Atheism and political activism were two of the drugs I regularly ingested throughout my college years. I shed myself of the weighty burden called faith that I had carried around during my youth, and was committed to saving the world one vote, one rally and one angrily penned editorial at a time. The most irresistible temptation on campus—and in many romanticized quarters of American life—was the belief that if God does not exist, the dedicated and educated few could remake the world in our image. Greed, corruption and evil were, at least in the governance of public affairs, eradicable. They were simply the right reform, legislative procedure or shift in “public consciousness” away from banishment. I founded a political organization on campus, wrote commentary for local newspapers and small websites and traveled to Washington, D.C., to march with hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters.
I shared the belief held by most of the educated political class—both on the largely secular left and largely religious right. Politics is the gateway to redemption. Being informed is the ultimate virtue. The more a person is informed, the better chance he has of being wise, compassionate and righteous. With each newspaper article, blog post and NPR report, redemption is within grasp. Someone who is not able to scrutinize the intricacies of a congressional quarrel or international dispute is either stupid, selfish or both. The Internet facilitates a culture of both amateur scholarship and communal inactivity. It is now possible for many people to obsessively study the details of Libyan politics, while ignoring the suffering, sickness and struggles in their own neighborhood.
In 1985—the year I was born and right around the time America began its decline into one monstrous scene of the money changers in the temple—Bob Dylan gave one of his few television interviews on 20/20. When the interviewer mentioned his participation in the We Are the World, USA for Africa project, he said the following in his trademark style that oddly combines cool detachment and intimidating focus: “People buying a song and the money going to starving people in Africa is a worthwhile idea. But I wasn’t convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves.”
Dylan’s personal blend of sociopolitical pragmatism and spiritual fatalism is exactly what has made his lyrical content consistently fascinating and uniquely inspiring since his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s. It is also a useful template and reliable guide for Christian citizenship in a fast declining republic and crumbling empire in the 21st century. Take active steps to help people, and do what you can when asked for assistance, but always remember there is a divine order to things, and that submitting to that divine order is the only way “people can save themselves.”
Bob Dylan’s music played a pivotal role in the reawakening of my faith. There were intellectual inquiries and personal experiences that helped bring me back to Christ, but Dylan’s music was the alarm clock to my soul.
The morning came with sun slicing through the blinds, and I began a brand new day. I grew closer to God and worked to strengthen my faith. At the same time, I started surprising myself. I was paying less attention to politics, and no longer going into conniptions and convulsions after witnessing the latest performances from the Roman Circus: tax cuts for rich, broken campaign promises and mindless debates over the accuracy of five word slogans written by highly paid public relations professionals and charge-by-the syllable speech writers.
I volunteered for a food bank run by a church near my house, became a better friend, lived according to kindness rather than sanctimony and prayed. I behaved stupidly and selfishly on occasion, and will continue to so. Perfection is unattainable, and Christianity, while I do believe it does cause most people to behave more tenderly and charitably, is not a magical antidote for sin.
It does, however, as do many forms of spirituality, reinforce the urgency of the tiny and the majesty of the miniature. Political obsessions rest everything on large matters in large cities of which most people have little influence over. Concern for sick people is channeled into attentiveness to the health care reform debate, which may result in a check in a mail, a letter to the editor or a body at a rally. Spirituality places priority, emphasis and ultimate value on the day-to-day, minute-to-minute and second-to-second shifts in behavioral activity that define our lives. Seemingly insignificant gestures of kindness and personal reforms of love have the power to change lives, improve the outlook of a person’s future and affect the world by creating relationships of reciprocity.
My mother, who is a hospice worker, lives by the wisdom of Mother Theresa: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
In a nation with an increasingly dysfunctional and disconnected system of politics and culture of less intimacy, less sociability and less community, Mother Theresa’s advice, which my mother accepts and actualizes every time she provides comfort and care to a dying patient, is revolutionary.
On an individual level, the enormous failures of politics are paralyzing, while the small triumphs of sacrifice and sensitivity are empowering.
The current pope recently said that “wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much.”
Since religion saved me from politics, I have become a kinder, calmer and happier person. I’ve also become more empathetic, no longer categorizing people as political enemies or allies, but categorizing people simply as people. Through such a broad categorization I can appreciate that my imperfections are the imperfections of everyone else, and that the deadliest imperfections—greed, corruption, evil—are never eradicable. No political reform or revolution will cure people or society, which is a collective creation of people, of them.
Jesus addressed this reality with the perfect balance of engagement and distance. Judas betrayed Him, because He was not sufficiently radical and incendiary in politics. Judas failed to see the truth of Jesus’ message that no problem—personal or political—is solvable without beginning with the spiritual.
Setting the spiritual as a starting point rescued me from the sinking sand of political obsession where the harder you try to move, the faster you sink. That doesn’t mean that people should be apathetic. Injustice, violence and unfairness demand a counterpoint and counter-voice. Activism must, however, be balanced by a recognition of the fallen world and the limits of human solutions to human problems. Faraway causes must also never distract one from the needs right outside the front door.
As Bob Dylan sang shortly after religion saved him from politics:
Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all your thoughts
Karl Marx has got you by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots
When you gonna wake up?
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). He is 26 years old and lives in Indiana. For more information please visit www.davidmasciotra.com.