Imagine John Lennon 75 years old (COMMENTARY)

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Mementos and flowers left by fans lay around the Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park on the 33th anniversary of the death of former Beatle John Lennon, in New York on Dec. 8, 2013. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.

Mementos and flowers left by fans lay around the Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park on the 33th anniversary of the death of former Beatle John Lennon, in New York on Dec. 8, 2013. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.

(RNS) Just imagine: John Lennon would have turned 75 on Friday (Oct. 9).

I use the word “imagine” for a reason.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, his song with that name was the third most important popular song in history (the first being “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, and the second being “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones).

I never liked “Imagine.” I am not the only Jewish teacher who feels this way.

“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”

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Lennon was saying: Let’s get rid of nations; let’s get rid of religion; let’s get rid of the idea that there is something above me that is worth dying for, and that might even be worth killing for.

Let’s get rid of the passions that help us transcend ourselves. Maybe that’s why the melody of “Imagine” is so subdued — almost like sleepwalking.

“Imagine” is a dream, and not a very good one.

Imagine no nations, no separate peoples, no distinctive languages, lifestyles, or cultures.

A world of radical sameness.

A world that erases difference.

I actually like cultures, and languages, and national dreams (as long as they are not lethal national dreams, and make room for others).

As for “Nothing to kill or die for,” ask the loved ones of the students who were killed in Oregon last week — simply because they answered “Christian” to the question “What religion are you?” — what that means to them.

Ask the loved ones of the Jews who have been killed in Israel this past week — killed because they are Jews.

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When I was the rabbi in Columbus, Ga., every year during the High Holy Days we would welcome soldiers from nearby Fort Benning. I always called them up for a blessing. I would ask God for two things.

First, that God should return them to their families safely.

Second, that God would put them out of work.

That was my way of saying: May there be no more war.

But since there is still war, and because some of those wars are regrettable but necessary, I am glad that there are soldiers.

As for “And no religion too,” Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot imagined a world without religion. The results were demonic.

I don’t even think that it is possible to imagine no religion.

Consider the words of the late writer, David Foster Wallace:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

“If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. Worship power, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

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I loved John Lennon. I loved his sardonic sense of humor. I loved his literary flair. I loved his musicianship. He was my favorite Beatle.

But, I am not a “Lennonist.” I don’t imagine that “there’s no heaven,” and that above us is “only sky.” I don’t long for a world in which people “live for today,” and only today.

My favorite Lennon song?

“Give Peace A Chance.” I love its hopefulness — not to mention that it is the only rock song in which the word “rabbis” appears. It was recorded during John and Yoko’s famous “bed-in” in Montreal, and the late Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, the retired rabbi of Toronto’s venerable Holy Blossom Temple, visited them and sang along.

My runner-up? “Starting Over,” from John’s final album, “Double Fantasy.”

I love its optimism, which, considering the album was released the month before his death, turned out to be tragic and poignant.

At this time of the year, when we begin reading the Torah again, returning to the opening words of Genesis — I like the idea of “starting over.”

Happy 75th birthday, John.

And since I cannot “imagine there’s no heaven,” let me imagine you in it  — jamming with fellow Beatle George Harrison, B.B. King, and all the others in God’s rock ‘n’ roll band.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.) 


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  • Rafael Macedo

    The idea of Imagine is to don’t let our “differences” allow us to justify doing horrible things. I think that almost all the examples you mention are completely in agreement with the song lyrics; if there was no religion, none of the examples you present of people killed because of their religion would it happened. The question itself “what is your religion?” would it be irrelevant. I guess what you should imagine is that all the people were Jews (as in the religion). Same goes for countries.

    I don’t believe in God, but I am sure that you believe that we are all creatures created by God, so why fight because we understand/follow God in a different way (i.e. religion)? I don’t like the word tolerance, I prefer empathy. Imagine all the people with the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference.

    Try to read the song thinking in a positive way, it is about peace and love afterall. How we get there as…

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  • “Imagine no nations, no separate peoples, no distinctive languages, lifestyles, or cultures.”

    That is not John Lennon talking! I have no clue how you are reading this into Lennon’s message.

  • Barry the Baptist

    What a remarkably shallow interpretation of a song aimed at getting people to realize that the things that divide them are often not worth the division. Good job, Jeff. Way to miss the point.

    Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot weren’t eradicating religion: they were merely replacing it with their own. Statism and the cults of personality they developed had all the markings of of a religion, whether or not they (or you) realized it.

    As for imagining no religion, it sounds like you and Mr. Wallace are woefully unimaginative. The secret to religion is mindless worship, a willingness to, at some point, surrender your intellect and disbelief. Skepticism is how you keep yourself from falling into the trap of worshipping undeserving gods, whether Yahweh or the State. And even skepticism does not deserve worship.

  • Dominic

    Though a successful song writer, Lennon was an air-headed bon vivant, who believed his own publicity and led a life no one should mimic. Like many other “stars”, his young death beatified him to a status undeserved. Same as Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison. All would be broken down has beens now had they lived.

  • Jack

    Max, of course that’s John Lennon talking.

    Google “Imagine” and read the lyrics, for Heaven’s sake (literally).

    What is it about “imagine there’s no countries” that you don’t comprehend?

