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Michael Kessler- “Bono’s Prophetic Rock Concert: Just Law and Religion”

U2 at FedEx Field, September 29, 2009

U2 at FedEx Field, September 29, 2009

U2 performed at FedEx Field last Tuesday, and, unfortunately, my wife and I were unable to make it to the concert. By all accounts it was amazing.  With a hat tip to Melody Fox Ahmed of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, I discovered this review by my Georgetown colleague, Michael Kessler, that appeared in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog. I reproduce it in its entirety:

Bono’s Prophetic Rock Concert

JUST LAW AND RELIGION

Michael Kessler

U2′s 360 tour came to the DC region Tuesday–complete with a 164-foot tall spaceship stage and glitzy light show. The tunes were smooth and sexy; the stage was spectacular–even carnivalesque. But what stole the show was Bono’s prophetic message about human dignity and rights.

The show was like a rock opera rendition of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And it was a moral call to action.

Bono, aware of his audience, shouted out to many political leaders present at the event — Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle, and Joshua Bolten, among others. He dedicated songs to “Teddy” Kennedy and Eunice Shriver. Some have noted he “balanced” his dedications between liberals and conservatives, since later in the show he dedicated the song “One” to the U.S. Congress and President Bush’s leadership “for the 4 million souls that are now very much alive because of ARV drugs paid for by the United States…God Bless America.”

I interpreted the dedications not as political pandering but as praise for jobs well done. Kennedy’s tireless efforts for health care and the impoverished, and President Bush’s tremendous leadership on AIDS relief in Africa deserved Bono’s sincere praise.

He also offered moralistic quips — “Democracy is hard work and we know that in this city” — whose simplicity betrayed their profundity.

But Bono’s political message was not Fox News or MSNBC sniping. It wasn’t about electoral politics but the need for power politics to be continually refined and transformed toward the common human good. These are too often cheap words. But with an extravagant stage and a gigantic 360-degree screen, Bono conveyed a powerful message of human suffering and hope.

Bono’s mission is simple–use his music to remind us that life sucks for many, many people around the globe. As his church teaches, we are all complicitous in that, but we can do something about it. And God demands that of us. That’s where the tough work begins.

Bono reminds us of the dangers of our own dull efforts to forget others toward the end of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”:


And it’s true we are immune when fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die
The real battle just begun to claim the victory Jesus won on

Anyone listening to U2′s music has long known that the Irish band’s lyrics are steeped in Catholic Christian notions of justice and love, perceiving injustice amidst global poverty, oppression, and hate. He has been advocating debt-elimination for years and urging for stepped up efforts to stamp out the worst examples of poverty. And he sings palpably religious songs before crowds of 80,000 (he introduced “Where the Streets Have No Name” with an acoustical guitar solo of “Amazing Grace”), while giving shout-outs–”We have a Cardinal at a rock show”–to his friend and co-activist Theodore Cardinal McCarrick.

The message at Tuesday night’s concert focused more on political rights and powerfully united people across the spectrum (I was attending with people on the political right and left who all thought his message was spot on). He dedicated “Walk On” to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected leader of Burma who was overthrown by a military junta and has been mostly under house arrest since 1990. The song speaks against oppression around the globe and the power of the human spirit to hope and conquer:

And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it’s a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
Before the second you turn back
Oh no, be strong
Walk on
Walk on
What you got, they can’t steal it
No they can’t even feel it

Nowhere was Bono’s gospel of human rights more clear than when he sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” set against jarring images of the oppressive crackdown on protesters of the recent Iranian election. While Bono decried oppression in Ireland, the images broke down any sense that there was a difference between the denial of political and civil rights in one country or another. When will we stop fighting, torturing, oppressing, and killing?

I can’t believe the news today Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How long? ‘Cause tonight we can be as one, tonight

This message of unity in the face of suffering–and our unity in empathetically calling out and fighting oppression–was profoundly reiterated by Bishop Desmond Tutu in a taped message. He said:

The same people who marched for civil rights in the US…who protested apartheid in South Africa…who work for peace in Ireland…are the same beautiful people that I see when I look around this place tonight in 360 degrees. We are the same people. We are the same person. Because our voices were heard, millions more of our brothers and sisters are alive, thanks to the miracle of AIDS drugs and malaria drugs.

Bono is surely one of our greatest musicians. More than singing great tunes and putting on a glamorous show, he feels a deep responsibility to use his talents to raise awareness of global challenges and mobilize people to respond out of concern and love.

As he wrote in a 2003 essay “Challenge for Our Generation,” included in a World Bank publication Millennium Challenges for Development and Faith Institutions, he sees his duty as a musician “to shape a clear melody line” lest “the public will fall asleep in the comfort of their freedom, as indeed I did for many years.”

The greatest danger is not lack of capacity or resources to fight these challenges, but a simple lack of motivation. “God is on his knees, begging us to act, to get up off our behinds…and take this fight against poverty to a new level….history will be hard on us, and God will be even harder, if we fail.” We do not act because we ignore the suffering of others. In the midst of multi-million dollar stage and light shows, Bono refuses to let us forget that others are in harm’s way.

Rock on, Bono, Rock on.

Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.