Ira Hayes (Exodus 22)

This week please read chapter 7, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, and chapter 8, Give My Love to Rose of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.


In his scathing critique of Christianity in The Antichrist (1895), Fredrich Nietzsche opines that Christianity teaches evil and that the Christian God is biased. For Nietzsche, the good is found in strength and in vitality and in carrying out the most basic rule of nature which is survival of the fittest. A strong person or culture should work towards and uphold the understanding that the successful, the meritorious, and the manly should be lauded and emulated. (para.58). On the other hand, Nietzsche observes that Christianity is a religion of pity that thwarts the law of natural selection, preserves whatever is ripe for destruction, fights on the side of those disinherited and condemned by life, and seeks to maintain life in those who should not be alive. (para.7). Christianity teaches that “God hath chosen the weak things of the world, the foolish things of the world, the base things of the world, and things which are despised” [1 Cor. 1:27-28] (para.45). Nietzsche is correct. The Christian God is biased.

Beginning in the Exodus where God takes the side of the weak slave over the strong master, God’s bias is always towards the marginalized and the poor. Ezekiel tells us that Sodom was destroyed because of pride, a surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezek. 16:49. It is Isaiah that proclaims God only hears the prayers of those who break the bonds of oppression and care for the hungry, the homeless, and the naked. Isa. 58. And Amos says that Israel will be destroyed because the rich oppress the poor and needy. Amos 6:3-7, 8:4-10.

The New Testament opens with Mary’s song that God has “scattered the proud [and] cast down the mighty [while] lifting up the lowly” and the God has “filled the hungry [but] sent the rich away empty.”  Luke 1:46-55. Jesus says woe to the rich, and the blessed are the poor. Luke 6:20, 24. The weak and the lowly are the ones chosen by God with which to begin his church. 1 Cor. 1:27-28.

God is always found on the side of the oppressed, not because they are inherently better than the oppressor, but rather simply because they are oppressed. The challenge for us is to see the world as God sees the world. To see the world through the eyes of the Israelite slave or the Judean captive and not from the perspective of the Egyptian pharaoh and or the conquering Babylonians. We should be constantly asking ourselves if we are seeing the world as Nietzsche sees the world or as the Scriptures do? In “The Ballard of Ira Hayes” Johnny Cash requires us to see the world through God’s eyes and the eyes of the oppressed.


Everyone knows Ira Hayes. He is the Marine on the far left-hand side in the iconic photograph of the raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. Hayes was a Pima Indian born on a reservation in Arizona. He joined the Marine Corps at age nineteen soon after Pearl Harbor. He was twenty-two years old on Mt. Suribachi. Ten years later Ira Hayes would be dead of alcohol poisoning and exposure.

In 1964, Johnny Cash uses The Ballad of Ira Hayes to tell the story of the Pima Indians from their perspective and to open our eyes to the injustices they have suffered. Hayes was a great war hero but died as just another drunk Indian whom no one seemed to care about. Even though the United States had taken the land his people had farmed for millennia and put them on a reservation, he still went to fight for her. His thanks was to die on the reservation only a decade later.

Only six months before the release of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, Johnny Cash had a gold record with “I Walk the Line.” As Beck points out, despite Cash’s success, “Ira Hayes” was not well received. In 1964, the civil rights movement was in full swing and the Vietnam War was gearing up. A song about the injustice towards Native Americans was not going to be popular. Radio stations refused to play the song. In response, Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard Magazine attacking the stations for their cowardice. Cash puts his reputation and his now burgeoning career on the line by standing up for his message.


“The Ballard of Ira Hayes” was the only single released from Cash’s album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. If you have time, listen to the whole album. The album tells the story of the American West from the perspective and eyes of the Native Americans. Apache Tears tells of the rape and abuse of Native American women by U.S. Soldiers, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow recounts the broken treaties between Native Americans and the U.S., and Custer tells of the stunning victory of native forces over an invading army.

“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and other songs on “Bitter Tears” challenge us to look at the world from God’s perspective. Having been raised on Manifest Destiny, I have always seen the pushing aside of the native population as an inevitability and in full accordance with God’s will. Like Nietzsche, we want to see the world from the perspective of the victors, of the powerful, and of the meritorious. Cash’s songs and album force us to look at the world from a more biblical perspective. In 1964, the liner notes to “Bitter Tears” read: “Hear the words [of this album] well and you will discover that simply because we are white, that does not make us pure.” As Cash said in his letter in Billboard Magazine, the song and the album are strong medicine.


Ira Hayes
Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

Gather ’round me people
There’s a story I would tell
‘Bout a brave young Indian
You should remember well

From the land of the Pima Indian
A proud and noble band
Who farmed the Phoenix Valley
In Arizona land

Down the ditches a thousand years
The waters grew Ira’s peoples’ crops
‘Til the white man stole their water rights
And the sparkling water stopped

Now, Ira’s folks were hungry
And their land grew crops of weeds
When war came, Ira volunteered
And forgot the white man’s greed

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima hill
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived
To walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

Ira Hayes returned a hero
Celebrated through the land
He was wined and speeched and honored
Everybody shook his hand

But he was just a Pima Indian
No water, no home, no chance
At home nobody cared what Ira’d done
And when did the Indians dance

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

Then Ira started drinking hard
Jail was often his home
They let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you’d throw a dog a bone

He died drunk early one morning
Alone in the land, he fought to save
Two inches of water and a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinking Indian
Or the marine that went to war

Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes
But his land is just as dry
And his ghost is lying thirsty
In the ditch where Ira died

I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” Exodus 3:7-8

3 thoughts on “Ira Hayes (Exodus 22)”

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