The Guilt Commission

Dan Borvan
Thursday, September 1st 2011
Sep/Oct 2011

While waiting in line for a U2 concert in September 2009, I noticed that concertgoers were passing around something. Now, I've been to enough rock shows to know that things shared at concerts are typically intended to make the show more enjoyable, and this was no exception. But this time, instead of an illegal substance working its way around the crowd, people were passing a clipboard with a petition to the government of Burma to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Accompanying the petition was a guy telling the story of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate while handing people paper cutouts of her head to be displayed later in the concert during the song "Walk On." (Kyi was released in November 2010.)

On entering the stadium, I noticed an infinite column of booths set up for every charity you could imagine’One, (RED), Greenpeace, UNICEF, and so on’and throngs of people were signing up for e-mail newsletters, giving donations, and buying products with their favorite charity's logo. During the concert, Bono, clad in a jacket emitting red lasers in every direction, stood in the middle of a stage designed to look like a spaceship and spoke into a microphone in the shape of the Target logo. He implored the audience to stop by the tables in the lobby and donate to various charities, which took him about five minutes to name. He ended the speech by applauding those standing in the (RED) Zone (a VIP section nearest the stage), whose ticket proceeds would go toward helping eliminate AIDS in Africa.

What happened to Bono? The man who had once created an onstage persona known as the Fly’garbed in Lou Reed's glasses, Elvis's jacket, and Jim Morrison's pants for the sole purpose of making fun of market-driven rock 'n' roll and mass media’now sounded more like a revival preacher than a rock god. When he named all the charities represented that night, he reminded me of a NASCAR driver after a race: exiting the car, a microphone and a sponsor's beverage are thrust into the guy's face before he begins to thank Chevrolet, Coke, Goodyear, Pennzoil, and Bob's Chicken and Tires for their help in securing victory. Only Bono wasn't thanking the charities for their help; rather, the charities should have been thanking him. The force of his words told the crowd, "I support these causes, and if you want to be cool you will too."

When did rock concerts begin to double as fundraisers for celebrities' favorite charities? Unfortunately, Bono has accomplices in his agenda of hijacking entertainment with humanitarianism. Artists such as Sting, John Mayer, Goldfinger, and even 50 Cent all promote charities during their concerts, coupled by the requisite sign-up table in the lobby. Adam Lambert can't let fans wait until the end of the show before they participate in his charity, but instead encourages them to text "Lambert" to his charity's number so they can get information about how to be involved. Vying for Bono's title of Rock Star Messiah is Jon Bon Jovi, who promotes a slew of charities during his concerts including Habitat for Humanity and Project HOME. Go to a show and you can buy a JBJ Soul Foundation t-shirt made from recycled bottles. It's like a two-for-one indulgence.

Beyond the obvious good that some may receive from these petitions and donations, the important question to ask is why "we" as concertgoers insist on sprinkling our self-indulgent entertainment with altruism. Why can't we simply go to a concert without having to feel like we helped save the world? Why must we engage in evasive activism’an indirect attempt to bring about change with no commitment necessary?

It's the same reason why rock stars turn into ringmasters for the charity circus: guilt. Rock 'n' roll used to be about great music communicated through men ensconced in rebellion. We didn't even care who or what they were rebelling against so long as it was real. Rebellion is at the very essence of the art form. Something changed somewhere along the line. What's rebellious about trafficking in charities? What's so "rock 'n' roll" about turning a concert into an infomercial for UNICEF?

Rock stars used to either burn out or fade away; now they become celebrity pitchmen. It seems to me that a sense of guilt drives all this, not only for the debauchery in which they have engaged but for being privileged to live a life of leisure. Concertgoers share this sense of guilt, not in the same way as rock stars of course, but for the fact that we can waste big money to be entertained for just a couple of hours.

We think to ourselves, "Imagine those poor people in Africa who can't even buy bread, while we sit here in an air-conditioned arena forking over the equivalent of their yearly salary in order to be amused."

So we sign up for One, or (RED), or Greenpeace to alleviate our sense of guilt for being born in the West and for having disposable income. We buy a charity t-shirt made of recycled bottles to make us feel better, even though we forgot our metal eco-bottle at home and were forced to drink bottled water during the show. We leave the concert entertained and satisfied, knowing that we have done our part to give back. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for charity; I even support a few myself. I just go to a concert to hear music, not some millionaire wearing guy-liner telling me how to be a better person as if he's my life coach.

What happens when the buzz from giving wears off? This is when the voice of guilt takes up residence in our head. Have I given enough? Maybe I should volunteer. Should I quit my job and work for PETA? Maybe I could take in a homeless person and get him back on his feet. Should I move to Africa and become a full-time activist? Even if we do all that, it will never be enough.

Our sense of guilt cannot be quenched by more doing. It can be remedied only by placing faith in the one who has already done what we can't do: live a perfect life and die on behalf of sinners. Placing our faith in the real Messiah, Jesus Christ, is our only relief from the burden of working our way to perfection, and the true source of genuine peace and contentment that lasts long after the music is over.

The Guilt Commission commands us to do something in order to gain relief, yet relief never comes. The Great Commission sends us off to spread the news of what has been done for us and to tell of the relief that we have already found in Christ.

Thursday, September 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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