Dylan, solidarity and the reign of Christ
A week from Sunday, on the Feast of the Reign of Christ, Holy Covenant UMC in Chicagoâwhere I work part time as a musicianâis holding its second annual service spotlighting the music of Bob Dylan. (Not calling it a Dylancharist.) If you're in Chicago the evening of 11/24, come out and join us.
Below is the piece I wrote for the church newsletter.
A year ago, I was planning the music for Holy Covenantâs first Bob Dylan-themed service. I wanted to do the service on the Feast of the Reign of Christ, because the dayâs themesâthe call for bold moral vision, the struggle between justice and oppression, the hope for a better futureâloom large in Dylanâs music.
But while the music fit the occasion well, I ended up wrestling with a basic question: whoâs the âweâ here? If weâre going to sing these first-person deliverance songs, whoâs seeking deliverance? We, the members and friends of a majority-white, relatively privileged American congregation? Or someone else?
What does it mean for non-prisoners to sing âI Shall Be Releasedââespecially if weâre complicit in prison-like conditions at Bangladeshi garment factories, or in the literal incarceration of Americans? Is the hard rain of justice aâgonna fall on our behalf, or on us? Maybe we should be singing in the third person instead.
A word from Methodist theologian Justo GonzĂĄlez helped me puzzle through this. He points out that if you want to talk about justice at a predominantly middle-class church, you need to avoid focusing on guilt. We have it so good, and other people have it so much worse! We could probably right this wrong if we wanted to, but we havenât done it yet, so we probably arenât going to and we should feel bad about that, too. Notice the one-two punch: the assumption of our own power, and the acceptance of the status quo anyway. Guilt doesnât mobilize.
Instead, says GonzĂĄlez, middle-class churches need to focus on solidarity. This requires naming not our relative power but our relative lack of it: we may be more powerful than some people, but we are unable to simply overturn the oppressive systems that keep them on the margins. This power is bigger than us. Itâs what Christians call sinânot in the Sunday school sense of discrete bad things weâve done, but in the cosmic sense of a power than enslaves us. To begin to resist this, we have to name not just our privilege but its limits: the lack of power that puts us in the same boat as those who exist on the margins of our communities.
In short, we have to accept that deliverance is for us, too. Because real justice doesnât come from acknowledging how much better we have it than those other people. It comes from casting our lot with them, from embracing what we have in common: we canât change the world on our own. We need one another, and we need the reign of Christ to come among us, to challenge the reign of the oppressive powers of this world.
Dylan has long understood solidarity. He chose to perform one of his most stridently us-vs.-them songs at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this summer:
Why sing that as a white man at a civil rights rally? Dylan might plausibly have been seen as one of the privileged âfoesâ at whom âWeâll shout from the bow, âYour days are numbered.ââ But white participation in the March on Washington wasnât about guilt; it was about solidarityâand solidarity is about âwe.â
Dylan illustrates the point more starkly in his song âOnly a Pawn in Their Gameâ:
Itâs a protest song over the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Eversâbut it doesnât blame Eversâ killer. It blames the whole power system that convinced him to see Evers as the enemy, to protect what little he had by hating someone with even less. The solution to this isnât just to replace hate with guilt. Itâs to name the real bad guyâthe power that profits from hateâand to act in solidarity against it.
The reign of Christ is about solidarity, too. We canât overturn the worldâs unjust powers; for that we need the only one whose power is even greater. What we can do is stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, proclaiming Christâs authority and anticipating Christâs reign. And we can bear witness by singingânot just about our own experience but about all who await the hour when the ship comes in.