Back It Up

By Tommy Airey

The year George Floyd and I were born, Paul Simon came out with a song called “American Tune.” Simon sung it to the melody of a Medieval Christian hymn. It hummed on the heavy, confusing mood of the country, caught up in the Watergate scandal and the bloody Vietnam conflict. It concludes with these verses.

We come on the ship they call The Mayflower.
We come on the ship that sailed the moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And sing an American tune.

Last week, fifty years later, “American Tune” made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. But this time, it was sung by Rhiannon Giddens, a banjo-playing woman in her forties boasting Black, Native and white ancestry. Simon backed her up on acoustic and she tweaked the lyrics at the end.

We didn’t come here on the Mayflower.
We came on a ship on a blood red moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.

Many of the ancestors of Giddens—and multitudes of other Americans—did not come here on the Mayflower. Some were already here. Some came on slave ships. Some walked thousands of miles north. The blood red moon is a reference to Joel, a prophetic book of the bible that says the sun will turn dark and the moon will turn to blood on the terrible day of the Lord. It is an apocalyptic warning of what happens when the people of the land lose their sense of love and justice.

Giddens revised the song for a new season, for the most uncertain hour of a new age, marked by mass shootings, police murders, a pandemic, wildfires, inflationary pressures caused by corporate greed, white Christian nationalism and a completely dysfunctional democracy (by design). However, as the clock ticks towards the terrible day of the Lord, who is belting out the song? A woman who is not white, who is curious enough, courageous enough to give the old lyrics a course correction.  

*          *          *

Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing with an inaugural address at the synagogue of his native Nazareth, a small town just three miles from the big city of Sephorris—completely demolished by Caesar’s army a few decades earlier. On the sabbath, in front of friends and family, he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled it to the beginning of the 61st chapter:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God.

This is what the text says, but this is what Jesus read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus did not read the sacred text verbatim. Like Giddens, he disrupted it. He added and subtracted and shifted it around. He curated it with creative license. At the end of the passage, he line-item vetoed the day of God’s vengeance. He left it in the left side of the bible. He edited out a god who is hard to please and pissed off.

Jesus signed on to the “good news” – the Greek word euangelion, where we get “evangelical,” – but he delivered the good news to a different audience: the poor. Then he grafted in a passage from earlier in Isaiah. He lets the oppressed go free. Jesus took his cues from a God who moves on the margins. Jesus was on a divine mission in an uncertain hour and he knew what James Cone knew: the oppressed community is the place where one encounters God’s liberating deed and the place where one comes to know the will of God. Jesus concluded by invoking the Jubilee tradition of ancient Israel, the year of the Lord’s favor, forgiving the debts that burden the poor. This is not the language of reform. He is calling for a revolution.

*          *          *

Two days before Rhiannon Giddens stepped up to the mic at the Newport Folk Festival, Senator Josh Hawley was exposed by the January 6 House Select Committee for saluting the Capitol insurrectionists with fist pumps and then running out of the building to save his own ass. Last Fall, Hawley gave the keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference. He tackled the topic of the liberal “assault on masculine virtues.” He claimed that the political left is attempting to create a society without men, that wokeness is destroying the country, that the political left hates America and is trying to deconstruct it, slandering it is a systemically racist, structurally oppressive and hopelessly patriarchal kind of place.

Hawley concludes his keynote by asserting supremacy. America is a shining city on a hill. He calls men “an unrivaled force for good in the world,” and when they are empowered and unleashed to be who they were made to be, they will rebuild the ancient ruins and raise up the former desolations and repair the ruined cities. This is a direct quote from Isaiah 61:4, the passage that follows what Jesus preached in his inaugural sermon.

Hawley quotes the prophetic text verbatim, but he crucifies the context. He completely erases the oppressed community. He makes men the main characters and they move on courage, independence and assertiveness, abstract virtues that win male votes. The prisoners are not released. The broken-hearted are not bound up. There is no good news for the poor. Hawley knows what he is doing. He is doubling down on supremacy and sanctifying it with holy scripture, a source that his people say is perfect, without any mixture of error.

Hawley is making men matter again in this alienating, uncertain hour. The neoliberal policies of both parties have left them hanging out to dry. While the ship is sinking, liberal institutions and organizations move around deck chairs jargoning about diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance and acceptance. While the ship is sinking, neither passive liberalism nor Hawley’s Christo-fascism offer what the souls of men yearn for: intimacy, vulnerability, presence, playfulness, tenderness, trust, transparency, nurture, mutuality, mystery, wonder, awe, accountability, awareness, appreciation, curiosity, compassion, open-heartedness and emotional expressiveness.

In this void, Hawley co-opts Isaiah and inserts it at the very end of his speech so his supremacist vision will never be questioned. He uses sacred words to say exactly the opposite of their original intent, exactly the opposite of what Jesus took them to mean. Hawley scripts the supremacy stories that atrophy the spirituality of men. You are in charge. Don’t ever take the back seat. Don’t ever back down. Hawley’s words compel multitudes of white men to dismiss and demonize the oppressed, broken-hearted, poor and imprisoned. I should know. This is what I learned in my twenties at Campus Crusade for Christ and Kanakuk, an evangelical camp where I worked two summers in the Ozarks, right in Hawley’s backyard.

*          *          *

At the end of his sermon in Nazareth, Jesus reminded his friends and family of another uncertain hour in Israel’s history. During the forty-two-month famine, there were many widows, but, lo and behold, Spirit sent Elijah to a widow who was not Jewish. There were plenty of lepers in Israel, but the prophet Elisha only healed Naaman the Syrian. The God who Jesus knew refused to be governed by supremacy stories that make Israel great again. This God breaks through border walls and colors outside old categories.

When his audience heard these words of Jesus, they were livid. The text says that they got up, drove him out of town and led him to the edge of the cliff so they could throw him off! Jesus barely made it out of Galilee alive. Because he was resurrecting the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha, who the ancient king called “troublers of Israel.” Jesus – like Elijah and Elisha – was scripted by the masculine virtues that Hawley counterfeited in his speech: independence, courage and assertiveness.

When Jesus was done disrupting the text, he proclaimed, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled.” Other Gospel accounts say that the teaching of Jesus was different than the scribes because he spoke with authority. People followed Jesus because he fulfilled prophetic words by living them out, no matter what the cost. Both the bible and masculinity possess authority only when they prioritize what Jesus practiced. The litmus test is love and a real manly love looks a lot more like Paul Simon taking the stage and playing back-up to Rhiannon Giddens than Josh Hawley preaching supremacy – and then running away.

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

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