Yup, it’s a big FUCK YOU front and center….really, there’s no other way of putting it.
….And the entire power structure gnashes their teeth and yells, “CRUCIFY THEM!”
And, of course, this is the point….
When I was a young buck, I found punk in my own way. It was the early 90’s, and the voice of dissonance involved second-hand clothing and upside down military bumper stickers on my car.
I was looking for a more sophisticated, “refined” understanding of punk, a little less straight forward, double-time beats, and more like something you’d hear from the droning sounds and vocals of someone like Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Ian Mackaye, Guy Piccioto, John Reis, Rick Froberg, etc. etc. (dropping names without references is pretty bad ass of me, by the way.)
However, if you are not familiar with any of these names, let me assist you with a photo:
Embedded in the Guy Picciotto quote is the spirit of dissent so driven and fleshed out, it’s willing to pivot and kick it’s own kind in the teeth if needed.
Music vs. music industry….it’s an age old story (or really, a story about the power of enterprise vs. the power of creative integrity.) It’s played out over and over again, and no one makes it more overt than the world of punk rock.
Simply putting it, extending a giant middle finger out towards the world can’t help but 1. Let those who approach you know exactly where you stand in not giving a fuck. 2. Let everyone know that you are not interested in, and most likely opposed to the power structure of your surrounding culture…whether it be political, economical, religious, or all of the above. And finally, 3. Cause a fair bit of introspection and weeding out of your own personal hypocrisy. (After all, that middle finger is sending a message to both you AND them at the same time.)
All the best musicians knew this. Some even put #3 on paper, so to speak. Many of them (Fugazi, Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedy’s) started their own labels and applied their own code of ethics in how they ran them. Typically, musical, and artistic integrity ALWAYS took precedence over enterprise and commercialism.
That is the essence of punk I caught wafting through my Midwestern small-town and into the windows of my mid-90’s high-school experience. The smell was intoxicating, and, like always, repugnant to those who were not in “the know”.
But to those of us already existing on the social fringes, it was the sweet taste of rebellion, and of course, acceptance. If you don’t really belong anywhere else, punk will be glad to have you, and even better, allow you the right amount of defiance and rebellion to let everyone else know you think their social club is a sham, reducing their “dignified” things.
The message of the punk movement, ( if it can be boiled down to a single message), is: SCREW YOUR DIGNIFIED AND PRIVILEGED SOCIAL GRACES AND CULTURE CLUBS, WE DON’T NEED YOUR APPROVAL, AND WE DON’T BOW DOWN TO YOUR POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND ECONOMICAL POWERS.
Honestly, this really seems to be the one golden rule in the ethos of punk.
It wasn’t until my late 20’s, with 2 children on my knee, and a mortgage to pay, while working as a “man of the clothe” (pastor), I began to refine and redefine what exactly the punk experience meant for me. Admittedly, in my youth it was bloated with idealism. Yet, I knew no matter how I learned to redefine it, the heart of dissent was a blessed thing to have and to hold and to use when necessary.
And never has it become more apparent than in the present….
What I learned from my 40 years of experience on this earth concerning irreverence and dissent is:
- It causes repugnance and recoil within society….that’s the point.
- Society’s response to it almost directly determines the health of the society itself. When members of society shirk it off and walk away annoyed, things are (somewhat) healthy. When they begin to mobilize with military might, legislative power, governance, brute force, mob rule, or mass media broadcasting (including the internet and social media), in an attempt to try and stop it…..things ARE NOT healthy.
- Last, and most important point: Dissent and irreverence are very spiritual concepts.
23 But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. 25 Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. 26 Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers.
27 “You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you; and you shall call to them, but they will not answer you. 28 You shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth. (JEREMIAH 7 vs. 23-28 NASB)
PROPHETS: THE FIRST WAVE.
God’s words to His people have always been directly wrapped up in the lives and words of the prophets. They were sent to a disobedient people who were choosing the institution of God over relationship with God (which, honestly, is the continual human bend over time). After all, it’s way easier to follow an institution by which you can bend and manipulate the rules, rather than follow a living God.
Sometimes we forget how radical the prophets really were. Isaiah strode around town naked for 3 years (Isaiah 20 vs. 3), Jeremiah preached by holding up one of his old loincloths (essentially, his used and dirtied underwear) (Jeremiah 13), Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute, and let her cheat on him without prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law (as her husband, he most likely would have the right to have her executed….but, instead, bought her back.)
And, my personal favorite, Micaiah the prophet (1 Kings 22).
It’s a great story, you should pick up the Bible and read it for yourself, but if you are lazy like me, you’ll settle for the regurgitated version.
Apparently, the king of Israel had selectively “trimmed down” his group of prophets to simpleminded, affirming mouthpieces who would give him the holy “GO AHEAD!” on any decision he wanted to make.
All, except Micaiah.
