October 30, 2014

Rise Against's "People Live Here" and Revolution

I have a significant love for the music Rise Against has put out. In their worst moments, they're a formulaic punk-rock band, matching angrily anarchic lyrics to simple chord progressions for public consumption. These moments are few and far between, somehow - I'm not quite sure how. Their chord progressions haven't gained any complexity over the years, their lyrics haven't progressed in technical proficiency or poetic depth. Yet something about them works, and works well. Their anger flows from the emotional sea of their generation - by chance, the same one as mine - crashing like angry breakers against the unjust structures we've inherited. Their rebellious nature flows authentically from their hearts, and they live the lives they advocate in their revolutionary music: for example, they preach against animal violence, and are vegans. Their message is fundamentally optimistic, as they believe that the changes they advocate are not only possible, but are within reach if we fight for them.

Their latest album, Black Markets comes after a hiatus of two years, and as such shows the depth of something long meditated. They've incorporated some new sounds, mostly from a blues or pop source, and matched them to the same lyrics Tim McIlrath has been pumping out for a decade and a half now. It's a solid album, changing just enough to be new and engaging, but keeping enough the same to fit in with the rest of their repertoire. I appreciate Tim's decision to leave his recorded voice with a less-doctored up, more raw sound. It suits their band.

One track out of the bunch has really gripped my attention. After a several-album deficit, they've finally included another acoustic ballad: "People Live Here." The song sums up something about the way Rise Against see the revolutionary movement among millennials which, to an extent, they represent. The song is an impassioned call for respect to humanity as a whole, to the cosmos, and to whatever McIlrath thinks of God. Hey, people live here. Treat this bridge, this city, this nation with some concern. In doing so, McIlrath has laid out enough of a sketch of the problems plaguing modern man that I can make a list:

  • Religious superiority and pharasaism.
  • Inattentiveness to the suffering of others
  • Infidelity to the revolutionary movement
  • Gun violence, and consequently popular armament
  • Reliance on electricity and power at the expense of nature

This is followed by the path to safety: the recognition that "My dreams are not unlike yours," which will lead to "laughter past the edge of our fears," where there's "chaos," but such anarchy is "music to [his] ears." This is connected to a Christian-influenced allegory for safety: "May you be in Heaven before the devil knows you're dead / May the winds be always at your back." After all, in the end, "When we're all just ghosts / and the madness overtakes us," the remnants of our human existence will serve as evidence of our human dignity - evidence that "People lived here." From this description, we can see an ethic somewhat comparable to that of most mainstream Christian churches: Pride is the root sin, which doesn't recognize our fellow humans as brothers and sisters. This leads to every kind of violence and destruction, both socially and environmentally. But God, or some other indefinite higher power, intended for us to be joined in pursuit of common safety and well-being: a materially realized "Heaven." Then, once our race is inevitably wiped out by natural forces, the rubble of our civilizations will serve as a quasi-eternal testament to the human dignity which made our short existence worthwhile.

This exposition of the revolutionary message, which vivifies the social activism lived out by many in my generation, is compelling. I would wager that a majority of white, suburban twenty- and thirty-somethings hearing this would find a resonance with their own dissatisfaction with the world as it is - and this wager is backed up by the research of Christian Smith. We can clearly see the pain and suffering surrounding us, both in supposedly innocuous "first world problems" and the more pressing poverty and destitution elsewhere in the world. We see through the systems built up by our forebears to the fundamental injustices propping these structures up. This generation would also agree on the game plan for resolving these conflicts - awareness of diversity and suffering leading to genuine respect and solidarity, and the common effort of humankind to overcome these material obstacles to a better life for us all.

However, this is precisely where Rise Against present a message which I sympathize with, which I see taking hold in my brothers and sisters of my own age, and yet which I cannot myself embrace because it fundamentally contradicts the religious worldview I have consciously and committedly embraced. I share the pain of a world torn apart by violence, war, environmental irresponsibility, and hatred. I suffer from the loneliness of consumerist self-satisfaction in constant acquisition and long to ease the burdens which this capitalist machine has placed on the weakest and most forgotten along with Rise Against and "their" movement. And yet, the solution which they present to the problem, as heartfelt as its revolutionary message might be, is heartbreakingly insufficient. Allow me to explain why.

