I thought she was joking.
“I had to find someone who wouldn’t annoy me the whole time. Consider this your fair warning—this will be a spiritual experience for me.”
A friend called me a couple of weeks ago with an extra ticket to see U2 ’s Joshua Tree tour. I remembered liking some of their songs on the radio, and knowing that everything sounds better at a live concert, I happily accepted. Having not yet been lured into the cult of Bono’s personality, all I knew was the legend that preceded him—international poverty relief icon, (aging) Gen-X sex symbol, and all-around good guy.
As the openers left the stage, a scrolling montage of poetry slowly came into focus. While those around me were ordering another $12 beer and taking selfies with their new merchandise, the depth and radicality of this real-life “U2charist” struck me. Maybe this dude was the real deal. While waiting for the founder of the ONE anti-poverty campaign, the author of the corporate (RED) campaign against HIV/AIDS, and the role model for American evangelicals (not to mention multi-platinum rock star) to come to stage, my friend proclaimed, “I think Bono just reads poetry when he’s not recording,” barely giving the screen another glimpse.
“you made that mistake, scratched your initials in the paint
an unmarked crown victoria pulled up, full of white men
they grabbed your wrist & wouldn’t show you a badge
the manager clucked behind the counter, thick as a white hen
they told your friends to run home, but called the principal on you
& you learned Black sins cost much more than White ones.”
-excerpt from “Ghazal for White Hen Pantry” By Jamila Woods
In a city that is predominantly black, a stadium full of white people who paid more than a Benjamin for tickets is not going to be the nexus for authentic justice conversations. I work for a white, affluent, suburban, mega-church, so I’m used to that. But at that moment, before the music even started, I knew what my friend was referencing—I was about to get spiritual too.
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed
They saw their names listed
in the telephone directory of destruction
They were trained to turn
the other cheek by newspapers
that misspelled, mispronounced
and misunderstood their names
and celebrated when death came
and stole their final laundry ticket”
-excerpt from “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri
Then the lights went out and the stage lit up, and 60,000 white people finally started paying attention.
My neighbors were two beers in when Bono shouted out to all of the women in his life, while reminding us that his-tory was just as much her-story. It was around this time that he made everyone feel welcome “no matter who you voted for.” (Mind you, Bono has famously banned 45 from his tour.)
Three beers in, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was exploding from the guitars. Bono wailed “shots rang out in the Memphis sky” while a montage of Martin Luther King, Jr., flashed in the background, and the subtle reminder that white supremacy killed a preacher and a prophet has me feeling the Spirit.
Then 60,000 white people screamed at Bono’s pandering, “America! You are the Dream!” Meanwhile, I couldn’t stop wondering how many of them were updating their status to “MLK never blocked traffic!” while we marched for Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd.
Four beers in, and Bono is giving my now drunken neighbors credit for being AIDS activists, since we (presumably) paid our taxes to a government that has advocated for the subsidized drugs that have saved millions of Africans. I guess he isn’t an American, so I can’t be too hard on him for not understanding that the same government he is praising also ignored the very same problem when it was predominantly the LGBTQ community taking the brunt of that epidemic. Oh yeah, and 45 hasn’t paid income taxes in like 18 years. Is that the reason he wasn’t on the guest list?
It is easy to recognize his genius, transforming suburban pocket change into white ONE bracelets into millions in aid for the poorest. Somehow he convinced corporate dollars they would be cooler if they were colo(red). But St. Bono, you can do better. We need you to do better, because this tiny taste of do-gooding may actually be counter-productive.
No decent person would ever fight you that AIDS is a bad thing or that poverty should be eased. A crowd full of middle-aged women isn’t going to argue against their place in history being properly annotated. But spare me the pandering and corporate liberalism, that thin spiritual experience of feeling “connected” to a worthy cause.
This is the real problem: the shallow connections you facilitate and use to milk people out of some cash, also make them less likely to participate in the actual justice work that would eliminate poverty and injustice. Moral licensing allows us to justify not actually supporting breast cancer research because I already wore a pink sweatband at a softball game in October. I need not worry about indigenous coffee farmers being pushed off their land by corporate monsters because Starbucks offered fair trade coffee for the extra $.63 this morning. I changed my profile picture for a whole week, but that didn’t actually stop terrorism? For crying out loud, I poured a bucket of ice water over my head! You’re telling me I need to actually donate money to ALS research too?
In much the same way, I’m wondering if my evangelical friends’ love of U2 says something about the ways we are being shaped in the church too. All too often, the Sunday experience is very similar to my Bono encounter: read some liturgy, listen to a concert, hear a few words, and bam! All of a sudden, just like we are all now recognized as AIDS activists for having paid our taxes, we are all now devout Christians because we stumbled out of bed on Sunday morning. But listening to worship music does not a Christian make, and perhaps our shallow understanding of activism is mirrored when we refer to a U2 concert as a spiritual experience.
I pay my tithe, you mean I have to volunteer too? We hired a children’s pastor, why do I also need to talk about spiritual matters around the dinner table? We have a hospitality ministry, why do I need to be nice to people? Our mission and evangelism committee covers outreach, so surely I don’t need to love my [poor/minority/LGBTQ/etc.] neighbors.
The real work, both being a Christian and an activist, is hard. But I’ll make a deal with you, Bono: I won’t let us think that showing up on Sunday morning makes us a Christian without doing the hard work of reconciliation. You don’t let us think that purchasing our concert ticket is helping to dismantle patriarchy, racism, and economic structures of oppression—especially when you have a chance to preach to a whole stadium full of the very ones perpetuating these systems. If that were the kind of spiritual experience I wanted, I could just go back to church.