When another king solicits the king of Israel to go to war with one of their mutual enemies, he asks the king of Israel if there are any other prophets besides the usual mindless drones standing around the king’s court. The king of Israel responds with:
“‘There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.’
“The king should not say such a thing,’ Jehoshaphat replied.
9 So the king of Israel called one of his officials and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.’” 1 KINGS 22 vs. 8-9 NIV.
Seems Micaiah was a little punk who never got with the program. He had nothing good to say when inquired of, but only “bad” prophesies from God concerning the future of the king, which in turn, caused the king of Israel to “hate” him. (Take notice: repugnance at Micaiah’s inability to understand the proper social graces of the king’s court and “get in line”.)
What happens next?
The king of Israel summons Micaiah, and asks him if they should go to war, and Micaiah turns into a sarcastic a-hole and says the equivalent of, “yeah, sure, go ahead, why not?” (take notice: irreverence and feigned disinterest). The king, sensing he’s being mocked, says the equivalent of, “Hey, asshole, just answer the damn question….”, by which Micaiah prophesies that if they go to war, many of Israel will die, including the king himself…by which the other prophets slap him and spit in his face and say something the equivalent of, “how is it God speaks through you and not us, eh?”, by which the king orders Micaiah returned to his homeland where he’s thrown in prison. The rest is really a giant yawnfest….the false prophets up their game and give the king even more affirmation about how he SHOULD go to war, and how the king then follows their advice and within a few hours of battle is fatally wounded in his own chariot by an archer (the blood apparently pooled and splattered all over in his own chariot)….
JESUS: THE PUNK OF ALL PUNKS.
If ever there was a prophet who bucked the system and chose to give all the power back to the people, it’s the Lion of Judah Himself. Sure, we don’t have any photographs of Him flipping the bird, but we do have many examples in scripture of the equivalent.
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” John 8 vs. 42-47 NIV.
Let me rephrase Jesus’s words, spoken to the Pharisees and many of the Jewish “higher-ups” in a different way:
Of course, many will scoff and get put-off by how terribly I’m decimating a sweet picture of our Lord and Savior, to which I might reply:
and for good measure…..
If you are highly offended, and find these pictures to be completely repugnant…..I’d ask you take the energy you feel, breathe deep and remember: THAT’S THE POINT. You are now effectively immersed in the story of John, chapter 8, and experiencing what much of the crowd must have felt at the time Jesus was speaking to them. He was putting a distance between Himself and His audience, and in no uncertain terms, letting them know exactly where He stands in His convictions. Yet, his dissent is not without an accompanying invitation, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?“. The turnabout in all dissent movements…..search me and see if there’s any hypocrisy in me. Look at my words and see if they line up with my actions! What I say is true, and you know it…. Most, if not all, authentic dissenters bank on the integrity of their own character, therefore, if it’s compromised, it compromises their message.
You can choose to respond a couple ways to messages like this one: A. Threaten. B. Compartmentalize/ and or demonize. And, finally, C. Choose to count to ten, breath, and begin to try and understand an outside perspective beyond yourself.
The Pharisees and Jewish leaders chose both A and B….the most counterproductive of all options, and only hurt themselves in the process:
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” [option B: attempt to defame and demonize]
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! [NOT looking for conversation, only pushing further into demonizing] Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”……
…..58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him [option A: threaten his life], but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
JOHN 8 vs 48-53 NIV.
Jesus pissed a lot of people off. He wasn’t interested in stroking anyone’s ego. Yet, thousands were drawn to Him by the profound Love He expressed in His words and deeds. How is it, this prophet and savior could be so magnetizing to some, and polarizing to others? If you pay close attention, you’ll see He pisses off those who adhere to the “established order” , while those most often underrepresented and on the fringe of society flock to him. The conclusions are almost self explanatory: Often, the governing or religious established orders begin to bend to accommodate the most privileged of society. They become linked with the privileged in an incestuous loop of power and influence over the less fortunate. In other words, they begin to act according to self-preservation and self-interest. Someone like Jesus comes in and smashes everything, turning the tables upside down (literally), and taking the religious power structures to task.
But Christ was about as much into self-interest as He was in preying on society’s underprivileged in order to make fast and quick disciples. His disciples reflect His ethos: diversity moving towards equality among all men and women….both, the compassionate and stern side of love. Stern on those who assumed they didn’t need compassion, and compassion for those who thought they were only good enough for sternness.
So, 2 final thoughts on dissent and dissonance:
1. What makes dissent/dissonance powerful?
Dissent is an expression of freedom, more specifically, freedom of speech. If your freedom to express verbal skepticism and undermining speech towards your governing body doesn’t exist, you are not truly free, but imprisoned. Any good leader should recognize this. Allowing the dissenting voice to be able to express itself within your governing entity is a fundamental right to anyone’s free will and freedom (thus our forefathers made sure it was front and center when they wrote it in the FIRST AMMENDMENT). After all, it keeps everyone accountable and minimizes corruption. Governments without freedom of press, assembly, and speech have consistently and continually failed their people throughout history.
