41 Shots

The end of summer comes with a mixed bag of emotions: I could definitely use another three or four (or eighty two) days on the water, but there are some exciting things in the pipeline, and I’m looking forward to getting them underway.

To celebrate the end of summer, my daughter and I went to see Bruce Springsteen the other night. The concert had been rescheduled because of weather and we’d lost the chance to take friends, but because it was moved from a Saturday to a Monday, we were able to refund our lawn tickets and pick up incredible new seats.

It’s Bruuuuuuuuuuce!!

The show was phenomenal. With only two or three exceptions, the band played all of my favorites — She’s the One, Spirit in the Night, Badlands, Because the Night, Candy’s Room, Thunder Road, The Rising — and it was three and a half hours of no breaks, no pauses, straight-up, ear-blasting, heart-pounding,  JOY! To say that I danced and sang like a total idiot would be to understate the completely age-inappropriate abandon with which I transformed from middle-aged woman to ecstatic, frizzy-haired sweatball.

I’ve been to a lot of concerts, including a number of Springsteen shows, but this concert was amazing in a number of ways. One of the highlights was the song 41 Shots (American Skin), which Springsteen wrote in response to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City. Diallo, an immigrant from West Africa, was a street peddler. Officers from a Street Crimes Unit approached him in a doorway, and during the confrontation, fired 41 shots at the unarmed man, 19 of which hit him.

I don’t want to get bogged down in politics or judgments about the police in New York or anywhere else; we all have our opinions and interpretations, but the bottom line is that a life was lost, and if you cannot fully empathize with the people who loved and lost Diallo, a fellow human being, regardless of the circumstances, then you might consider examining your heart and your conscience.

So enough of that. The point is, the song 41 Shots is incredible, musically, and there was a powerful moment on stage that was done so quietly and so subtly, without any sort of outward recognition from any member of the band, that once you saw it, you couldn’t look away.

The Big Man himself.

Jake Clemons is the nephew of Clarence Clemons, the late, great saxophonist of the E Street Band.  After his uncle’s death, Jake joined the band. [For one of the greatest tributes ever, revisit: The Poet Laureate of Rock]  Jake’s a great sax player, and he’s also the only African American in the band.

Here’s the context – a snippet of the lyrics from 41 Shots:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

Is it a gun, is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? this is your life.
It ain’t no secret,
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin.

And here’s how Jake Clemons stood during the song:

Can you see Jake there in the back with his hands in the air?

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how context affects content. On a recent drive to New York, I saw a number of Confederate flags in Pennsylvania, and it made me wonder what those flags mean, north of the Mason Dixon Line and 150 years after the Civil War. In what context are people hanging those flags? Are they making a statement about politics? Race? Geographical allegiance? Or are they undermining the original context of those very things by appropriating a symbol and placing it in an entirely new setting?

Context comes up in every human interaction, as well. You never truly know someone else’s back-story, even your spouse or kid’s – and thus, can’t ever truly know how your words affect the people you love (much less how they affect casual acquaintances or strangers!)  I had this experience recently, when a dear friend made an offhand statement that completely crushed me…until I remembered that he had no idea how or why I wouldn’t receive his words as casually as he’d said them. Context, despite what Formalist literary critics might have us think, is key.

Sadly, Paul’s Instagram account was accidentally deleted around 84 CE, so we don’t know what he actually looked like.

Context is also, I think, critical to biblical interpretation. Just as 41 Shots loses its essential message when taken out of its original context, so do many of the biblical texts. For instance, if you remove the apocryphal expectation from Paul’s admonition to remain a slave (1 Corinthians 7), the meaning of the passage completely changes: it goes from being a reassurance that major life changes aren’t necessary in light of the imminent parousia, to being a tacit acceptance of a segment of society in bondage. Context matters enormously.

41 Shots, and Jake Clemons’ quiet raising of his hands, were — in the context of the American life we’re all living — incredibly moving. And so was the song Springsteen segued into immediately afterward: The Promised Land.

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted

The dogs on main street howl,
’cause they understand,
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man,
And I believe in a promised land
I believe in a promised land…

My hope is that no matter where we stand on the issues we face, no matter where we stand on matters of faith, no matter what the context we find ourselves in, we never stop believing in the promised land.

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