Death and Collective Guilt

I don’t consider myself a real aficionado of Texas-style (or maybe just more traditional American) folk music. A bit too twangy. But playing pool in bars with juke boxes for most of my life you pick up a taste for a little bit of everything, and all that absorbed country music made me a bit more open to the twang than I otherwise might be. I discovered Nancy Griffith in the mid-90’s hot on the heels of the success of her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Twang notwithstanding, I fell in love with Griffith’s story-telling. Songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway are still some of my favorite songs for the powerful stories they evoke in the small space of a song. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert in the early 90’s and it was a wonderful experience to hear that clear voice in person.

She died today and that’s sad, as all deaths are.

I went back to listen to some of her songs this evening. They still bring a smile to my face or tug the heart strings in a way few other songs or artists do.

By chance I happened upon another of my favorite songs of hers, It’s a Hard Life. I still love the song but what caught my ear, in the midst of the rising racial tensions in our country was the last verse, a sort of confession on Griffith’s part that:

I am guilty I am war I am the root of all evil

She believed the words and the visions and promises of some great people like Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite and Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed their promises that change could come and was coming. And decades later, realizing those visions had not materialized the way she had assumed they would, for everyone rather than just specific demographics, she holds herself accountable. Though she’s not at the wheel of control, by implication she is guilty for those who are at the wheel of control, either by her support of them or her failure to stop them.

It’s a hard confession to hear after her stinging examples of prejudice that occurs in every culture and can take myriad forms. She confesses guilt that this still exists and she has personally failed to prevent it.

In the way this kind of corporate confession is currently being wielded or demanded in our country, it’s erroneous. It is misplaced. It assumes that we individually are capable of preventing people from reaching power or using power if they are not worthy of it or misuse it or fail to use it to full capacity. And it assumes at a deeper level that these things – prejudice and racism of all stripes – can actually be defeated and destroyed by our own efforts. If we just have the right leaders. The right policies. The right educational systems. The right corporate policies.

Unfortunately for Griffith and you and I and those who struggle under the oppression of real prejudice and racism, this isn’t true. Not that we don’t work towards it. Not that we can’t make improvements. But to remove these things is beyond our control. It is not in us to do so. Or more accurately, like Griffith’s confession, the sin we would stand against is present within us as well. Perhaps not in the same forms or to the same degrees, but there all the same.

And in that sense the corporate confession is appropriate. We all share in the common affliction and malady of sin. None of us is capable of removing it from ourselves let alone another person. And so we continue to struggle with sins as old as humanity. Some people are constantly amazed that a particular program or regimen failed to root out a particular sin. That is a sinful error as well, though a well intentioned one. Anything designed by a broken and sinful person is going to turn out in one way or another broken and sinful and inadequate as well.

Griffith’s bleak confession would be the last statement in her life and every life if there were not a deeper, greater hope than our own visionaries and programs. Thank God, there is.

There is only one hope for the defeat and removal of sin. One hope promised long ago in a primal garden, and one hope accomplished 2000 years ago on a cross by a man who claimed he was more than a great teacher or a great moral model, an inspirational speaker or a worker of wonders, but in fact the very Son of God. Who promised that in his voluntary and innocent death and burial, the sin within us would be overcome. All we had to do was believe this was true and who He was and what He accomplished. And for an anchor for that faith and trust He asserted He would rise from the dead after three days.

That hope and promise remain today. I pray that Griffith shared in that hope. That her disappointment in herself and others was overcome by a hope and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray it was ultimately that hope that inspired her to write and to sing and to become an inspiring voice to others and future generations.

Because I’d love to hear that clear voice in person again someday when she can sing of victory instead of defeat.

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