Review of Derek Webb’s “I For an I”

This article continues our series on Derek Webb’s latest CD. We are reviewing every song from the The Ringing Bell. This post is written by Southern Seminary student Matthew Wireman from Off The Wire. Previous posts from this series can be found under the category Derek Webb.

I am convinced that pacifism is the illusion of an over-realized eschatology. The main premise for pacifism is that love of neighbor will conquer all. This love is demanded of the Christian in Jesus’ command to love our enemies. This command is then taken by the pacifist to the totalizing level of government and a prescription for all. Rather than killing the war-mongerer, we are to extend our arms out to him and love him.

I say this view is over-realized eschatology because it lives in a world that fails to make the distinction between the already and not yet of the Christian life. As Augustine taught, Christians live in the city of man but are citizens of the city of God. One day there will be no wicked men who rape women and gloat over the poor. But we do not live in that New Heavens and New Earth. I wish we could love our enemies to death. But we can’t. There is a cataclysmic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. We do not see with our eyes this battle clearly, but it wages nonetheless. Manifestations of it can be seen in men like Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Hungry for power and willing to destroy any obstacle to their lust for more, these anti-christs live among those who are starved for peace.

Because of this mixing of the wheat and the tares (so to speak), God has instituted government to make sure the oppressors do not become the majority. This is a gracious gift that ensures that the message of the Kingdom of God will continue to spread and save. Thus, governments are commanded to wield their swords with integrity. They are to squash any attempt the serpent’s descendants have of world domination. This gift of government is why I cannot be a pacifist (though I do have strong inclinations to be). On with the song…

it’s the desire of my heart
it’s the anthem of my birth
I love you till you cross the line
then watch my faith turn into works

here’s to hoping we evolve
here’s believing that we will
blessed are those who seek for peace
in control are those who kill

Webb acknowledges by these lines that he understands the tension between the already-not yet. His reference to evolution is provocative but fair. We are born into a degenerated human race. Compared to Jesus, who is the very image of God, we seem like beasts. In this sense our only hope is a new evolution caused by Christ. Until then humankind will never have real peace.

Webb is very covert in his rebuke. His slap across my face (as non pacifists) is very intelligent. It took me a while to figure out what he was saying. “Is he speaking to Jesus? What does he mean by his faith turning into works?” Well given the context of the song, we know that Webb is speaking of loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. He is speaking to his neighbors. Once you cross the fence and set yourself against me and mine, I will not settle for that. No, I am told to love my enemies and, in theory, I do a great job of that. But as soon as the ideal becomes incarnate I will react. In other words, I say that I will follow Jesus and turn the other cheek, but as soon as someone impinges on my assumed rights my faith in God’s sovereignty wanes and I take revenge in my own hands.

What a slap this was when I figured out he was talking to me! He believes he is taking the high road by taking the more humble road. I would rebut by pointing to the distinction between Jesus’ command to individual righteousness and large-scale governance. When Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, it had to do with personal offenses. We cannot generalize his command to his disciples and make it a political stance in all cases…there is a time to stand down and another to stand up.

an I for an I
will never satisfy till there’s nothing left to see

I really like this pithy chorus. Obviously this is a play on “I” and “eye”. What is interesting about this phrase that he has chosen to use is that when we seek to take the life of someone else we are replacing their rights with ours. We are saying, in essence, that my existence (read ‘being’) is more valuable than yours. In other words, to kill a murderer is not solving the problem. It is merely multiplying the perversity.

To this I would heartily disagree. We live in a society that is growing more degenerate and perverse. The day when torture is entertainment as is simulating the rape of a 15-year-old is a day when darkness has clouded the light. It is a day when we must not turn the other cheek for this would be an abomination. It would be scarring to the image of God present on us all.

I was born to go to war
it comes so natural to me
sure as a hammer finds a nail
death is the only way to peace

What is ironic about this verse is that Webb is right in his sarcasm. That is, peace is only found at the end of the sword. I am speaking of the sword that Jesus will wield at the end of the age when he returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth. The wicked will be sent to eternal condemnation and righteousness will dwell on the earth. Death truly is the only way to peace.

However, I do not want to twist Webb’s words. He is highlighting his own struggle with pacifism. Again, this is why I love Webb. He is honest, even when it hurts. It is hard for him to be a pacifist because he believes that pacifism is the right exercise of faith in God. And so, although his flesh cries out for retribution, he will extend his arms and embrace the murderer. I would argue that pacifism is lack of faith in how God has ordered the present world that awaits the consummation.

