As a musician, everything that I hear speaks back to me. If I focus, every song, every tune expresses a meaningful aspect of humanity. Through reading, experiencing different cultures, and visiting the United Nations, I am in awe of such a large and ecumenical congregation of people from every corner of the world who seek to unite transformative solutions to the world’s most divisive problems. For most, a love of music converges with a concept of unity, but for me there is one song that exemplifies this beyond all other songs: Imagine.
I’ve heard and seen the lyrics to this song everywhere, even in a children’s book published by the UN. John Lennon’s Imagine has been paraphrased, sung, and arranged several times. One need not be a budding diplomat or policy maker to understand the song’s appeal to the timeless desire for peace and love. Anyone who dreams about championing world solidarity can imagine no better anthem than John Lennon’s, with its poetic lines and soothing harmony. On a social level, so many recite the song’s lyrics as a kind of slogan for an idealistic call to ‘world peace’.
But if we examine the lyrics more closely, we discover a greater insight into the story of Lennon’s time. This was a generation disillusioned with the dominance of ideology and counter-ideology in its era. Like many in the postmodern era, Lennon responded with a vision for a utopian society without the institutions and covenants which people believed constrained them. In a world which barely took one breath after the scourge of World War II before it succumbed to the Cold War, the idea of a world without countries, religion or anything “to kill or die for” started to sound desperately attractive.
This idea is not new; utopian literature has been around for centuries, most famously in Saint Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia in the 16th century, which satirically examined the concept of a utopia. Although utopian literature seems to be all about perfection, it tends to highlight a major flaw: the lack of purpose and the breakdown of a society’s members into mechanical cogs. A world with “no countries” may seem less divisive, but in many ways countries enshrine cultural solidarity. A world with “no religion” would eliminate religiously-motivated violence and extremism, but it would also erase humanity’s innate search for the transcendental. If there is ‘no heaven’ and nothing to ‘die for’, then what are we here to live for?
By no means am I trying to nit-pick the song Imagine to destroy its cry for ultimate human solidarity. Lennon’s vision inspires me to seek solidarity as much as it inspires other young visionaries. The song cries for “a brotherhood of man.” However the context in which most visionaries hear this cry leads them to subscribe to ideologies which, at their core, are relativist, and somehow eliminate our grasp of the things that make us human: our convictions, our aspirations, our hopes, and our dignity. As More and several other writers of utopian literature acknowledge, this type of society erases many qualities representative of our humanity. Lennon’s envisioned brotherhood of man begs the question: a brotherhood for what?
One can understand the disillusionment experienced when a conviction such as religion induces individuals to offend another’s dignity through murder or persecution. However, if we interpret Imagine as a rallying cry towards a nihilist, empty world, then we have fallen for a misrepresentation of reality. This is an illusion that seizes several from our generation, which has swerved toward the side of cultural and religious difference, and fails to see a guiding purpose behind religious philosophies.
Perhaps, as the young visionaries and change makers, we ought to imagine a society of every country, every religion, everything to die for, rather than eliminating all of these. As Lennon himself noted when someone approached him suggesting a world with ‘one religion’, such a call misses the fundamental point. Thus, we must not answer a call to transcend culture, ethnicity, religion, but rather we must transcend the false dichotomies which interpret these ways of thinking as divisive. After all, culture, ethnicity, and religion represent the call for humanity to transcend divisions into discovering its common purpose.
By Miguel Vera-Cruz, a WYA member from Australia