A Dream of Life: Revisiting Bruce Springsteen's 'The Rising'
On this 10th anniversary it is essential to remember and mourn again the unspeakable acts that cut short the lives of nearly 3,000 of our brothers and sisters on Sept. 11, 2001. But to what extent will our public remembering open spaces for critical self-reflection on our actions as a nation? How many pastors, media commentators and politicians will help us draw the more painful lessons from a chain of events that led the United States into war, and thus to hundreds of thousands of additional lives lost, traumatized and wounded forever?
Catholic ritual offers a different possibility worth noting. When Catholics gather for Mass, we begin with a personal and corporate confession of guilt: “I confess to almighty God, and to you....” A crucial need is thus ritualized at the beginning of every liturgy. Through self-examination and prayer, we seek to defuse and subvert the mob mentality to which human beings are prone when we bind ourselves together in groups of shared identity and fervent faith. No one feels so innocent, so self-justified, as when caught up in the unreflective anonymity of a mob.
Consider the sublime story in the Gospel of John of the woman caught in adultery (8:1-11). As the French philosopher Rene Girard suggests in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, the story reveals more than the power of divine forgiveness and mercy given to us in Jesus. It is also about the power of stillness and self-reflection when the violence of the mob is about to be unleashed. The scene is rife with pathos and irony: The woman’s crime (no mention here of the man), which has blemished the community, can be cleansed by an act of religiously sanctioned violence. The logic of violence is neat, clean and simple. By means of pre-emptive war, said the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, we shall wipe the “Axis of Evil” from our midst. By means of unmanned drone attacks, reasons the Obama administration, we shall hunt down and destroy our enemies before they destroy us.
Jesus measures the situation, bends down and runs his fingers through the earth. The truth, he knows, is far from simple. The mob realizes this the moment he singles them out as individuals: “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” By opening a space for silence and self-examination, Jesus disarms the mob, “one by one, beginning with the elders.” Jesus opens a pregnant space for the unexpected, the seemingly impossible, to happen, no less astounding than the raising of Lazarus.
Between Remembrance and Hope
Less than a year after the attacks of September 11, Bruce Springsteen released his album “The Rising.” Like Jesus bending down to write in the dirt, Springsteen and his E Street Band opened a kind of contemplative space, through music and poetry, for the possibility of something unexpected in the wake of evil: a moment for self-examination, healing and grace. Now, nearly 10 years later, the album deserves fresh consideration, not least for the way it navigates the vexatious relationship between memory and hope—hope, that is, for something more than the same cycle of retribution, bloodshed and despair.
One of the album’s most moving tracks is “My City of Ruins.” Although Springsteen had in mind Asbury Park, N.J., when the song was written in 2000, he altered a few phrases after Sept. 11, 2001, and the song took on new significance. He voices the prophet’s cry of lamentation on behalf of a people who have seen and felt the unspeakable shatter the landscape of their lives. "Come on, rise up!" he sings, urging a congregation to return to a ruined city, to a church, open but empty, save for the sound of the organ.
The printed word cannot do justice to the original recording, much less to Springsteen’s stark, even prayerful renderings in live performances. For me the song evokes something of the diffuse anxieties and social malaise of my college students, for whom Sept. 11 will forever reverberate as a kind of Pearl Harbor moment. But it also voices that deep, universal cry in the human spirit that refuses to let death or despair have the final word.
With the band joining in and lifting him up like a gospel choir, Springsteen’s anguished refrain of “Come on, rise up!” is a dual cry both of pain and possibility, desperation and resilience. Characteristically, Springsteen offers no cheap grace, no flag-waving jingoism. The invitation to rise up is limned in remorse, a sense of complicity for the “ruins” in which we find ourselves as a people. The song’s hope is a hope against hope, against the possibility that our sins are too many, that our realization of guilt comes too late, and that for too long we have cut ourselves loose from our most humane and sacred ideals.
'Come On Up...'
Yet nowhere do memory and hope mingle more darkly and luminously than on the album’s title track, which remembers the events of Sept. 11 from the vantage point of a New York firefighter, drawn unknowing into the holocaust. The firefighter, surrounded by smoke and spirits, is bound to both the darkness in which he stands and the "firey light," which lies ahead.
