I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live. …
– Deuteronomy 30:19
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
– John Lennon, from his song “Imagine”
Dec. 7 is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which instigated America’s involvement in the resumption of World War in the mid-20th century.
Dec. 8 is the anniversary of the senseless death of the poet/songwriter John Lennon who penned what, in their fond imaginings, many avowed and secret proponents of socialist utopianism know to be their spiritless “anti-national” anthem.
The juxtaposition of these anniversaries invites us to reflect on the nature of war and peace and the ironic relationship we have with both, on account of our humanity. There’s a sun-drenched, basking lizard quality to John Lennon’s siren song of peace that corresponds to a deep longing experienced by all human beings, though not all are willing to admit it. It has the rich, fresh-baked aroma of home, touched no doubt by the subtle but pervasive memory of the time when the warmth of our mother’s womb was our all-embracing universe. Safe and secure, one subsists in an effortless dream, with all the give and take of life; all of its primordial labors of self-possession already done, even the breath of life itself.
After a little thought, it turns out to be not at all surprising that many of the people whose professed or guilty pleasure it is to dwell, from time to time, on Lennon’s invitation to dreamily live as one are the same people who have done everything in their power to make the mother’s womb a more certain place of death than any battlefield. They are perfectly happy to pretend that human life can be taken for granted, unless and until that common sense interferes with “a woman’s choice.” Then they remember that choice is essential to humanity, including the choice involved in deciding to care for the life of another as you care for your own.
Lennon was right to wonder whether anyone can really “imagine no possessions.” Without self-possession, who is there to do the imagining? Isn’t the first condition of human life, in the womb, the very image of that self-possession; of humanity as the being within itself, possessing itself distinctly because it carries, in itself, the burgeoning image of its own possibility? Yet from the perspective of the child, which is that possibility, one human being exists as it is because, in some respect, another human being has already realized what it is and accepted its being as though it were her own. Because she is already what the child is to be, the mother is prepared to provide all that is needed so that the child may become what, in and through the mother’s being, it already is. In this respect the birth of each human being represents what the Scripture portrays as the condition of all the world: “That which is has been already; and what which is to be has already been; and God seeks after that which has passed away.” (Ecclesiastes 3:15)
Since the first of his possessions is himself, man cannot imagine himself without possessions. But on account of that primordial possession, the mother’s acknowledgment of the child has to be a choice, a choice conditioned by the fact that it is literally in her possession; and that by nature she is inclined to remember the child that way even after it is born. But despite these factual conditions, she still has the final say. She may or may not continue “sharing all the world” with the child. Though for a time, and by nature, the child shares in her being, after some time, and also by nature, the child comes into its own. There is a moment when the mother may accept or reject the being that can exist without (outside of) her as still identical to the being that was once wholly within (and part of) her. Is it especially in this moment of choice, when she identifies a being distinct from herself as nonetheless still her own in some respect, that the woman achieves, on behalf of all humanity, the existential breakthrough to self-consciousness, i.e., the form of self-possession especially characteristic of humanity?
It’s wickedly ironic that some of the very people who respond to the dreamy idealism of Lennon’ s anti-national anthem also wax eloquent in defense of “choice,” i.e., the possibility that we may choose not to see ourselves in others and share all the world with them. We can say yes or no to the claim they represent upon our lives, our time, our effort and convenience. It turns out that Lennon’s dream is, in the strictest sense, just a figment of the imagination. It banishes the element of choice. It is therefore, strictly speaking, not a human dream of peace at all.
By contrast, it was no Lennon-like mirage of peace that Patrick Henry had in competition when he deployed the famous rhetorical question intended to inspire his compatriots to embrace the hard necessity of war for the sake of liberty. As we are reminded in the opening scenes of Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” in the populous, well-settled portions of Britain’s American colonies, some people surely enjoyed long days when the warm, sweet peace of home and self-possession was not some lyrical fantasy. But the slavery in their midst was a constant reminder that, in the end, peace may be a choice made at the expense of liberty, a choice that thereby denies the essential attribute of humanity, as some of them denied it to those they enslaved.
Do generations openly or secretly steeped in Lennon’s self-extinguishing fantasy of universal peace and brotherhood have any understanding of the spirit that made Patrick Henry’s call to arms an inspiration? When Henry exclaims, “Forbid it, Almighty God” he reminds us of the key to that inspiration, which some still recognize as the true key to life itself. By invoking the standard of God’s authority Henry calls to mind what distinguishes Lennon’s denatured peace, devoid of religion and humanity, from the human and spiritual peace that accepts “the responsibility for conscientious choice that is the inescapable fate of those willing to answer for the human vocation.” For all their maudlin, prevaricated visions of peace, the suppression of this vocation is the true goal of Lennon’s dreamers. And these days, unhappily, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it’s no heaven.