Bono, the lead singer of U2 and a prominent activist for AIDS relief and economic development in Africa, has been interviewed by Jim Daly of the American evangelical Christian organization “Focus on the Family.” (Embedded audio at bottom.) The interview has generated various headlines, in particular with regard to Bono’s statement that he believes Jesus is the Son of God. The statement is not likely to be too surprising to those who’ve followed U2 and noted the spiritual and biblical content of their work along the way, but any time a celebrity makes such a blatant statement of belief it produces shockwaves of various kinds. The relevant part of the interview goes something like this:
(Bono speaking) When people say “good teacher,” “prophet,” “really nice guy”—this is not how Jesus thought of himself. So, you’re left with a challenge in that, which is either Jesus was who he said he was or a complete and utter nut case. You have to make a choice on that, and I believe that Jesus was, you know, the Son of God. I understand that for some people and we need to—if I could be so bold—need to be really, really respectful to people who find that ridiculous and people who find that preposterous.
Predictably a lot of the reaction to this is along the lines of exhortations to Bono to stop believing in a “man up in the sky,” but more interesting to me (and more sad) is the negative blowback from those who profess Christian faith themselves but feel for one reason or another that Bono is a poor example. One accusation that keeps cropping up is that Bono is a “universalist,” and therefore should be treated with great skepticism or shunned. I’m pretty sure I know where this notion of Bono as a religious universalist (i.e. someone who believes everyone’s truth is as good as anyone else’s) comes from and I believe it is actually a misunderstanding or mishearing of something he was proclaiming from the stage a few years ago.
During tours in the 2005/2006 time-frame, during the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bono would talk about a sign which he said was “written on a wall in Lebanon,” which read “Coexist,” incorporating in its letters an Islamic moon, a Star of David, and a Christian cross. The screen behind the stage displayed such a sign in huge letters as he spoke. Then he would begin singing some lines and encourage the crowd to participate. What caused great scandal was that some people heard him sing this line: “Jesus, Jew, Muhammad: All true.” Well, if that were what he were singing it would be a pretty empty-headed bit of pablum, to be sure: dangerous to some and fundamentally disrespectful to all three faiths being invoked. (One does not have to pretend there are not serious differences in order to have respectful dialogue with those of other faiths; in fact, the opposite is true.) Someone preaching this from the stage and getting thousands of concert-goers to sing along made for a pretty disturbing image even to some real fans of Bono and U2, and people wrote about it, blogged about it, facebooked about it, and the story got out there to lots of people who never attended a U2 concert for themselves.
Only problem was, that’s not what Bono was saying (or singing) during that segment of that show. I base this opinion on recordings such as the one you can currently listen to via YouTube at the bottom of this post. What Bono actually sings is the following, I do think:
Jesus, Jew, Muhammad, it’s true: all sons of Abraham
Father Abraham, what have we done?
Father Abraham, speak to your sons
Tell them “no more, no more, no more”
So, to spell it out, that which he’s saying is “true” is that Jews, Jesus and Muhammad are all descendants of Abraham. And this actually is true, as far as the Bible goes and as far as we know. And then in the succeeding lines Bono is pleading with Abraham to speak to his sons and tell them to stop fighting.
Of-course, it’s rather difficult to make out these things (especially the subtleties of invisible punctuation) in a massively-loud rock concert at a huge stadium. This might lead some not to even attempt to deliver messages of importance and nuance from such a stage, but it obviously has never deterred Bono.
In any case, it’s not universalism; it’s merely the invocation of a genuine piece of common ground, and a plea for peace. If you want to criticize Bono, you still could, by saying that delivering this message to largely Christian audiences (culturally anyway) is just a little bit pointless. Why not do an open-air concert in Mecca or Medina or Tehran and tell it to some who might find the concept especially novel? But even this is a little bit mean. There’s nothing wrong with positivity, after all, and with a plea for peace based on something that is not untrue. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” somebody once said (in a Monty Python movie, I think).
The interview (below) with Bono from “Focus on the Family” is about twenty minutes long and is interesting on a few levels, and not only if you’re a fan.
And “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from 2006, is below (Abraham chant is about 3 1/2 minutes in):