I’ve got a killer instinct bringing out all of my best
I’ve got a poison conscience telling me to go with that
this may not work and I don’t guarantee that it will
but I’ve got no choice unless you tell me who Jesus would kill

See above paragraph for a glimpse of how we must look forward to the return of Jesus. He will kill people who are set against him. This is a far cry from Webb’s vision of Messiah. Indeed, it is a far cry from our Sunday School flannel boards.

The bridge is Webb’s last cry for the non-pacifists to persuade. Until he can stop his assumption that non-pacifists are blood-thirsty, he will never be persuaded. Until he stops believing that governmental retribution is the product of a poisoned mind, he will not have his mind blamed.

Again, you must realize that government is not set in opposition to God’s decrees. It is one of the means that God has ordained so that splinters of peace will be lodged in the calloused skin of the unrighteous. May we exercise faith in God’s grace. And may we raise our voice when the sword is not wielded as it ought – specific instances can be seen in totalitarian regimes. May we look forward to the New Heavens and New Earth where righteousness dwells. May we hasten the day of our King’s return. And may we as disciples of Jesus leave our personal pandering for vengeance to his eschatological hand.

Posted By Matthew Wireman

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9 Responses to Review of Derek Webb’s “I For an I”

  1. Matt H says:

    I wonder if Derek isn’t more making a plea concerning the veangeful attitudes Christians often have. Personal pacifism is something much different from political pacifism, and, by-and-large, personal pacifism should characterize the life of the Christian. I think that whether Derek supports political pacifism or not, he is most concerned that Christians be individuals who strive to be at peace with all men. In fact, I find this statement of yours to be compatible with such a plea: “And may we as disciples of Jesus leave our personal pandering for vengeance to his eschatological hand.”

    There are often things that Derek says that I disagree with. If he is politically pacifistic (and some things he has said would lead me to believe that he is), I would disagree with him; I take the same stance as you, Matthew, toward the role of government, etc. Yet, I’m positive that Derek would want Christians as individuals to take his message personally, first and foremost, and if they embraced a political pacifism, that would be gravy.

    What do you think?

  2. Tony Kummer says:

    Personal pacifism versus political pacifism is a very helpful distinction. The individual and the government can not operate on the exact same positive ethics. For example, a government can not “love its neighbor” in the same sense as I can love my neighbor.

  3. Excellent post. I very much agree with this dissection of Webb’s political philosophy. Overambitious for the current age, and naive. Good post.

  4. You make some good points, Matt H. I would agree that Webb would probably put more weight on individual piety than large-scale coercive discipleship. I think that Webb would consider it more than mere icing on the cake if people adopted political pacifism. The lyrics that Webb shares puts out political pacifism as though it is the logical outworking of Christian discipleship. I discuss taking Webb’s lyrics as a unit (one interpreting another on my first post in this series) – Your thoughts?

  5. Matt H says:

    Matthew, you may be right about Derek wanting Christians to adopt a political pacifism. In fact, I conceded in my first comment that I believe he does seem to be a political pacifist. But the fact that this song is sung almost entirely in the first person speaks loads (to me at least). I’ve heard Derek say over and over again that his songs like this one are about exposing the sin in his own heart first and foremost.

    Maybe some of the conservative Christian reaction to this song and others of Derek’s (I’m not saying yours) illustrates a large point made by the song: Christians in this country don’t tend to have a strong relish for peace in general. If I had Derek’s publicity and came out in support of, say, socialism, even with a strong theological basis (say, a personal outworking of a Two Kingdoms view), and was very outspoken about wanting Christians to adopt this view, what do you think would be the majority reaction from most American Christians? Would it be characterized by a peace-loving attitude? Doubtful.

    Though I agree that Derek’s political pacifism (if indeed it is) is a form of over-realized eschatology, it seems to me that American cultural Christianity (of the very conservative flavor) is a far more over-realized eschatology even than this. The former tries to exercise Kingdom ethics to the best of its ability in the already/not yet, while perhaps misapplying them to some extent by a blurring of the Two Kingdoms. The latter, however, is far more blatant in its attempts to imminentize the eschaton and blind to God’s ordering of the world that now is in its push for a “Christian America.”

    BTW, I don’t think that individual piety vs. “large-scale coercive discipleship” is the issue here, even in our discussion. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “large-scale coercive discipleship,” but it sounds like something I don’t think Derek would support at all.

    All this to say, from what I know of Derek, he’s not afraid to go after politics, but even in his political statements he seems most (by FAR) concerned with the attitudes, thoughts, and motivations of individual Christians and the Church, that they be driven by an intense love for their Savior and hatred for sin in any form. And this before and above whatever political considerations that love may seem to foster.

