I attended U2’s 30th anniversary Joshua Tree concert Saturday night in Chicago, the same city in which I saw them in October 1987, though at a much smaller venue than Soldier Field. It was a blast to see them with my brother-in-law Paul and my friend and teaching colleague Jonathan, both long-time U2 fans. I enjoy them as conversation partners in grappling with what U2 is doing artistically and theologically.
Just before they played “Exit,” a brief film set in the Old West was played on the screen behind them in which a snake oil salesman named “Trump” prophesied apocalyptic doom and portrayed himself as the only hope for salvation. This character prompted discussion among the town’s citizens and one man’s accusation of “Trump” being a liar provoked another man to shove him. The film concludes with “Trump’s” shady eyes scanning the audience.
Two hands with “love” and “hate” inscribed on them appear and clench into fists before disappearing. The band then played “Exit.”
Though he doesn’t do this in the Dallas show to which I linked above, on Saturday night Bono stated just before singing that the hands of love can both heal and destroy.
Because the brief black and white film was so striking, I initially received it as a simple critique of America’s president. On the drive home on Sunday, however, we discussed the possibility that the film’s target was the audience, alerting us to the danger of a divisive figure sowing chaos and discord, provoking citizens to act with violence towards each other.
We noted that after the song, Bono said something along the following lines: “whether you are left or right, and however you voted, you are welcome here. We have to come together and figure out how we’re going to move forward.”
“Exit” is a song that ponders the dangerous possibility of being so fixated on the purity of a righteous cause that one seeks to advance it by doing violence. The song closes with these lines:
So hands that build
Can also pull down
The hands of love.
In U2 By U2, Bono said this about “Exit”:
[Y]ou have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence we all contain within us. Violence is something I know quite a lot about. I have a side of me which, in a corner, can be very violent. It’s the least attractive thing in anyone and I wanted to own up to that (p. 231).
Rather than critiquing the president, I think U2 is calling on audiences to recognize the violence within our own hearts, the desire to accomplish good through anger. This impulse makes us see our own hands as “the hands of love,” insisting that our motives are pure even as we demonize others and seek to destroy them.
Bono has always expressed appreciation and love for America, and he did so again Saturday, commending Americans for being activists against the ravages of HIV/AIDS in Africa. But U2 also has always asked Americans to consider the country’s place in the world and whether and how it is contributing to healing or to violent destruction. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is an obvious example.
When U2 played the Super Bowl in 2002, I was struck by how they spoke to America, gathering the country’s emotions without endorsing any political view or military action. To my mind, they get how to speak in a way that reflects the forever counterintuitive gospel, the always devastating and always redeeming word that both confronts and comforts, that invites repentance and ignites hope.
It seems to me when Bono speaks in these ways, he is pastoring America.
He gets how to call for engaged discernment and vigorous discussion while also calling us to avoid letting the current presidency draw us into tearing each other apart.