Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.
— Paul Batalden
Suicidal Tendencies broke onto the punk scene of southern California in 1980. Long before the dreaded rap rock era of loud music1, Suicidal mixed the aesthetics of LA gang culture with punk and metal music. Not long after forming, they would find critical acclaim for their song, Institutionalized.2
The song dramatizes the story of young man who is criticized for his looks and behavior by his parents who think he might be unstable. At one point in the song, vocalist Mike Muir cries out, “I went to your schools, I went to your churches …” explaining that he is a direct result of the systems his parents created for him.
Punk has always been defined by a strong critique of prevailing systems and dominant assumptions. But more than critique in song, a punk rock ethic has lead many to seek out accountability of those in power. Through protests, petitions, and other actions punks have often set out to hold the powers accountable for their actions.
Further, they also point out to the rest of us our complicity, or participation, in furthering systems that often disenfranchise those on the margins. Suggestion by Fugazi is a striking example3 — the song decries the objectification and harassment of women in our culture, and calls out our complicity:
She does nothing to deserve it
He only wants to observe it
We sit back like they taught us
We keep quiet like they taught us…
He touches her ’cause he wants to feel it
We blame her for being there
But we are all guilty
American Jesus, Mohawks, and Faux Hawks
Several years ago Jason was watching the legendary Bad Religion play in downtown San Diego, CA. They ended their show with the song, “American Jesus.” At the peak of the song the audience chanted along mockingly, “In God we trust,” taunting the religious establishment that had reared so many of us. In that moment Jason realized something; the American Jesus that Bad Religion was criticizing was not a Jesus he wanted to follow.
We’re both too old to care anymore, but when we were much younger we knew there was a difference between punks that sported mohawks and “faux hawks.” Like Wattie Buchan4 of The Exploited or Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, those that had shaved clean most of their head with the exception of tall, often brightly colored, spikes jolting out of the tops of their scalps radically and obviously identified with punk culture. Their job opportunities were limited, public scrutiny was expected. They were serious punks. On the other hand, those who used a little hair gel to spike up their hair for the concert, only to wash it out at the end of the night could go back to being a normal kid, blending easily back into the culture—no cost, no ostracization.
Hair styles may be the shallow concerns of adolescents but punk rock provided an analog to our faith. Were we taking this seriously? Were willing follow Jesus only on Sundays? When it was comfortable? Or were we willing to follow when it was difficult as well? The Jesus that Bad Religion was mocking blindly aligned with patriotism and consumerism. It was a faux-Jesus; a Jesus that had some veneer of Jesus but none of the substance. That said, it’s easy to critique a shallow theology, the challenge is in choosing a different path.
A Different Path
From the prophets to Jesus of Nazareth, we see the same principle of speaking truth to power, holding those in power publicly accountable. What is more, they called God’s people to repentance which was more than saying, “We’re sorry, God.” Repentance begins with a recognition that we’re headed down the wrong path and is the hard choice to live differently, to count the cost, and to follow Jesus wherever he may lead.
It’s important to acknowledge our complicity in the problems we face today. Too often, we have made decisions based on fear, rather than perfect love that drives out fear. We have loved our lives and comfort in this world, refusing to plant the seeds of the Kingdom through our sacrifice. Rather than welcoming strangers, we have chosen to fortify and insulate ourselves against anyone who looks or feels different from us. We have blended comfortably into the system, rather than following the incarnate Christ, the light who overcomes darkness.
As we journey through the season of Advent, we are reminded of the stories of an unwed girl and day laborer that journeyed to Bethlehem looking for a place to stay. In a barn, the unKing would be born and his first cradle would be a feeding trough. The Gospel narrators do not provide these images on accident. They are intended to remind us that when His name is announced to mean, “God with us” that this means God’s presence would be found amidst the unwanted and outcast; not simply those we find to be comfortable company.
For varied reasons, many Christians are uncomfortable with where our nation stands today. We too are concerned. Yet we feel challenged by our punk roots and discipleship to Jesus to not simply criticize but to choose to live differently, no matter what popular opinion might be. We feel compelled to confess our complicity and to choose a different path. In our homes and Christian communities, will we embody the kind of life that the gospel calls us to?
1. Look, even Barbie was “rappin’ and rockin’”
3. See this short article from the Washington City Paper
4. Punk’s not dead, oh no! Wattie, after all these years.