Imagining universal love and world peace can be a pretty scary thing. Just ask a conservative.
Nearly a half century after it was written, John Lennon’s “Imagine” continues to spark upset and outrage among right wingers who don’t understand its message or are afraid of even attempting what the song pleads with us to do.
The latest example of this comes from Pakistan, where according to the Hindustan Times, a performance of “Imagine” by students at the Karachi Grammar School was cancelled after complaints that the song encouraged atheism.
The controversy was started by commentator Ansar Abbasi, well-known in Pakistan for his nationalist and orthodox religious views. He tweeted, “A private school in Karachi is holding a concert and will sing John Lennon’s lyrics — no heaven, no hell, no religion too.”
Soon, Orya Maqbool Jan, a television talk show host and former civil bureaucrat in the Paksitan Administrative Service, chimed in. The students’ parents were “slaves to Western thought,” he said. Also: “The song questions our belief in God and encourages an atheist mindset.”
Atheist mindset? That would have certainly come as news to Lennon, who in one of his final interviews said, “People got the idea that I was anti-Christ or anti-religion. I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it (life) than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”
Previously, Lennon had stated, ”I believe in God but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.” And so, in his most famous song, Lennon never suggests that we “Imagine there’s no God,” though he did tell an interviewer, “Of course, you’re welcome to do that, too.”
Specifically regarding “Imagine,” Lennon said, “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion — not without religion but without this ‘my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing’ — then it can be true.” Lennon also noted that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain. ” He was on to something with that, too.
Nevertheless, conservatives in Pakistan and elsewhere aren’t buying it. Ever since he opined that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, Lennon’s spiritual and religious insights have been mostly rejected by conservatives, many of whom still bristle at “Imagine” and reflexively dismiss the song. Their problem, which they simply can’t acknowledge, is their own inability or flat-out refusal to take on the task with which Lennon has challenged them — and all of us.
To deliberately and consciously imagine a world with no heaven, hell or country requires us to surrender — at least for a few moments — our religious beliefs and national identity. That can be a scary thing to do in a liberal democracy. In a repressive theocracy, it is without question among the most subversive and forbidden things one can do because of its potential to nourish independent thought and threaten allegiance to the status quo.
“Imagine” then is precisely the kind of dangerous blasphemy that can lead one to the utterly perverse belief that “Your brother is everyone you meet,” as Lennon foolishly declared in “Instant Karma,” or as he blurted in “Mind Games,” “love is a flower, you got to let it grow,” a sentiment which if embraced by the masses would forever destroy the lucrative fertilizer industry.
Please note: It is not just just social conservatives in Pakistan who have problems with “Imagine.” The song has encountered plenty of right wing blowback in America. An article in The American Conservative, published around the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death in 2010, was called “Stop Imagining.” While the author took no issue whatsoever with the song, he chastised Lennon fans for clinging to an image of their hero as the embodiment of liberalism, even after he had moderated some of this views and distanced himself from left-wing political radicalism. Yes, it is indeed true that Lennon did both of those things. That’s called maturity. But neither Lennon nor Yoko Ono, who was given a co-songwriting credit earlier this year, ever distanced themselves from the message of or the philosophy behind “Imagine.” Consequently, American conservatives, missing the point entirely, have never stopped ripping the lyrics.
A 2015 article in The National Review laments that “to believers of older religion its (”Imagine’s”) open recommendation of an atheist faith cannot but sound lamentable and threatening.” The writer concludes that “few songs are more divisive” and in a follow up piece notes that the song’s “dream of no countries ... would turn out to be a nightmare.” Yes, just as Jesus’s advice that we turn the other cheek, if we all took it literally, would turn out to be a nightmare by allowing evil to forever triumph over good.
The most grave and immediate threat to humanity is not climate change: it’s tribalism. “Imagine” offers an antidote. It is not, as critics maintain, the expression of naive or far-fetched optimism. “Imagine” actually suggests a level-headed and pragmatic course of action. First and foremost, it is a directive, a call to peaceful arms. Lennon gently implores us to take responsibility for our future by projecting it positively.
Our work is to make a sincere and consistent effort to see beyond the forms and indentifications that keep us divided and in perpetual conflict. To imagine peace is merely the first step. The next step is to cultivate peace as a practice, thereby narrowing the gap between the world we imagine and the world we actually live in. The religiously devout and atheists alike can engage in this activity. No belief in God or country, not that there’s anything wrong with that, is required. Just let belief and patriotism go for a short time and pay attention to what happens. Repeat.
One cannot help but wonder: If students in Pakistan can be forbidden from singing “Imagine,” could the same thing happen in America? It has already happened in Britain, so of course it could. Which brings to mind another Lennon quote: “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”
Joe Raiola is Senior Editor of MAD Magazine and Producer of the Annual John Lennon Tribute in NYC. He has performed his solo show, “The Joy of Censorship” in over 40 states.