Cash and Contradiction
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church, Alton, Illinois, June 8, 2008
One of the many myths we live with in these United States is that the South lost. Of course, it’s a fact that Lee did surrender to Grant, so the South did indeed lose the military campaign of the Civil War. Of course, it’s a fact that slavery was dismantled, at least formally, so the South can be said to have lost in that regard as well. But in so many other ways, rather than being labeled a loser, the South can be said to have become the cultural and political center of this country.
The South, and Southerners, are not as radically “other” as typically portrayed. Post-Civil-War Reconstruction failed, not least of all because racist attitudes were found not only in the southern states but nationwide. No president can get elected without carrying the region and, therefore, various types of “Southern Strategies” have been hatched by both Republican and Democratic parties over the years. Even population density has shifted southward, meaning more of us grow up with ‘southern accents’ than ever before.
Rodney Clapp has a new book out entitled Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation . In it, author Clapp draws upon these truths and the music and life of the late singer Johnny Cash to ask some important questions about the contradictions inherent in democracy, religion, and culture as practiced in the United States of America. Critiquing our national mythos, Clapp points out the contradictions in our stories and belief systems using these dichotomies: lonesomeness and community, holiness and hedonism, tradition and progress, guilt and innocence, and violence and peace – all present in our national mythos, and all full of contradictions that we usually ignore or deny or simply aren’t aware of.
Let’s take just three of these dichotomies in some detail. First, holiness and hedonism. In the prelude this morning, Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” the singer sings about his familiarity with the drunk tank in Atlanta in one verse, and about his pious dreams of his mama’s praying in the second verse. Apparently he revels in hedonistic behavior that often lands him in the hoosegow, and nearly simultaneously he values connection and conversation with the holy: a contradiction that comes from holiness and hedonism alive together in the same life. Johnny Cash covered this Tom Petty song about fifteen years ago, long after Cash’s own struggles with hedonism had landed him at times actually in jail but most of the time simply labeling him in the popular mind as the quintessential country music outlaw. But he was holy, too: Even during his hedonistic days, Cash kept a contact with himself to ‘tithe’ his music, recording one sacred song for every nine secular ones, “10% to the Lord,” he said.
Another good example of this holiness/hedonism dichotomy is a song Cash covered to good effect: Kris Kristofferson’s The Pilgrim. This one sounds a lot more country than the others, but listen for the holiness and the hedonism in the lyric.
Next dichotomy, tradition and progress. Johnny Cash grew up, traditionally, in rural Arkansas raised amid deep family and cultural traditions, and like so many other youth of that time and place, he couldn’t wait to get out. Against the stifling tradition of his upbringing, progress was in movement and often took the form of transportation to ‘anywhere but here.’ Salvation was in the leaving and in going without any destination in mind. Train songs became a staple in Cash’s repertoire as in so much of American music.
[An aside: Clapp uses the term American quite a lot, and I must say I’m torn about its use. I can’t help but feel the elitism of this term, Americans, remembering our ‘North American’ neighbors to the north in Canada and to the south in Mexico, and further south in all of Central and South America – are they not all Americans, too? Still, I have no better word for “those who live in the United States” – “U.S. citizens” now has the same elitist ring as ‘my fellow Americans’ because of recent immigration politics…]
Anyway, train songs traversed the distance between tradition and progress. The railroads were synonymous with progress, fueling the industrial revolution and linking cities with towns with farms and ranches, and eventually one coast with the other. And yet this progress came with a steep price: the cheapening of human life and work and physical ability in the face of the impersonal onslaught of technology.
One of Cash’s personal favorite songs, “The Ballad of John Henry,” tells of a steel-drivin’ man who heroically bests a track-laying machine, only to lose his own life in the contest. This was the way it seemed to so many nineteenth-century workers trying to make the shift from agricultural to manufacturing jobs: a normal person couldn’t keep up with the new-fangled machinery. And the tradition of feeling like losers continued into the mid-twentieth century as manual laborers fought to keep pace with industrial advances.
