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Johnny Cash Was My Hero
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Johnny Cash, RIP—A Memorial
Johnny Cash was my hero. Why?—because Cash always found ways to ground his life and art in authentic and biblical—and often therefore messy—faith.
Tho’ you travel into hell, I am there
Johnny Cash was my hero because he refused to draw a divide between what is “authentic” Christian music (or company) and what wasn’t. He believed that he could burrow deep into any song—regardless of the source—and find something of the redeemer at work in it.
His catalogue is filled with examples of this commitment. From the traditional country gospel songs that he recorded and played throughout his career to the darkest and (existentially and literally) violent “outlaw” cowboy and prison songs that explored the darkest aspects of our human condition to the broken, near nihilism of the “alternative” rock songs he baptized on his final four American dics, Cash refused to try to resolve the difficulties or quandaries of life and suffering with a quick gospel bridge or chorus. Cash instead did with the darkest songs what Jesus did: he entered his songs wholly and completely—incarnating them—at once affirming the experiences that shaped their darkness or hope and finding ways to suggest God was at work in all of it. In short, he redeemed them—unearthing a holiness and bringing grace to them in way that can’t be done from a distance.
No Respecter of Persons
Cash was my hero because he understood that following Jesus meant being a man of the people, regardless of their weaknesses. Indeed, Cash new his own frailty too well to ever judge the brokenness or sinfulness of another, creating a kind of inclusiveness in his friendships that was, well, Christ-like. Those who counted him as friend became the most unique—and delightful—juxtaposition of characters imaginable—evangelists and punk rockers, counter-culture gurus and conservative Presidents, rhinestone cowboys and outlaw rebels all might be found in his home or on his tour bus.
In the late 60s, for example, when most of the country music establishment (and Evangelical establishment for that matter) was, at the least, folding their arms and harrumphing at the growing counter-culture (and frequently responding in far less gracious ways), Johnny Cash took another path. Even as he was cultivating a deep friendship with Billy Graham (and becoming a regular at his crusades), he began spending long hours with the best representatives of the youth culture—he remained friends with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and others to his death—trying to understand their restlessness with North American culture, and more often than not, offering encouragement to that restlessness. He was all things to all men, as the Scriptures say, and not once was his integrity called into question.
His Strength Made Perfect in Weakness
Cash was my hero because as he aged, he managed to incarnate the biblical notion (too often lost on this generation of muscular believers) that the Spirit takes residence in our frailty and uses it to God’s glory. In the winter of his life, Cash’s distinctive voice, once nearly seismic, waivered under the ravages by time, hard living and disease. And yet the work he completed in the last decade stands with the best of his career. Why? Where the younger Cash might have song forcefully through a lyric, the elder Cash was forced to cling to every syllable for dear life, like it might be his last, singing through a frailty that gave each song an air of dynamic, painstakingly beautiful immediacy.
It’s yet another example of a great artist—and theologian—at work, as Cash allowed his weakness to be transformed into strength. Indeed, while his voice may have been less than it was, his singing had never been better.
The Man in Black
Finally, Johnny Cash was my hero because he understood that being a believer meant living for others, especially for those who suffer, are broken, and are marginalized. He would have nothing of a Gospel rooted only in the “sweet bye and bye” or one that suggested that those who suffer were responsible for their anguish. Instead, he worked ceaselessly on behalf of the “least of these, my brothers,” speaking out for civil rights, the rights of workers and small farmers, perhaps especially, prisoners. His prison concerts were legendary, creating an affinity with “cons” that remained to his death.
This commitment to faith-based social activism was especially poignant durinjg the Vietnam War, and Cash’s enigmatic and courageous response remains suggestive of a model for genuinely patriotic dissent.
In song and life, Cash made it clear that he agreed with those who waved placards and signs in protest for civil rights or against the war-—a brave act in the chest pounding, flag waving, ‘my country right or wrong’ world of Country music. But what set Cash apart from so many anti-war protesters was his obvious and genuine compassion for those who were fighting. He made it clear: while he believed “our boys” shouldn’t be over there, they still needed support and comfort, so he and June traveled frequently into the battle zones (not just to Viet Nam) to perform, visit the hospitals and offer whatever kindness or mercy they could. Because of that—-and regardless of his anti-war sentiments—-he became a favorite of the troops.
I thought of Mr. Cash often this spring as the country moved toward war. While listening to those who sought to squelch all dissent with the phrase “you must support our troops,” Cash provided me a model of how to offer that kind of support to the 'rank and file' (and doing it well, I might add) while still retaining the ability to unapologetically oppose the war in which they fought. In fact, whenever I encountered someone who countered my opposition to the war with that “what about the boys?” argument, I would answer only two words:
May he rest in peace.
THE MAN IN BLACK
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
John R. Cash, © 1971 House of Cash, Inc.