Review of Derek Webb’s “A Savior on Capital Hill”

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 Owen Strachan from Consumed. Previous posts from this series can be found under the category Derek Webb.

I love Derek Webb’s past musical offerings. He excels at interweaving theology and music. His song “Wedding Dress” is marvelous. Yet Webb is now going in a new direction in his musical career, one more political and “prophetic” than his previous offerings. In Webb’s song, “A Savior on Capitol Hill,” Webb makes two basic points: 1) Christians cannot trust in politics to save them, and 2) Jesus is not a member of a political party. The song is one of the strongest realizations on the Ringing Bell album of Webb’s political philosophy. We’ll analyze the song by its various parts.

I’m so tired of these mortal men
with their hands on their wallets and their hearts full of sin
scared of their enemies, scared of their friends
and always running for re-election
so come to DC if it be thy will
because we’ve never had a savior on Capitol Hill

The first thing I would say about this verse, and indeed the whole song, is that it is sung well. Derek Webb has some rock-star in him. He wails this tune, and he makes you feel his music. I find that Webb’s music wears a bit upon extended listening due to his strong, coarse delivery, but in doses it is sweet medicine in a saccharine industry. Derek Webb sings with his heart, and he does it well, in a 60s folk-rock kind of way. Off the bat, then, his delivery grabbed me and his original, fresh style gripped me.

Webb also writes with his heart. His lyrics in this first verse rightly portray an uncomfortably common reality in today’s world: the corruptness of many politicans. The political world is fraught with doubt, manipulation, and uncertainty, and Webb, with his Reformed worldview, understands this. Everything in this world is shot through with sin, and D.C. is no safe haven. In his final line, Webb points out a key idea: that people often look for a savior to come in the political arena. This has been true since the days of Samuel, was true in the days of Christ, and remains true in the current day. In seeking a savior through political means, then, we are committing an error almost as old as the world itself.

you can always trust the devil or a politician
to be the devil or a politician
but beyond that friends you’d best beware
‘cause at the Pentagon bar they’re an inseparable pair
and as long as the lobbyists are paying their bills
we’ll never have a savior on Capitol Hill

It is in this second verse that Webb’s lyrics veer off the track. Put simply, he’s too cynical. I’m afraid that he’s swallowed the “radical” pill, and chased it with a shot of “anti-authoritarian cynic.” This is a popular concoction with Webb’s generation. Its imbibers often wake up with a tattoo on the arm, muttering angry bloviations about the establishment. Webb paints with a broad brush here, informing us that the devil and politicians form an “inseparable pair” at the Pentagon. He has similarly venomous words for lobbyists. While we can acknowledge that there is sin and corruption on Capitol Hill, we can also say that Webb is playing the “radical truth-telling” card a little strongly here. I personally know a bunch of D.C. lawyers, political types, and lobbyists, and they are to a person Christians of strong conviction and character. In addition, there are many honorable politicians in our society. Webb’s verse smacks too much to me of the pious, generalized critiques offered not by prophets of the Light but by prophets of the Left.

all of our problems gonna disappear
when we can whisper right in that President’s ear
he could walk right across the reflection pool
in his combat boots and ten thousand dollar suit

you can render unto Caesar everything that’s his
you can trust in his power to come to your defense
it’s the way of the world, the way of the gun
it’s the trading of an evil for a lesser one
so don’t hold your breath or your vote until
you think you’ve finally found a savior up on Capitol Hill

These last two parts of the song are more cryptic. It is true that we should not trust in the President or in the power of the state in an ultimate sense. That’s wrong, and we sometimes make this mistake. Yet I fear that this third stanza verges into pacifism and an absolute condemnation of war and violence. The state’s right to wage war is not a “lesser evil,” it’s a God-appointed means of protection. “The way of the gun” can be abused, but it is surely a good thing when it’s pointed at “the way of the Nazis.” The very concept of order and law is gracious, and the fact that much of the world’s population has lived under some form of government is a sure sign of goodness to sinful mankind. Furthermore, we ought to remember that Jesus didn’t shriek against the state. He paid His tax to it, and told everyone else to do so, too–in a state and an era far more corrupt than ours. The problem is, Webb’s lyrics don’t allow for the nuance of this paragraph.