With haunting irony, the chorus beckons, again: "Come on up for the rising." Painful remembrance gives way to defiant hope, the kind of hope that can come, it seems, only through a deeply mystical, if not altogether rational, faith in resurrection. Between the here and hereafter, something unexpected breaks through, something wondrous, “like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line.”
Here the poet, not unlike the priest and community during Mass, opens a window in space and time for communion with the dead themselves: the dead who alone, perhaps, can transform the rage of the living and awaken in us a vision of something more than more of the same. By remembering Sept. 11 from the other side of death, as it were, Springsteen evokes what may be the only kind of hope capable of defusing our impulse toward violence. For all its anthemic energy and abandon, the song suggests no end runs around the contradictions of the hope offered by resurrection, which the poet calls a “dream of life.” The final verse resounds with an implicit but powerful Christian realism, juxtaposing memory and glory alongside shadow and lingering sadness “in the garden of a thousand sighs.”
If the dead are not dead but raised up bodily “in sky filled with light,” what would they say to us? Would they haunt our waking and sleeping hours with the demand for retribution? Are the nearly 3,000 souls of Sept. 11 cheering even now, as our commander in chief, a Nobel Peace laureate perhaps too soon, garners widespread acclaim for his steely resolve in bringing Osama bin Laden to “justice”? Are the dead resting easier as we fill the sky in the East with drone fighters, pursuing what amounts to extra-judicial assassinations, with who-knows-or-cares what kinds of collateral damage, producing more angry ghosts, more unreconciled dead?
Or would the dead, like Jesus kneeling down to write in the dirt, urge us to pause in the deep silences of our national pain and grasp there another possible future, one too seldom imagined? Might not the dead be beckoning us even now to gaze on the faces of our enemies and find there a haunted reflection of our own best and worst selves: the same urge for justice and peace; the same righteous anger when peace is senselessly robbed; the same desire for freedom and fullness of life that we feel rising up on our most human days; the same bitterness and temptation when death seems to frustrate and mock our better angels?
On Earth as in Heaven
We call them a “cloud of witnesses,” the “communion of saints.” Springsteen dares to evoke that sense that the dead are not simply lost to us, veiled behind an impenetrable wall, but rather that in their purified and illumined presence we live, even now. Like the luminous but much-overlooked seventh chapter of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” of the Second Vatican Council, “The Rising” gestures toward an experience of community that includes the living and the dead and between whom there flows a hidden “exchange of spiritual gifts.” Even more, as the Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino intimates, we receive from the dead “a saving power: they summon to conversion, bring light and salvation.” The question is: what kind of conversion, what kind of salvation? While the prayerful remembrance (anamnesis) of the dead may save us, the highly selective way we remember is tearing us apart as a global community.
The children of Afghanistan have never known a time of peace. After almost 10 years, the war in that country stands as the longest in U.S. history. We have acclimated ourselves to protracted warfare as a national way of life. Meanwhile a majority of Americans remain insulated from the real costs, sacrifices and moral hazards of waging war, a luxury the children of Iraq and Afghanistan do not have. Can our hope be a Christian hope if it does not include them? Precisely whose dead will compel us to remember and to cry out for an end to violence, for a renewed foreign policy that lays the ground for a just, sustainable peace?
If the remembrance of Jesus is to bear any weight in our discernment, hope cannot come from the centrifugal power of wounded rage, still less from the terrible power of war-making machines. Nor can it come from a strictly “rational” sense of justice. Hope comes from the act of faith in a God of nonviolent justice and mercy, a God of the living and the dead. It comes, too, from a vision of community that lies beyond rational imagining, yet not beyond Christian memory and experience. Hope for life’s flourishing on this side of death breaks in, paradoxically, from life on the other side.
This is the dream of life that Springsteen dared to awaken 10 years ago and awakens still, if we would listen. “Come on up for the rising/ Come on up, lay your hands in mine.” Here is the real power of community: when it leads not to outward-flung hatred but to inward-directed silence and the awakening there of an impossible, fierce hope that rededicates itself to all life on this side of death.