by Jude Southerland Kessler
“Ev’rybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism…
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m!!!
All we are saying is give peace a chance,
All we are saying is give peace a chance.
This past month, we watched the United States devolve into chaos. Across our nation, violence, resentment and suspicion reigned supreme. No matter what “side” of the issues one was on, the destruction and hate was horrific. But is life in 2020 so very different from life in 1969, when — during his late May honeymoon Montreal “Bed-In for Peace” — John Lennon composed this powerful and pleading anthem?
Well, let’s see. Between January and May of 1969, long-denied Irish citizens were crying out for independence against an unwanted English presence in Northern Ireland. They marched and rioted. Some used more desperate measures. Similarly, uncontrolled student riots in Madrid, Spain, required government intervention in the form of martial law. In March, Sirhahn Sirhahn unblinkingly confessed to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and days later, James Earl Ray blatantly admitted assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over in Malaysia, bitter race riots erupted across the country. And in Northern Ireland, British troops were called in to quell escalating and bitter clashes between the Irish and British living there. Most tragic of all … throughout the spring, the Vietnam war rumbled on, ruthlessly taking life after young life. In fact, the bloody battle of “Hamburger Hill” was beginning just as John Lennon penned his beautiful song for peace. The world of 1969 was not happy.
Like many of you, I grew up to jingle-jangle theme music from TV’s “Happy Days.” Each week, joyous sounds invited me back to that magical era of Fonzie, Richie and the gang. So, in hopes that the decade of drive-in malt shops, hot rods, rock’n’roll and poodle skirts had been brighter, I hurried to investigate the “Events of 1958.” But you guessed it! 1958 was equally rife with problems. That year, as the threat of nuclear war escalated, children were routinely taught to “duck and cover” in school hallways. Civil Defense tests blared over family televisions, and fallout shelters sold at an amazing rate. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was initiated and their symbol, the “peace sign,” was first created. International tensions, which eventually led to “the Cold War,” increased in 1958 as Khrushchev became Premiere of the Soviet Union and Castro’s growing revolutionary army attacked Havana.
In search of idyllic days, I spent hours scanning through the yellowed pages of history to see if I could find one era or one decade or even just one year when life wasn’t riddled with discord. But from the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada to 1776’s American Revolutionary War to 1798’s French Revolution to the devastating World Wars of the Twentieth Century to the crippling effects of Covid-19, I couldn’t find a single season without turmoil. In every corner of history, I unearthed myriad ills that served as catalysts for division. But I found few moments that prompted people to “come together” (yes, another Lennon classic) and work as one.
In “Give Peace A Chance,” John offered one possible explanation for life’s continuous discord. He theorized that early on, we are taught to adopt “isms” we hardly understand. We are taught to emulate heroes we hardly know. And we are taught to value our differences more than our similarities. He wrote:
“Ev’rybody’s talking about ministers,
Sinisters, banisters, and canisters,
Bishops and fishops and rabbis and Popeyes…
And bye bye! bye bye!
All we are saying is give peace a chance!
All we are saying is give peace a chance!”
Poetically here, John points out the various artificial divisions that separate us, one from another. And quite like another radical young man from a different age — Jesus of Nazareth — John urges us to try a new path forward. He asks us to turn the other cheek, to be a neighbor to people unlike ourselves, and to love one another. To give peace a chance.
Although those four words, “Give Peace a Chance” sound trite and slogan-y, they are really quite revolutionary. What John is asking us to do is bold and brave. He isn’t asking us to trust everyone blindly. Some people are untrustworthy, and giving peace a chance doesn’t mean being naïve or foolish. He isn’t asking us to embrace everything and everyone foolishly, brushing aside wisdom learned from experience. And certainly, he is not advocating buckling under to bullies. What “giving peace a chance” does entail, however, is living unafraid to bring good into the world … or in the lovely words of Galatians 6:9, being “not weary in well-doing.”
In so many of his songs (especially in “Happy Christmas, War is Over”), John Lennon reminds us that we are all called to do good things … great things. He sees this task as our essential responsibility. We are called to help one another. We are called to put ourselves in one another’s shoes. We are called to ease burdens and see pain through others’ eyes. We are called to lift each other up. And repeatedly, John reminds us that if we are called, then we must try.
There are so many voices around us tonight: blaming and criticizing and shouting and decrying. There are so many raised fists and pointed fingers. Could ours be the still, small voice of calm? Could ours be the hands that reach out in the darkness? It won’t be easy; that’s for sure. History illustrates that this world isn’t designed for peace. But in May of 1969, John asked us simply to try, to “give peace a chance …” That’s all he was sayin’. Might we attempt that route for a change? Because, really, when it comes down to it, what’s the worst that can happen? What have we got to lose if we all come together? Think.
To hear the Lennon songs in this blog, go to:
“Give Peace a Chance” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkZC7sqImaM
“Happy Christmas, War is Over” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Vfp48laS8
“Come Together” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oolpPmuK2I8