“A Savior on Capitol Hill” is musically powerful, and it makes a sound point, that Christians too often seek a political savior rather than trusting Christ in a shaky world. But it leans toward anti-authoritarianism, distrust of politicians, and pacifism. One yearns for the older Derek Webb, who approached the world with insight and nuance and beautifully articulated the gospel. The world is filled with edgy, unqualified rhetoric, political commentary heated to such a temperature that all subtlety is boiled out. For his sake, and our sake, Derek Webb should avoid it. The gospel, and his talent, demands it.

posted by Owen Strachan

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8 Responses to Review of Derek Webb’s “A Savior on Capital Hill”

  1. Tony Kummer says:

    Owen – you did a great job on this review. I’m looking forward to your next post. How long did you live in the DC area?

  2. Matt H says:

    Owen, I agree. This was a well-written review. Good job.

    “In doses it is sweet medicine in a saccharine industry.” Nice.

    “The state’s right to wage war is not a ‘lesser evil,’ it’s a God-appointed means of protection.” This is certainly true. The state and its functions of executing justice, even to the point of waging war and executing murderers, are legitimate under God’s ordering of the world that now is, but EVERY state in this world economy since the Fall has to one degree or another turned bestial. The bestiality of the state does not negate its legitimacy, but we must acknowledge (as Derek does) that the state does not fulfill its functions fully, and it often and subtly turns its sword (whose power to be wielded was given it by God) around at God like an upturned middle finger. It was for this that God judged the world that then was with water. (I take Kline’s view of Gen. 4-6.) So to the extent that any state wields its sword unjustly and bestially, its particular EXERCISE of its legitimate, God-given right and power to wield the sword IS really evil.

    And perhaps a dose of radicalism is needed to jar American Christians (and dare I say, even Reformed ones) from their willingness to trust any politician wholesale just because he is “conservative” and, say, pro-life. Some of our pro-life politicians are HORRIBLE in other areas: “a trading of an evil for a lesser one.” And in those areas we may need to CONDEMN their policies. It’s such a hard place to be in. Do we vote for conservative politician X because he opposes abortion, disregarding the fact that maybe all of the rest of his foreign and domestic policies are deplorable? Such a situation might make one want to publicly condemn the injustices of the whole system, as it might seem Derek has done.

    Again, this was a well-written review. For some reason, though, I just can’t bring myself to be so quick as some (not saying you are) to condemn or dismiss Derek’s music just because it hits me in a place I wasn’t expecting, my politics.

  3. I’m not a big Derek Webb fan. I prefer subtelty in my music. But I do share a bit of his cynicism regarding politicians. Malcolm X said it best that voting is like choosing between a wolf and a fox. Regarding war and such I ran across a fascinating quote from Spurgeon the other day.

    “Whatsoever things are honest, true, kind, humane, and moral, may reckon our aid. We are on the side of temperance, and therefore on the side of the limitation of the abominable traffic which is ruining our country; and we are opposed to all that licenses vice among men, or allows cruelty to animals. We are up to the hilt advocates of peace, and we earnestly war against war. I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that if a nation is driven to fight in its own defense, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervense as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter. Let us always be on the side of right. Today, then, my brethren, I beg you to join with me in seeking renewal. Now is the time for a man to buckle on his harness, and bestir himself.

    Charles Haddon Spurgeon, An All Around Ministry, “A New Departure”, page 153.

  4. Tony Kummer says:

    That is a great quote. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Matt H says:

    Amazing quote! Thanks!

  6. [i am *not* posting this as a response to owen’s review]

    i posted this link on an earlier review.. but to hear derek in his own words discuss these songs, you can listen here:

    http://derekwebb.net/archives/2007/04/11/derek-and-geof-on-the-ringing-bell/

  7. Tony–I lived there for a year. It was an incredible experience. Got to know tons of people from a variety of backgrounds. Great time.

    Matt H-You’re right that everything is shot through with sin, including all governments. That is a Reformational view of things that I embrace. However, we can overdo it. It is the nature of this world that we must accept some sin in things and people. Yet this reality should not drive us to cynicism and over-generalization, but to realism. We can acknowledge reality, I think, without turning angry. That, in my estimation, is a more mature, constructive response. Equating the devil and politicians may make for a Dylanesque lyric, but does it contribute to a solution? No, it paints too broadly, and maligns those who are working for good. And yes, there are a good many people in this world working for good. I refuse to believe that there are not, and to turn cynical (though as I said, I am realistic about sin).

    Men like Churchill, Reagan, Lincoln, Wilberforce, Kuyper, and others prove to me that while evil is a great political force, good is as well. I would prefer political commentary, then, that offers a balanced, nuanced view of things. This is what Derek Webb excels at in his theological songs; I would like to see the same qualities come out when he tackles other topics.

  8. Matt H says:

    Owen, fair enough. Though I think Derek would agree with most of what you just said, and I don’t think he’s as angry as you think.

    This has been fun.

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