Thursday, December 08, 2005

End of the Innocence

"It was twenty-five years today
Sgt. Peppers told the band-- 'Don't play'
Lennon's been shot and killed
By a fanatic seeking a thrill
So let me introduce to you
The thing you've dreaded all these years
Your one and only greatest fear---
The End of the Innocence"

Dec. 8th 1980 was a gray day anyway. It was a Monday, and it was cold in Central Park West. But the external atmosphere could not hold a candle to the chill sent through millions of American souls when Howard Cosell announced on Monday Night Football (of all places) that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his N.Y. apartment building. For many of us baby boomers who had cut our musical teeth on seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in the early 60s, the sound of this announcement was the sound of taps. It was the end of our innocence.

Someone who had really made us believe that love and peacemaking would indeed make a difference, perhaps even overcome great odds had been taken down by the very force he had worked so hard to put an end to-- ruthless, cowardly violence. Yes cowardly-- it is easy to shoot and run, easy to be brave behind a gun when all you are facing is an unarmed person. John Lennon knew this well when he sang when total sarcasm "happiness is a warm gun".

Of course the Beatles had disbanded ten years before, but Lennon was to go on and release several seminal solo albums thereafter promoting love and peace, including of course "Imagine". He had become a family man dedicated to raising his children, and spending most of his time at home. He had come to shun the limelight. He loved N.Y. Those who find it remarkable that Bono lives in NY today have forgotten that one of Bono's models was John Lennon.

Of course it is true that John Lennon was not a saint in any strict sense of the word. But he was a brave proponent of peace, understanding, and love, something many of us clung to through the dark days of the Vietnam war, the Watergate disasters, and a President leaving office in shame. When Lennon was killed, the idealism which had been sparked by John Kennedy and fueled by the Beatles died a cold hard death.

By the time this happened in 1980 I had long since been a committed Christian, but there was a small part of hope within me for my country that died on that day. Not of course the eschatological hope grounded in Jesus. No I am talking about the hope for civility, understanding, love between neighbors in America. The hope that we could work out our differences regardless of our religious commitments. The hope that we could always bear in mind this is a nation of resident aliens-- all of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants except the native Americans.

Between the deaths of John Kennedy and John Lennon we had seen the death of so many things we had attached our dreams to--- the Peace Corps, VISTA, freedom of speech and religion. Slowly but surely the goodness of the culture was being drained away.

As most Christians are beginning to realize now, we do not really have freedom of speech when it comes to religion in this country any more. There used to be a time when we could discuss these things peaceably even in public schools. There was a time when we could pray openly at public events. Little by little these free expressions of hope and faith have been whittled away by the forces of darkness in our culture.

What we have failed to realize however is that one of the reasons why the light of the Gospel was allowed to shine rather widely in our culture in the 60s and 70s was because we had strong advocates for such free speech, including people like John Lennon. Today, instead, we have 'correct speak', we have the Patriot Act which labels as sedition something that may merely be a genuine and respectful difference of opinion about our government's current policy on one issue or another.

Dec. 8th 1980 was in a real sense the end of innocence about our freedoms, or at least the beginning of the end. Now we must live with the closing of the American mind, the failure to take time to dialogue with other points of view, the repudiation of anything we do not instinctly like or agree with. Discourse degenerates into name calling, polemics replace respectful discussions, ad hominem arguments by shock jocks and obnoxious political pundits replace seeking understanding.

Then too, the recent movie "Good Night and Good Luck" reminds us of what fear based decision making at the public policy level does to a culture founded on such basic freedoms. It strips the culture of those freedoms, and pretends to offer in exchange 'security'.

And where are we now twenty five years later? Is our society really more nearly Christian than it was in 1980? Do we really have more freedom now than then? Have we learned the lessons of no-win foreign wars which drain the lifeblood from our youth, drain the resources from our economy, drain the good will from our allies, drain the hope from our hearts that America might actually become a more Christian country and a moral example to the world? I don't think so. And oddly enough the church is doing very little to stop this cultural drift into darkness and madness.

Perhaps it would be better to say that 1980 represents the end of the old naivete about human nature unredeemed by God's grace. Perhaps we should see it as a reminder that "our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness". Perhaps it is time to remember who our real liberator is, who has really set us free. Its not politicians or musicians, its Jesus. At Christmas, it is good to do some mental housekeeping and put things in perspective. And if we do that we will honor the sacrifices of the peacemakers whom Jesus called blessed.


masonbooth said...

Dr. Witherington,

hello from the a former student. just wanted to say that i am enjoying your blog. is there a place where i could get a copy of your speaking engagements over the next few months? would love to hear you lecture sometime. gotta run....keep up the good fight!

Merry Christmas,

mason booth

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mason: Simply check my schedule on my website at



DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

I wonder if you could flush out your thoughts on JFK a little further. I have a lot of respect for Lennon (if God can speak prophetically through the likes of Balaam, then perhaps he also spoke through Lennon?), but I wonder about your brief comment on JFK. Having spent some time studying Kennedy, I have trouble understanding how the two may be comparable. Perhaps you could enlighten me?

Grace and peace,


Ben Witherington said...

Hope some of you caught 20 20 last night and saw the interview of Barbara Walters with Mr. Chapman who killed Lennon, especially the part where he said he prayed to Satan for strength to be able to do it. He thought he was acting out of the plot of the novel Catcher in the Rye.

As for the question about Kennedy, I am referring to his forward looking vision and inspiration speeches on going to the moon, on the Peace Corp, on Vista, which inspired so many youth of my era. His "ask not what your country can do for you" speech inspired many to go and serve in these various ways. I am of course not referring to his personal ethics. I do think he handled the Cuban missle crisis rather well. You should check out the DVD-- Thirteen Days.

Matt said...

perhaps we could further track the downward spiral of our culture by looking 14 years down the road from 1980 and the death of another brilliant rock icon. i refer of course to the suicide of kurt cobain, driving force of nirvana. if with lennon's death, innocence in the u.s. died or at least faded, then perhaps it is natural that our next ultrapopular and ultracountercultural rock star would, rather than brave the odds, eventually succumb to them and take his own life. how long i wonder before the violence of cobain turned inward turns outward in another, perhaps leading us down the road of hitler?

matt varnell

ps - i think the above 1st year named brett who posted is my best friend from college, the highly esteemed rev. maddocks.