This week, we honor St. Joe Strummer, the guitarist and lyricist for seminal punk bands, the 101ers and the Clash. His later career with the Mescaleros was equally rich. Perhaps this is a selfish choice. Paul and I are just huge fans. We never miss an opportunity to include one of Joe’s songs in our services. It is not difficult because Strummer’s lyrics so often fit with who we are as a church. But there’s more to being a saint than just writing some good songs. We honor St. Joe because he is a shining example of punk rock and the emergent church is punk rock: counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian, and DIY.
Punk rock was born in the midst of the global malaise of the 1970s. Most of the great leaders of the ‘60s were dead, most by assassination. By 1973, a global economy that rested so heavily on oil entered a tailspin. Watergate and Vietnam had exhausted everyone. People just wanted a break from the bad news. Music was there for them, with bombastic rock and disco to dance the night away.
But some young rockers thought music should be about something. It should speak to the time, provide a voice for all those young people who saw little hope for their futures. They might have only known a couple of chords at first, but they were more concerned with meaning than technique. Some bought into the nihilism, but Joe Strummer understood himself as the descendant of Woody Guthrie, even adopting the nickname “Woody” for a few years. His songs spoke of the ways that some prosper from a culture of fear and escapism and suggested that we should fight back against the malaise.
The church also has a culture of fear and escapism that produces a spiritual malaise. Some of God’s self-appointed earthly representatives pronounce judgment on the world, but guarantee a jetpack for those who get in line. The theology is shallow, built to get people in the door. There is no need to change our material reality, so we sing praise choruses, 7-11 songs (seven words, repeated eleven times) that make us feel good, but ask nothing of us.
But some young ministers thought church should be about something. They insisted on a robust and challenging theology with an atmosphere of questioning to foster growth. They often operated outside of traditional denominational structures and explored a wide array of traditions. Certain counter-traditions, such as monastic and contemplative practices, were cherished and remade. Each community uses what it has to speak to the realities of their lives rather than a distant doctrine or institution.
The people of Church in the Cliff seek to live honestly and authentically, to challenge a culture of competition and consumption. They want lives that matter and a faith that matters. They want justice and peace. For all of us who feel that way, you can’t get a better soundtrack than St. Joe.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we celebrate the life and music of Joe Strummer.
Grace & Peace,