    What think ye?

  6. Good points, Matt. For the record I do not advocate the agenda of the Christian coalition or the agenda of the theonomists. Thus, I don’t want to coerce people to espouse a certain set of rules. This is where we begin to be fuzzy on many issues – ie abortion, homosexual unions, etc. For these we would need to have a separate discussion. For now, let’s stick with political pacifism.

    I say “large-scale coercive discipleship” because the command to turn the other cheek and loving our enemies was directed to Christ’s disciples. To seek policy that wants all people to turn the other cheek or say “I forgive you” is coercive (albeit passive-aggressive; irony and pun intended).

    As for the socialist point you make, you are right to think that there would be a backlash against such a view (although buttressed by theology). There is not a problem with such a reaction (per se), but the fact that the majority of Christians do not have a theological backbone to support their position it is not justified (to use Plantinga’s terms). They are warranted, but have no rationale behind such a view. I long for the day when Christians (mostly in the United States) will not be culturally-conditioned to vote for a certain politician or a particular stance. This is why I love Webb’s song “New Law” because I think he is spot on. And I think this is what you are pin-pointing.

    As for the individualistic side of the song (where he uses the first person), I think you are probably right. I know that Webb is very particular in his usage of the first person and how we should interpret the song. Good point. I still, however, believe that he is trying to persuade his listener to adopt a pacifist viewpoint – as though it is the closest to Christ’s path.

    As I said, I think that both pacifism and Christian coalition-ism are over-realized eschatologies. We need to rightly divide the two cities – of man and of God. We long for the consummation of the age, yet we must realize that governments are meant to keep order – punishing the wicked and blessing the righteous.

    I admit there are difficulties (due to the already-not yet) with regards to conviction of the innocent…but for those that are blatantly evil (the Hussein’s) those with the means have an obligation to bring justice. It would be blasphemous for those who have the means to turn the other cheek when a woman is raped and her husband tortured.

    Do you see the distinction I want to make between personal piety and public justice?

  7. Matt H says:

    Yeah, I understand the distinction you are making. Some of the things that come to mind reiterate some of my recent comments on the “Savior on Capitol Hill” post on this blog.

  8. dave says:

    I think also a point that Derek made about his album Mockingbird and that I’m sure he’s would say the same about The Ringing Bell, is that one of the primary goals of the album is to get people to really think about these issues and to talk them over and really hash them out – because they are NOT clear issues – I mean, there isn’t just a pat answer to lay down and say “this is how it is” and I think he would even say that about his own viewpoints. And I think some of his lyrics are intentionally a bit abrasive, because that’s a great way to get people to talk about them.

    Anyway, my personal take on a lot of his music that has the topic of peace versus violence, is that when it comes down to it, his heart cries for peace. I also think that he focuses much more on the individual’s attitude and heart than any kind of overall political agenda or anything like that. And I think the last song on the album, This Too Shall Be Made Right, is him stating exactly what he is being rebuked for in this review – that there is a time for peace and a time for war, a time for forgiveness and a time for revenge – that this is the world how it is – and yet that isn’t how it is supposed to be.

    It may be true that for now there is violence and war and death and all kinds of horrible things – but individually, do you just accept that as they way things are and should be, or on an individual scale, do you try to behave differently? Do you try to build others up rather than pull them down, do you give to others even when it makes you uncomfortable, and when you’d rather take from them? Do you realize that you can crush a soul with just a few words, and choose not too, even though the other words are much harder to say?

    Also, even in terms of the big evils in the world (for example Hussein), we can say, “oh yeah, it’s fine for the U.S. Government to go in and kill him because he’s evil,” but then we end up in this mess we’re in now, where Saddam is dead and Iraq has its own government, and yet for some reason we’re still fighting a war, and over what, and our government has taken HUGE liberty to follow their own agenda on the basis of “let’s kill Saddam because he’s evil.” So I don’t think even that is a simple answer.

  9. Joshua says:

    Right on Dave!

    Derek is clearly talking about the individual, not the government. He’s not a pacifist “I will protest the sword if it’s not wielded well.” – He’s not against the sword itself, but the misuse and abuse. The lyrics of the song clearly speak to our tendency to speak about brotherly love and Christ, yet when it comes down to it we murder in our heart and with our words. Murder and war is not always guns and tanks, but our thoughts and gossip. By the way who would Jesus kill? – yes in the end there will be judgment, but Jesus killed not a single soldier, governor, or priest.

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