Pacing the Cage: The Prophetic Hope of Bruce Cockburn

by Brian Walsh

Republished with permission from

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward

These lines, from Bruce Cockburn’s hauntingly beautiful song “Pacing the Cage,” have been my constant companions as I have been reflecting on the year that was and the year that is to come. As the sun sets on another year of violence on the battlefields of war and urban conflict, another year of ecological despoliation coupled with economic greed, another year of political duplicity and media distraction, you can see the blood everywhere.

Maybe you can see an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword. Weeping over the blood stained year that has passed. Weeping over that sword of judgment still gripped in his hand. There is blood on that sword, but it has not finished its violent judgment. There is more to come and no matter how the artist squints, he cannot discern where that sword is now pointing. Maybe he doesn’t want to know. But whatever the reason, Cockburn then sings,

Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

There is a world weariness to it all. One damn year of violence after another. When you’ve seen so much blood over the years, and you are either too confused or too numb to make any sense of it, well, “you catch yourself / pacing the cage.”

In an earlier song, reflecting on another sunset, this Canadian singer/songwriter described a world “ill at ease,” a “fraying rope getting closer to breaking” (“Hills of Morning”). And while folks kept on “moving back and forth / in between effect and cause” the artist had another vision. “Just beyond the range of normal sight” he saw “this glittering joker dancing in the dragon’s jaws.”

“Just beyond the range of normal sight.” That is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a prophetic imagination.” A vision that goes beyond what is seen to the naked eye. A vision that discerns the spirit of the times, the deep dynamics of history, and maybe even the movement of God.

Such prophetic vision is often found in the poetry of song and Bruce Cockburn’s art is suffused with a prophetic imagination. Cockburn’s art is prophetic in Brueggemann’s sense of the term because it nurtures, nourishes and evokes “a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture” (“The Prophetic Imagination,” p. 3). Whether naming the reality of trickle down economics as “trickle down blood” (“Trickle Down”), identifying the administration of George W. Bush as the village idiot who “takes the throne” (“All Our Dark Tomorrows”), deconstructing what they “call” democracy as “modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom” (“Call it Democracy”) or more evocatively naming our malaise as “hooked on avarice” (“Trickle Down”) because humans have this tragic disposition to “create what destroys / bind ourselves to betray” (“Beautiful Creatures”), Cockburn’s art has always seen “just beyond the range of normal sight.”

And with countless others, Cockburn’s songs have often given me a glimpse beyond the normal. A glimpse that sometimes breaks through my culturally imposed numbness, sometimes allows me to hear “rumours of glory” in the midst of the betrayal and ruins (“Rumours of Glory”), sometimes reminds me of the mystery that is at the heart of things.

With Cockburn I have sometimes been able to identify my deepest longings — personally, culturally, economically and ecologically — as “waiting for a miracle.”

Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
Step out from the past and try to hold the line
So how come history takes such a long, long time
When you’re waiting for a miracle

So how come history takes such a long, long time — when you are longing for personal wholeness, when you are looking for a world in which the 1 percent do not rule the 99 percent, when you are hoping for sanity to prevail over self-interested ideology in the affairs of state, when you are struggling to find meaningful work and dignity for your neighborhood youth, when you are praying that the church be released from her cultural captivity — when you are waiting for a miracle?

Perhaps it is out of such impatient longing and waiting, out of a crying out “how long, Lord? How long, must we wait for a miracle?” that I now look at that “angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword” and I can’t for the life of me make any sense of it all. No matter how I squint I can’t discern the meaning of this violence, and I sure as hell can’t see where the blood will flow next.

And yet Cockburn’s music will not leave us lost in such disorientation. He will not leave us with this “ache in the spirit / we label despair” (“Beautiful Creatures”). As an artist with a prophetic imagination, he will not avert his gaze from the brokenness, he will not cover up the disappointments, but he also will not leave us without hope. That’s what prophets do. They criticize and dismantle what is, in order to energize us with an alternative vision, an alternative hope of what can be. The spirits of the age meet the Spirit of the age to come.

In one song, Cockburn describes that Spirit of the age to come as a “Messenger Wind”:

Messenger wind swooping out of the sky
Lights each tiny speck in the human kaleidoscope
With hope

When the sun is setting on a year of violence in which bloodshed has followed bloodshed, what we most desperately need is hope. When you feel like you are living “in the falling dark,” what you desperately need is something that will lighten “each tiny speck in the human kaleidoscope / with hope.”

And so, in 2012, Bruce Cockburn will sing us songs of prophetic critique and prophetic hope. We should raise our glasses and sing with him,

And don’t tell me there is no mystery
And don’t tell me there is no mystery
It overflows my cup

This feast of beauty can intoxicate
This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Just like the finest wine

So all you stumblers who believe love rules
Believe love rules
Believe love rules
Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
Stand up and let it shine
Stand up and let it shine (“Mystery”)

Brian J. Walsh’s most recent book is ‘Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination’ (Brazos Press). He is a regular contributor to

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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