The first problem is in the ethical foundations for such a movement. McIlrath presents problems and pains which the majority regard as wrong, and as such they are emotively compelling for the majority of listeners. And yet, a simple ethics of majority-rule would create the same systems of exclusion and oppression we currently suffer. Popular consensus cannot be the source of our vision of the good from which to build the good society of the future - the consensus of the past enshrined sweat shops and segregation into law. Although majority-rules ethics are out of the question, McIlrath does not, and can not present an alternative: a consistent and universal good from which to build a society, cannot present a unified conception of justice from which to resolve such ethical problems. His outcry is essentially subjectivist, individualist, and prescriptively relativistic. In an anthropology in which the resolution of problems is listening and understanding the other, and granting them autonomy of desires, there is no room for a higher order to adjudicate between one desire and another. In prescriptive relativism, there is no more basic foundation of justice or ethics than the subjective goods which individual people perceive upon which to build a universal justice. In a tragic irony, McIlrath laments how individual desires and self-actualization are hampered, and sometimes completely denied, by others seeking their own individual desires and self-actualization. Thus is the inherent contradiction in such an ethics, and in such a social philosophy.

The second problem is the restriction of all human fulfillment to a this-worldly peace and respect. This is an understandable, and even a laudable goal - in a world where material prosperity, and even subsistence, is systematically denied to people because of class, race, and gender, we must build a material order which actually takes care of people in order to even approach "justice." But, in the end, if the eternal material universe continues to spin after "we're all just ghosts," and the rubble of a broken Earth is all that survives of humanity, I don't find the historical recognition that "People lived here" comforting. The pain of this world, so evident even in romantic relationships and friendships where such a love cannot end our suffering, is too great for even some kind of cosmic, eternal tombstone to commemorate. If I'm to work for the good of my brothers and sisters, sacrificing my own subjective aims in favor of theirs, the mere fact that "people live here" is not a sufficient reward for this kind of sacrifice. Only a pearl of great price, or a treasure the like of which eye has not seen nor ear heard could justify the sale and redistribution of all material goods. Only the deification of humankind, in eternal unity with God in transcendent glory beyond human language, could not merely make up for the suffering and pain, but redeem even the evil itself by the presence of the Son of God walking through it with us. If all we're working toward is some kind of earthly city, it's not worth it.

And yet, McIlrath has anticipated this religious argument, and adds more in one of the most emotively compelling lyrics I have ever heard. I'll quote it here, but to give it its full effect, you should go listen to the song.

From the penthouse to the holy martyr,
Sea to shining sea,
From the coffins full of kindergarteners:
Is this what you call free?
From the hate that drips from all your crosses,
Are your hands so clean?
There's a wildfire, and it's spreading far
From sea to shining sea.

In these eight lines of punching, terse accusation, McIlrath associates the "holy martyr" with the capitalist oppressing the masses from his "penthouse." These, in all their American glory stretching from "sea to shining sea," lead directly to the tragedies of Sandy Hook and Columbine, producing "coffins full of kindergarteners." The blind, self-fulfilling greed and the smug superiority of such people infects and characterizes even the crosses, which thus "drip with hate." These oppressive bigots, who assume that their money and their religious beliefs make them de facto superior to their fellow men, perpetuate the hatred and exclusion which is at the root of the problems listed above. As a result, can those whited sepulchers really say their hands are clean? After the wars and slaughter fought for gods and for oil? The result of this oppression is a rebellious wildfire spreading throughout that same America, which will burn down such oppressive structures and rebuild a world dedicated to love and equality and justice.

My first response to this second assault on my religion was an angry bewilderment: how could someone misinterpret the Cross: the single, fullest expression of God's love for the human race? How could Jesus' sacrificial death of reconciliation, intended to set the captive free and raise up the lowly, be seen as hateful? How dare someone call the visible face of Love hatred? But then, it dawned on me. McIlrath doesn't see the Cross as I see it, he sees it as we, Christians, present it. He sees it as the in hoc signum of imperialistic bigotry and hateful exclusion. He sees the cross as the standard and weapon of the Westboro Baptist Church, the moral legalists, and the ungodly union between Church and greedy Republican party, by which the "followers" of Christ beat and accost the weak and rejected. Nothing could be further from the reality of the Cross, but nothing could more accurately describe the public facade we Christians have built for the tree of life in America. "Christians" picketed the funerals of gay soldiers, "Christians" refuse to accept even the slightly impure into our communities, and "Christians" systematically deny the poor their place among us. This is our fault. Nostra culpa, nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa.

The only proper response from Catholics and Christians, then, is revolution. The revolution of the "New Evangelization" heralded by Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. The "New Springtime" advocated by Benedict XVI. The "Evangelii Gaudium" preached by Francis. If we want the Church to be a plausible solution to the woes of the world, then we must become such change ourselves in the revolutionary act of sanctity. Because the Church ontologically and eschatologically is the immaculate Bride of Christ, we as her historical members had better start acting like Body of He who "did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant." This is the only kind of revolution, the inversion of worldly power systems inherent in the selling of worldly goods for the Kingdom of God. May the poor woman who God raised to be blessed by all generations, as proof of His love which raises up from the netherworld, intercede for us with her Son, with whose mercy we can repent and faithfully begin to spread the Gospel anew.



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