joseph in Egypt is quite the soap opera, with a lusty official’s wife scorned and false accusations, time spent in prison, and a remarkable talent for interpreting dreams, which was a thing back then. Eventually it was the pharaoh’s own dreams that needed interpreting, and Joseph who saved the kingdom from famine. In fact, having wisely stored away surplus during the seven years of bounty, Joseph was in a position to use that grain to consolidate the pharaoh’s power, buying up livestock and land during those years of famine.
The famine hit Canaan, too, so years after throwing their little brother in the pit, the remaining sons of Jacob find themselves before an official in Egypt who, unbeknownst to them, is that long-lost brother, no longer a bratty teen, but instead a successful official in the royal court, vested with great authority. It is all very dramatic, a bit of trickery, a slow reveal, but in the end, the Egyptians welcomed the family of the pharaoh’s wise servant, Joseph.
In fact, the Pharaoh’s words to Joseph were “The land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them live in the land of Goshen; and if you know that there are capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.”
A few verses later, this: “Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.”
When Jacob died, this foreigner, scripture tells us the Egyptians wept for him for seventy days!
This is not cruel bondage and brick-making… not yet. The Hebrews come to Egypt as welcomed guests, are honored.
And I bet the decline into slavery didn’t happen overnight. Sure, a new pharaoh turns on the Hebrews by the eighth verse of the first chapter of Exodus, but we know how this works. The Hebrews are successful, and they are fruitful, and as they say, demographics is destiny. The Egyptians feel threatened by the success of the newcomers, are jealous. It probably starts with looks, a little chatter out where they park the chariots, but the Hebrews get used to it. What are you gonna do? Things become about “us” and “them,” about the way “we Egyptians” do things, have always done things. Eventually, minor crimes against Hebrews are overlooked, then major crimes too, but “we don’t want to cause trouble.” One Egyptian says to another “I’m not racist. One of my closest friends is a Hebrew!” Soon, “them” becomes official, with laws and decrees, the Hebrews an official other, “undocumented” or “illegal” or whatever the word was in that age, what matters is they are no longer people. Eventually, brutality becomes the norm.
And the Hebrews went along, one small step at a time. They learned to accommodate the dirty looks and idle chatter. They decided it was better to get along than to resist the small slights, because someone might get upset. Their property was stolen and they were assaulted, but hey, it could be worse. Let’s not make things worse!
Because this is what happens. Never mind being desensitized and becoming numb. The Hebrews allowed the long slow slide into slavery by not naming what needed to be named, by not resisting what should have been resisted. Because naming and resistance are not comfortable. Suffering was more comfortable than courage. When Moses arrived and said “God has something better in store for you,” they waffled between hope and resistance, between here and promise. They resisted Moses more than they ever had the pharaoh.
It was a long slow slide into Fascism in Europe… small acts of violence, us and them, nasty articles in the press and the infamous blood libel. No real resistance, because “we don’t want to cause trouble,” until it was too late to resist. But “hey,” some said, “with Mussolini, at least the trains run on time.”
It has been a long slow slide into a culture where those who are charged with enforcing our laws are above the law. The beating of Rodney King, caught on camera and followed with an acquittal, took place more than 26 years ago. Yes, there are more good cops than bad cops, but there were more good Germans than bad Germans, and the long slow slide is easy when you choose silent complicity over moral courage.
On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold walked around Columbine High School firing a TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, a weapon designed to shoot people. There were shotguns, improvised explosives. Week after week, day after day, weapons designed to kill humans are used to do exactly that. Long slow slide, until active shooter becomes part of our language, until shot rain down from on high, from the 32nd floor to be exact.
What made us think that if it took years, decades, centuries to get into this mess, this mess of corruption and sin and hatred where we can’t even have a rational conversation, much less a moral one, that we would get out of it in an instant.
And here is Israel in the desert, complaining, building golden calves. This is some people God has chosen!
I’m not interested in magic mana falling from the sky. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. I’m okay with the idea that the Hebrews understood Yahweh as a partner on the journey, but there had to be a journey. There is no teleporter between here and promise, no “beam me up, Scotty.” If we’re honest, the journey isn’t that much easier than brick making, is a little terrifying, but at least you are going somewhere, and your fate will be your own, something it never was under the cruel whip of the Egyptian taskmaster.
There is a journey between here and promise.
Yes, we live in a world where people think it is okay for someone to buy a weapon of war even if they are on a terrorism no-fly list, have a diagnosis of serious mental illness, or a restraining order for domestic violence. The planet is getting warmer, so these monster hurricanes are the new normal too. Racism and hate speech are out in the open in ways they haven’t been in decades. Speculators plunder the economy and hackers steal what is left. Robots are taking our jobs. I feel like I’m living in the Terminator, maybe Terminator 2, when Linda Hamilton is crazy and nuclear holocaust lurks in the shadows, and Ah-nald is the good guy. This is all really bad. I get it. I’m overwhelmed sometimes too, tempted to become a hermit or a drunk.
But there is also good news. Those young people who think getting gunned down by a deranged white man in America or mowed down by a deranged terrorist in Europe is normal are also more tolerant than older generations. They make friends across traditional lines of race, religion, gender. They just don’t care, as long as you are fun and smart and hard-working and kind.
The “thems” of our age are coming together to build a better world. It isn’t easy, and we still step on one another’s toes before all is said and done, but it is pretty clear that women need to be standing with black folks who need to be standing with LGBTQ folks who need to be standing with immigrants because it is the same sin that chases us all, and few of us fit in a box anymore.
We fret about healthcare, and our system is terrible, about hedge fund managers and pharma-bros, about a swamp that is swampier than ever, but here’s the thing… looked at as a whole, the world is safer than it has ever been. There are fewer people in poverty. We have learned how to prevent many diseases, treat many others. The gig economy hasn’t reached maturity yet, but a just economics is being born, a world of co-ops and B corps.
Steer into the skid, because skid is gonna happen. Change is gonna happen. But you can be in control. Good things are happening.
Absolutely, go jam a spoke in the gears of oppression. Anger is okay, righteous anger is okay, but never forget that the other is not a “them” but is an “us.” When you forget to love your opponent, you forget yourself.
If average citizens cannot come together to change the government, then why do we pretend to be a democracy?
If average congregants can’t call the church to higher purpose, why hold congregational meetings?
We don’t have to agree on everything all the time, and we certainly cannot freeze the world and keep everything the way it was when you were happy ten years ago or eighteen years ago or fifty years ago. But we can learn to be happy now, re-learn how to keep covenant, how to stop complaining and start doing. We are better than this. We are smarter than this. We are more powerful than we know, and God is with us.
There is a long way between here and promise, between a world where bullets rain down from on high to one where mana rains down, the bread of life, the bread of love, the bread of justice.
I’m gonna need a little whiskey and the Bible. It is a long way between here and promise. Best to get moving. Amen.