Tradition is fine until you feel so stifled you can no longer breath. Progress is fine until technology takes your job and renders your way of life obsolete. Johnny Cash felt both these extremes in his own life, and had a deep feeling for all his countrymen and –women who were suffering a similar fate.
A third dichotomy: guilt and innocence. In our country’s mythos, we have always been innocent. We’re innocent: we fought a war of Revolution with the British because we had to, even though our Canadian friends achieved independence without loss of life. We’re innocent: the Spanish-American War was a noble enterprise, even though it led directly to a bloodier war in the Philippines a year later. We’re innocent: It’s not our fault that the First World War that was the war to end all war was wrapped up so badly that it led to a second world war just twenty years later. We’re innocent: the people of Iraq were supposed to welcome us as heroes – there must be something wrong with them. Not us, we’re innocent, we’re always on the side of right.
In this guilt/innocence dichotomy, Johnny Cash ended up on the other end of the spectrum from most of his fellows. His personal sense of guilt was solidified at the age of twelve when his older brother, Jack, was killed in a sawmill accident, working to support the family while young Johnny was away fishing. Johnny’s father Ray came to find him and took him back to the house to show him the split and bloody clothing Jack had been wearing when the saw blade opened up his body. Jack lived long enough for Johnny to visit him. Jack spoke to others but never acknowledged Johnny’s presence – a sure sign of Johnny’s guilt somehow in the young boy’s mind, and one he never got over. Johnny would speak of having murdered his brother himself, as if Jack wouldn’t have died had Johnny not gone fishing that day. This was not helped by Johnny’s memory of his father, in a drunken rage, yelling that Johnny was the one who should have died that day, not Jack.
So in this regard, Johnny Cash was as un-American as one can be: he grew up knowing in the deepest recesses of his heart that he was not innocent, that his life was built on the losses of others. Author Clapp puts it this way:
Maturity means the assumption of appropriate responsibility, the ability and willingness to take credit where credit is due and blame where blame is due. It means admitting, not denying, our actions and their consequences – then acting accordingly. The United States is without doubt a great actor in and on world history, but nothing holds it back from becoming a democracy for grown-ups so much as the myth of innocence. As Cornel West observes, “We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the nightmare of its own history. This sentimental flight from history – or adolescent escape from painful truths about ourselves – means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up.”
You don’t have to be a Christian with a strong sense of original sin to hear the truth of these words.
Johnny Cash’s understanding of his own culpability led to a sense of kinship with the underdogs of the world, all those who struggled against systems of injustice and oppression. He wrote this song in 1971.
[Man in Black]
So these are some of the dichotomies and contradictions Rodney Clapp says are inherent in our culture. And these are some of the ways the author shows Johnny Cash to be an exemplar, or in the last case, a refusenik or negative example of the American nation.
Clapp argues in this fine book that we should wake up and see the truth that surrounds us, and grow up and become the citizen/participants in democracy that we should be. And in this, I agree with him wholeheartedly, even if I consider myself ‘differently religious’ than he, with his deep grounding in Christianity and mine in Unitarian Universalism.
Clapp’s final point concerning religion and patriotism is a good one, if provocative to those who are differently religious. The author in his last chapter explains why, in his own mind, one’s Christianity comes before one’s American-ness; that when one’s religion is at odds with one’s patriotism, religion must by all rights be the deeper commitment by far.
Taking him at face value about his own Christianity, I wonder what our answer would be to a similar quandary between our Unitarian Universalism and our country, our culture, our community. Clapp says he is Christian before he is American; if asked to prioritize the facets of our identity, I wonder how many of us might list Unitarian Universalist near the top.
What sort of commitment do we have to this faith of ours? Do we come to this church more to find friends and to be entertained than to learn new ways of living? Do we act out our UU values and principles on Sunday mornings and act out something else the rest of the week? Do we really practice what we preach, or is this church just a convenient way-station on a journey to nowhere in particular?
I hope we’re finding what we need here. I hope we’re learning to live not just for ourselves but for others. I hope we’re on the path to growing – growing ourselves, growing our community, growing in ability to think and feel and respond to life and take responsibility appropriately – in short, I hope we’re growing up.
So may it be.
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