Bound to Betray

[This short reflection comes with a text and a soundtrack.]


As soon as the artist hits those first dark and weighty chords,
you can feel it deep in your soul.
Something ominous, weighing you down.

Then the first line of the song:

There’s a knot in my gut
As I gaze out today

That’s it.

Those chords evoked that knot in the gut,
that foreboding sense that something
is deeply, deeply wrong.
A disquieting anxiety,
maybe even guilt.

The artist is (of course) Bruce Cockburn,
and the song is “Beautiful Creatures.”

As the song unfolds,
the singer reaches for a falsetto
that has him at a register so far from his normal voice
that the words crack and strain
when he laments,

The beautiful creatures are going away

The broken and oppressed creation
is mirrored in the artist’s own vulnerability
stretching his voice to unattainable notes.

Echoing the anguish of the psalms of lament,
or perhaps evoking Jeremiah, the weeping prophet,
Cockburn sings in the second verse:

Like a dam in a river
my conscience is pressed
by the weight of hard feelings
piled up in my breast
the callous and vicious things
humans display

The beautiful creatures are going away

No wonder the chords are so ominous.

Like Jeremiah who knows that the mourning of the earth
is a response to human violence and indifference,
Cockburn takes it all personally.

Neither Jeremiah nor Cockburn can self-righteously
point beyond themselves to account for the ecological disaster
in which they live.

After the second verse, Cockburn holds a note for multiple measures,
asking in that breaking, straining, tear-invoking falsetto voice,

Why? Why?

We find ourselves catching our breath at the end of each question.
Gasping for breath perhaps we get a small sense
of what extinction is like.

But in the third verse, the artist answers his own question:

From the stones in the fortress
to the shapes in the air
to the ache in the spirit
we label despair
we create what destroys
bind ourselves to betray

The beautiful creatures are going away

Why are the beautiful creatures going away?
Why this pressed conscience?
Why the weight of hard feelings piled up in our breasts?
Why that debilitating ache in the spirit
that we label despair?

Well … “we create what destroys/bind ourselves to betray.”

From the arrogant and self-protective structures of our culture
to the emptiness of despair deep in our hearts,
we seem to be imprisoned by a spirit of destruction.

Called to bless and open up creation,
we have been captivated by a spirit
of cursing and tearing down.

We are so bound to betrayal
that we can’t help ourselves.

You see, friends, because trust is at the very foundation of all life,
because creation is born, rooted and sustained in covenantal faithfulness,
betrayal will always bring death.

Betrayal unravels the very fabric of creation.

Jeremiah is deeply attuned to the grief of God.
And from this prophet we learn
that there is no hope apart from
experiencing that divine sorrow.

But there is something else.

The grief of God resonates with
the grief of all creation.

One of the reasons we are experiencing
an epidemic of despair
is because so many of us have lost
all hope for an ecologically sustainable future.

Our betrayal of the earth
has reached the point of no return.

But, in biblical faith not only is there always time
for repentance,
always time for renewed faithfulness,
so also is biblical hope always
a creational hope.

A hope for some disembodied heavenly existence
beyond this vale of ecological tears
is no hope whatsoever!

And so if we are seeking hope in this epidemic of despair,
then that must be a hope for creational healing.
But we will never be awakened to such a hope
without first hearing deeply the lament of creation.

Perhaps such hearing can begin to liberate us
from our bondage to betrayal
and our addiction to destruction.

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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