This week we begin Part 2 “Sinners and Solidarity” of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. The bulk of Cash’s songs that we will be looking at are in this section.
The Gospel of Solidarity
There is a myriad of ways to view the Gospel and the Cross. One way is through the lens of solidarity or a union of interest. Jesus Christ is in solidarity with us in his humanity, and we are called to be in solidarity with others through his example. This idea of solidarity is laid out by Paul in Philippians 2:2-8. There, Paul writes that we should be in union with others in our humility and in thinking others better than ourselves because that is the example given to us in the Incarnation and Passion of Christ Jesus. The Son of God obtained solidarity with in his humility by taking on our flesh and by going to the cross, so we must have solidarity with others emulating this same humility and self-sacrifice.
And when we look for Jesus in the gospels, we will most often find him with the poor, the homeless, and the outcasts. Jesus’ ultimate act of solidarity with the oppressed in society was in his perfect obedience in being killed by the religious and political authorities from whom all oppression comes. Likewise, he teaches us that our salvation is based upon our having solidarity with these people as well. Because in having union with them, we have union with him – “for as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40).
The Man in Black
The first song we are looking at in this section is chapter 3 is The Man in Black. Johnny Cash first began wearing black because black was the only shirt that he and his two band members had in common. But wearing black soon became Cash’s calling card. In 1970, Cash wrote The Man in Black as a protest song and lament for contemporary American society. He sings that he wears black for the outcasts of our society – the poor, the prisoner, the sick, and the dead unknown soldiers. He also sings for those who have never heard (or simply never understood) Jesus’ teaching that true happiness is only when we love our neighbor as ourselves. Cash doesn’t simply lament those who society has left behind but, like Jesus, he calls out those of us in “streak of lightening cars and fancy clothes” who refuse to see our fellow human beings in need.
“The Man in Black” not only identifies Cash with the outcast but it calls us to do so as well. In our modern world, it is very easy to give lip service to this type of identification. However, to have solidarity with the forgotten people of society requires more than making a Facebook post or voting for the “right” person, or supporting the “right” political programs. Solidarity requires that we be found among the forgotten, because that is where we find Jesus. Solidarity implies that we be involved just as he was. Sing along and see how the Man in Black speaks to you.
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colors on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the time
I wear the black for those who’ve never read
Or listened to the words that Jesus said
About the road to happiness through love and charity
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me
Well, we’re doing mighty fine, I do suppose
In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black
I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men
And I wear it for the thousands who have died
Believing that the Lord was on their side
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died
Believing that we all were on their side
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know
And things need changing everywhere you go
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything’s okay
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back
‘Til things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:2-8