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
— John Lennon, “Imagine”
I was thinking on “Imagine” just before I read the news that Craig Stephen Hicks had allegedly shot and killed three young-adult Muslims not 15 miles from where I sit. The murders occurred in a condominium complex where my firstborn stayed overnight with a friend from church while we were at UNC Hospitals for my youngest daughter’s birth 10 years ago. Hicks, an ardent secularist and critic of religion, had allegedly slaughtered a young married couple and the woman’s teenaged sister not six weeks removed from the tragic clash between French secularism and Islam at Charlie Hebdo. The victims’ families called it a hate crime; police seem satisfied it culminated a long-running parking dispute.
At a moment in history when humanity has both its greatest capacity and the collective will to destroy itself, I think maybe this great hymn of secularism belongs in Christian worship. Lennon was right, along with Marx, Nietzche, Freud and others: Religion is too often a spiteful thing, believers hoping they’ll be saved and their enemies will suffer. Maybe if we stopped imagining heaven and hell, future reward or punishment, we might be able to imagine peace on earth, right now. Maybe if we lived for the present moment, we wouldn’t need to hoard up treasures on earth nor in heaven; we might share everything – food, money, land, even our vision of the afterlife – out of the abundance of our Creator. Maybe if we stopped trying to control what people believe or to discern who’s in and who’s out, we might sit quietly with the mysteries of “Spirit” and “Truth” as Jesus urged the Samaritan woman. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he said, the peacemakers.
John Lennon seemed to be saying the same thing. “Imagine” was based in part on a Christian prayer book given to him by the activist Dick Gregory. “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing,” Lennon told journalist David Sheff shortly before his assassination, “then it can be true.” “Imagine” is a dream of solidarity, despite differences.
I don’t know many Christians who aren’t dreaming such a dream these days, at least with regard to our own internal strife. But how to explain Lennon to the churches who hire me to lead church music, when institutional religion is our comfort, even our very livelihood (mine included)? Religious people can be so defensive, and he’s not exactly their hero.
“We’re more popular than Jesus right now,” he infamously announced in 1966. Forty-two years later, a Vatican newspaper dismissed the comment as youthful folly, “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success.” Whether you can forgive him or not, it’s pretty clear that John was talking about popularity, not importance; he was talking of the temporal, not the eternal; he was talking about the Jesus manifest in human religion, not the Cosmic Christ, not ultimate Truth. He was talking about the world’s biggest pop stars in a moment when there was no real competition for that title, in a moment of cultural revolution when the popular was replacing the past, when youth culture was asserting itself as the dominant force in Western society. He was also fully aware of the contingency of his own fame. You never hear anyone quote the rest of the statement: “I don’t know which will go first, rock’n’roll or Christianity.”
When I read the news of the possible hate crime, I was also meditating on another John – the Beloved Disciple. I had just read through his first epistle. “[Jesus] solved the problem of sin for good,” St. John wrote, “not only ours, but the whole world’s.” The problem of sin, the dark side of our humanity, I take it, is that it divides us from our Creator. Coming into the vulnerability of flesh as a sacrifice of love, Jesus solved that. Becoming mortal and then rising above his own mortality, Jesus is reconciling the whole world to God (He’s maddeningly slow and mysterious about it, I’ll admit). That means we don’t need to own God. We don’t need to defend our understanding of God. We don’t need to protect our religion. Nothing to kill or die for, indeed.
Yet, so few of us live like we believe that our gods can take care of us, much less take care of themselves. Even some atheists in France and here in North Carolina seem to think someone else’s religion is such a threat to their own sacred beliefs that they have to go on the attack. In Chapel Hill, maybe it’s a violent hate crime leaving three dead innocents. With Charlie Hebdo, it was just words and pictures, but they inflamed so much passion in the other side that 12 people ended up dead. I’m not blaming the victims. The terrorists did unspeakable evil. I am saying I consider Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as lesser, unnecessary and foolish acts of violence in the name of a secular doctrine of free speech.
So, sure, I want to imagine a world without religion, dogma, or ideology. So did theologian-activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his Letters and Papers from a Nazi prison, he wrote of a religionless Christianity: “It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom.” It’s not a world without God. It’s not a world without beliefs about God. But it’s a world where those beliefs lead to peace, not war, a world perhaps where people hold beliefs loosely, knowing that finite souls can’t contain an infinite Spirit. “A ‘Christian instinct’ often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in brotherhood’,” Bonhoeffer wrote.
Religion is humanity’s longing for its Creator. As such, it is, by its nature, a lacking, an absence, an assay, an experiment, but no foolproof prescription. As a human construct, it probably doesn’t get us any closer to God than other wondrous things Creation has to offer: say, romance or parenthood or friendship or science or music. And it probably doesn’t drag us as far away from God as, say, careerism, consumerism or nationalism. But that doesn’t make it something to kill or die for. True religion, “visiting the fatherless and the widow,” keeping one’s own virtue clean, has rarely led anyone into violent conflict. It’s when someone’s territory is at stake that things get ugly. It’s when religion (or secular ideology, for that matter) becomes a source of temporal power, even if only the false power of thinking you’re right and others are wrong. Power like that always needs preserving, and conflict is never far off.
“Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary,” Lennon told that newspaper reporter back in 1966. Right. Exactly. They were human.
“It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me,” he went on. Of course. What else would humans do?