Starting the Year with Bob Dylan

By Brian McLaren 01-02-2008
Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis. Image via popturf.com/Flickr.com

I’ve had an old 1989 tune by Bob Dylan running through my head for the last couple weeks. Unlike some other things that get stuck in my mind – like the obnoxious ads for DiTech and Head On, or Pa-Rum-Pa-Pum-Pum - this tune has given me some benefit as it has been on perpetual replay. “A Political World” may turn out to be a decent theme song for a lot of us in 2008.

We live in a political world, Love don't have any place. We're living in times where men commit crimes And crime don't have a face

It’s easy to put somebody’s face on a wanted poster, but it’s a lot harder to name the systemic crimes which are far more dangerous: faceless crimes of consumerism and environmental plunder, framing stories of victimization or revenge or empire, attitudes of racism and religious bigotry, tolerance for corruption and unfair trade. The fact is, most of us are complicit in some ways in these crimes; we stare at the wanted poster of systemic injustice and our own faces stare back.

Too few of our religious communities pay enough attention to these kinds of socially acceptable, ubiquitous systemic crimes. If love is going to have a place in our political world, we’re going to need to better understand them and more wisely respond to them – in our sermons, in our prayers, in our daily lives.

In this political world, Dylan continues … Wisdom is thrown into jail, It rots in a cell, is misguided as hell Leaving no one to pick up a trail.

In an election year that will be full of misguidances and misunderestimations of many sorts, we people of faith will need to seek wisdom in prayer – for ourselves, for our leaders, and for our neighbors. We’ll need wisdom to resist the machinations and manipulations that successfully suckered religious voters in recent elections … the shallow appropriation of religious language, the destructive use of wedge issues that distract us from bona fide crises, the games of fear-mongering and false-promising that are amazingly effective on voters who aren’t pursuing wisdom. If we don’t realize how fast many politicians will throw wisdom under the bus in search of votes, we will find ourselves once again locked in the cell of debased politics, and wisdom will be our cell-mate.

We’ll need to be especially sensitive to the way immigration is used in this election, because “we live in a political world/ Where mercy walks the plank.” When we see politicians using the time-tested political and religious strategy of scapegoating– creating a “them” to fear in order to galvanize “us” to vote for the candidate who is most tough on “them” - we’ll have to raise our voices in protest – long and loud. Speaking up for merciful treatment of “the other” – whoever “the other” might be - will take courage, never an easy thing, but especially “in a political world/where courage is a thing of the past.”

In all of this, we may be tempted to cynicism, because “there's no one to check/ It's all a stacked deck,” but surrendering to cynicism ends up empowering politics as usual. A friend of mine in college used to say that religion may be the opiate of the masses, but cynicism is surely the opiate of the intellectuals. Bona fide and enduring hope, we must remember, comes from a source both higher than politics and deeper than the best understanding of intellectuals.

Dylan continues: We live in a political world Turning and a-thrashing about, As soon as you're awake, you're trained to take What looks like the easy way out.

Just as in Jesus’ day, when wide and easy roads turned out to be the fast lanes to destruction, we’ll have to be suspicious of slick promises and easy answers, searching instead for a less-traveled road, the one Jesus called “a rough and narrow way.” This road is the way of peace – desperately needed because in this world “… peace is not welcome at all/ It's turned away from the door to wander some more/ Or put up against the wall.”

Dylan’s last lines remind us to be careful about religious rhetoric in a political year where… Everything is hers or his, Climb into the frame and shout God's name But you're never sure what it is.

Just because people say “Lord, Lord” or “God, God” or “faith, faith” or even “Jesus, Jesus” doesn’t mean much. We need to ask which Lord, God, faith, and Jesus? One remade into an American image? One designed to be a chaplaincy for a way of life which, in the sagely words of Wendell Berry, is based on breaking all 10 commandments and promoting all seven deadly sins? One compromised and syncretized with political ideologies and polling numbers so as to be politically useful in the short term, but not actually wise in the long run?

That last line is especially haunting for me as we begin a new year – and a very political one. What would happen, the line prompts me to ask, if we began the year admitting that we don’t have God all that well figured out? That God doesn’t fit in our little political frames? That God’s mysterious name – the one we pray to be “hallowed” when we pray the Lord’s prayer – is bigger, deeper, higher, more textured, more mysterious, more wonderful, more surprising, and more revolutionary than we understood last year? These are the thoughts that are humming in my head as 2008 begins, thanks to Bob D.

This article is reprinted from Godspolitics on Beliefnet.com. Brian McLaren was an author and speaker and served as Sojourners' board chair when this article appeared. Learn about his books, music, and other resources at brianmclaren.net.

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