Dissension is powerful in that it makes us stop, think of how we are doing things, become more aware, and begin to hold ourselves accountable to our actions. It gives the everyday person the ability to hold our highest leader in check, sometimes bringing much needed change. In fact, many of our nation’s historic leaders were everyday people who rose up as dissenters and stood in the gap of change.
When someone, who starts out as an everyday “nobody” has the ability to stand up and express what they think is just and right, and express it in a way that may incite anger (but, yet, is still permitted/protected by law), THAT’S POWER.
2. What makes dissent……beautiful?
Sure, it’s often not very pretty up front. In the art appreciation class I teach, we often talk about “shock art” (more info here), and relate the Old Testament prophets to it in a way that gives it some deeper historical context beyond the 20th century (which saw shock art make a formal rise in popularity). For those not in the know, shock art can be defined as:
“Shock art is contemporary art that incorporates disturbing imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience. It is a way to disturb ‘smug, complacent and hypocritical’ people. (According to the Wikipedia page).”
Obviously, not every work of shock art is effective at what it’s trying to communicate. Surely, there’s no blanket statement, or understanding that all art created with the intent to shock is immediately a good piece of work. However, whether we argue it’s goodness or not, it’s effects should count for something. Sure, I don’t really gravitate to many shock pieces, but I do appreciate how they are inviting me into an experience. Both an experience within myself and within the world around me.
Experiences, at my age, are hard to come by. Life is very formatted and scripted for someone in midlife, with a wife, 3 kids, and a dachshund (actually, dachshund-terrier mix). You just sort of “click in” and follow the program in order to make sure the bills are paid on time and everyone else makes it to their sports practices with their pants on. It’s more than easy to become what I’ve always feared….a mindless drone, day in, and day out.
In my present state of life, everything is in danger of becoming bland and tasteless, and life loses the luster it had when I was 20 and single. More than that, because I am often walking, in line, with my head down towards the floor, I lack the ability to see much further ahead of me. Essentially, if the line I’m following is leading to a cliff with jagged rocks at the bottom, I’d want to know sooner than later….thus enters the prophetic voice of dissidence to “wake” me up and let me know if I’m walking into peril.
To put it into better perspective, imagine the small, seemingly insignificant voices of all those individuals who tried to warn us of the economic housing crash of 2008. Prior any breaking news, they sounded like witch doctors or conspiracy theorists….even the people I knew who lived in, or near the depression era of the 20’s, scoffed at another crash of the same significance. And then it happened, and my wife and I were unemployed, underwater on our mortgage, and without health insurance. It was a giant cave in, and we blindly walked right into it, thinking we were nothing but safe and secure.
What gave us our sense of security? For the most part, it was the false idea that things will always proceed as “normal” and the future is ONLY going to be a reflection of the past (well, in a way it was, just not the distant past we should have remembered).
Stephen Covey (author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) writes this:
“…the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.
The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.
The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’ But how do the busy, efficient producers and managers often respond? ‘Shut up! We’re making progress.’
Covey writes about the necessity of leaders of this sort in business, but the truth applies to government and religion as well. The problem is, the voices who climb the tree and tell all us worker bees we are in the wrong jungle, or headed to ruin, are the least pleasant voices to hear. Without training ourselves how to listen and hear these voices, we won’t want to. It’s an acquired skill, not something that comes naturally to our evolutionary imprinted minds. It takes our “spiritual selves” to see the value of dissidence.
Learning to hear from our prophets and dissenters involves a fair amount of self-discipline, or muscle memory, and is DEFINITELY not a choice of convenience. In fact, it’s usually the opposite of convenience….but you know what’s worse? Unknowingly losing your job due to an unforeseen economic crash, and then learning your employer spent all the money in your pension fund…..so, in my opinion, get it over with now, let the consequences of changing course now have less impact than they would if we all walked off a cliff together.
Even more, the turn-side to acquiring an appreciation of dissent actually opens up unforeseen possibilities for our future. It advances the story arc of our organizations and communities, pooling in new life to old and bloated ways of understanding. Any successful business or governing organization knows this, and places their dissenting voices at the forefront, in a “call and response” way of communication. They receive what’s being said from their leaders, and listen to the dissent, learning how to sort out what’s valid and invalid in all that’s being communicated (after all, everyone’s human, and even the prophets need to be tested).
Prophets, Seers, Dissenters, and punks all share this in common. If they’ve purified themselves from hypocrisy, their truth will be self-revealing. The beauty exists somewhere in the space between where each of us presides….those who “conform”, and those who “dissent” where always meant to find a symbiotic relationship, or “resolve” with each other. It’s like that moment in a song where all the dissonance and chaos building sudden resolve themselves into sweet sustain and harmony.
Once this happens, you emerge from the flames damn near invincible.