  • Jack

    A bit too simple, Dominick. Lennon was a self-absorbed child of the 1960s, but he wasn’t just that. He was at the same time a person who cared deeply about human suffering and was generous in responding to it. Sometimes he leaped into causes without looking, but at the same time he was capable of criticizing himself, admitting mistakes, and seeing through hypocrisy.

  • Jack

    No Raphael, that’s not so. Lennon isn’t saying not to let our differences lead to something horrible. He goes much farther than that. He’s saying it’s precisely those differences that are the problem.

    The intention of the song is beautiful, but the implications are ominous.

  • Sadie

    Dominic, here’s some better gospel music for you to listen to:

  • Lennon sang: “Imagine there’s no countries”

    That doesn’t mean a loss of individuality, or a loss of distinctiveness or a loss of varieties or cultures. Lennon’s song envisions a world where people can accept each other without nationalism or tribalism – religion is the obstacle. Religion commands uniformity and totalitarian worship of something divisive and horrific.

    Instead, Lennon imagines a world where people live as one – in peace – not because they fear death (i.e., religions) but because they embrace this life and each other.

    To be against ‘Imagine’ is to be in favor of absolutist decrees and wars.

  • The song is an escape from reality. Many who are delusional live there. It is loved by God haters everywhere. I enjoy the Beatles music like many of us do. But Lennon I think was angry at God because he lost his mother at an early age. As I understand it, he was very close to her. This is a common tale for many atheists. Someone close to them passes away and they turn away from God. That is very sad. We need to run to God during times of trouble, not away from Him. Jesus who rose from the dead, spoke of heaven and hell. I will listen to Him, as His power over death is unique among all who had gone before, and all who have come after Him. Heaven and hell are very real. We need to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and turn away from sin and false teachings and delusions. Then we will not imagine any longer but we will KNOW, that heaven is waiting to receive us after we have passed from this life. God Bless

  • Jack

    Max, the logic of “Imagine,” such that it is, leads to obliteration of the uniqueness. He is not saying that we shouldn’t let our differences lead us to violence and war. He is going much farther. He’s saying that the cause of violence and war is precisely those differences. And he uses countries and religions as examples of his point.

    Otherwise, what is the point of saying, “imagine there’s no countries?”


  • Jack

    Listen, there have been plenty of times when I’ve been mad at God, but atheism for me is just as unrealistic of an answer as the shallow, glib answers parroted by believers across the centuries and millennia.

    The point is that I completely understand people’s anger at God. I just think atheism, declaring God dead, is about as realistic a solution as closing one’s eyes to erase the sun. Whether one’s eyes are closed or open, the sun remains.

    The amazing thing is how God is accused of being a tyrant. If He were a tyrant, He’d have killed us all a long time ago. How different He is than any of us. Give anybody god-like powers and watch how quickly they murder opponents of any kind.

  • Jack

    Kudos to Rabbi Salkin for another good article. While his and my politics do differ on certain things, he is invariably thought-provoking as well as fair-minded.

  • Ed

    Jack, no no no. Don’t you understand, that was just a metaphor. Just like all those bible metaphors people interpret differently. You have to read it with the right colored fantastic plastic glasses on to extract the true meaning.

    Lennon definitely, maybe, meant just no borders to divide us. Or something else. I think.

  • Ed

    I’d put it differently, Jack. You are claiming a sun, but unlike the one we orbit, there obviously isn’t one there. You obviously really, really, desperately want it to be there and to be able to show that it is, but well, it isn’t there and you can’t.

  • Ed

    Naughty, Sadie. A bit naughty. No LOL there but I’ll grant you a very mild chuckle.

  • Jack

    No, Ed… my worst moments, I wish God weren’t there because then, I could take refuge in atheists’ claim that the world is unjust to the suffering because there’s nobody in charge. That’s the easy way out — really the same thing as a believer making asinine excuses for God. Both atheists and glib believers let God off the hook too easily.

    Of course, to be an atheist, I’d have to pretend that the universe just got here all by its lonesome, which is batsh*t crazy.

  • Jack

    Ed, yes, yes, yes…..and yes.

    And if you’d like to play the metaphor game and say nothing should be taken literally, that would include the statement that nothing should be taken literally.

    You folks just love to saw off the branch on which you are sitting — again and again. It must be a form of masochism.

  • @Jack,

    “saw off the branch on which you are sitting …”

    WRONG again.
    You have that exactly backwards. It is you who are sawing off the branch YOU are sitting on. You inherited an Atheist Constitution which makes you free to practice your religion:

    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion….”

    And the USA still remains the only Atheist Constitution in the world. If it were otherwise you would be bowing to Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism or whatever religious decree was forced on you!

    Religious people surrender all their freedoms willingly and trade them in for an invisible sky pocket – and they dare to take credit for morality and civilization? Hilarious.

    Religion is a waste of American freedom. Hard won as it is.

  • Ed

    Jack, merely calling it crazy, with whatever other adjectives you want to add, doesn’t make it not reality.

    Your invented god solves nothing. It’s just your chicken way out. Your “bawk bawk bawk” is heard loud and clear.

  • Ed

    No, no, no, Jack. It’s your game I played on you.

    Now try asking your god for a parachute as you fall. What, terminal velocity already and still silence?

    Then, after the thud, nothing.

    Welcome to reality, sawyer.