"This image of 'the unforgettable fire' applied not only to the nuclear winterscape of 'A Sort of Homecoming,' but also the unforgettable fire of a man like Martin Luther King, or the consuming fire which is heroin."
Bono, After Years of Skepticism, Finds Partner in Religion
Religion News Service,
February 03, 2006
WASHINGTON - Born to a Roman Catholic father and a Protestant mother in the sectarian strife of 1960s Ireland, U2 frontman Bono has more than a few reasons to distrust organized religion.
Far too often, Bono did not see his experience of Christian faith reflected in what he saw as a preachy moralism that neglects the poor and usually "gets in the way of God."
So Bono was as surprised as anyone to find himself the keynote speaker at the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast. Not only that, he was extolling churches and faith communities for their efforts in his global crusade to rescue Africa from disease, debt and economic destruction.
"I have avoided religious people for most of my life," Bono told more than 3,000 mostly evangelical attendees. Later, he sheepishly admitted that he's "started to like these church people."
After years of running from organized religion, Bono says he can now embrace it, warts and all, as a pragmatic partner. And especially in the United States, Bono realizes that any effort at social change must include an appeal to Americans' faith-based instincts.
Bono credits religious groups for progress in his humanitarian campaign, and the newfound alliance suggests that (his most famous lyrics notwithstanding) perhaps he's finally "found what I'm looking for" -- a partner he can work with.
During a meeting with a half-dozen reporters after his speech, Bono munched on muffins and cantaloupe as he mused about the role of Christian faith generally, and the church's infrastructure specifically, in confronting famine, disease and poverty.
His strategy seems to be three-fold.
For one, Bono brings his own personal faith to bear, one that is deeply personal and not necessarily shaped by the four walls of the church. He finds hope in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, inspiration in the Hebrew prophets and solace in the idea of undeserved grace.
Although U2's lyrics have been picked apart for their explicit and implicit Christian imagery, Bono has sometimes been reluctant to embrace the "Christian" label for himself, often because of his own shortcomings.
And he's the first to admit he's not a theologian. "I appreciate the absurdities of being a rock star quoting the Scriptures," he said.
Nonetheless, he can quote entire sections of Scripture -- he used his childhood Bible to prepare for Thursday's speech -- and talks in terms of national "tithing" on foreign aid, and the Bible's 2,100-plus verses on poverty.
"This is the leprosy of our age," Bono said, linking HIV/AIDS with the plagues of Jesus' day, in a hotel room after the breakfast. "It couldn't be more poignant, from a scriptural point of view, that this is on God's mind, that this is Jesus' point of view."
For years, many evangelicals -- Bono's target audience on Thursday -- weren't sure what to make of the drinking, partying, salty-mouthed Irishman and his rock band.
In recent years, much of that skepticism has fallen away. "He's a doer," President Bush said of Bono at the breakfast. "The thing about this good citizen of the world is he's used his position to get things done."
Bono is now widely seen as summoning Christians to a higher calling. "He's ready to be used by God in whatever ways he can," said Richard Cizik, the Washington-based director for the National Association of Evangelicals, "and if we were all so willing, the world would be a better place."
Bono's personal faith impacts and informs the second thrust of his work, which is an appeal for a 21st century reimagining of Christian essentials. It's an effort to sidestep divisive issues of sexual morality and partisan politics for a return to caring for the "least of these."
He has openly criticized Western governments for not spending more on foreign aid, especially for drugs that treat AIDS, schooling for African children and mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria. "God will not accept that," Bono chided the prayer breakfast. "Mine won't, at least. Will yours?"
Bono has been willing to work with almost anyone who will listen -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim -- to harness the power of faith groups to aid the poor.
"He's reminding church leaders that hey, wake up, you should be heading this up," said Canadian author Robert Vagacs, who wrote Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective, published last November. "A rock star should not have to be heading this up."
But Bono is no ordinary rock star. After all, he didn't win Time's "Person of the Year" designation in 2005 with Bill and Melinda Gates for his musical abilities.
Bono's work with churches reflects just how politically savvy he is, and underscores his third goal, which is harnassing the power of American religion to shape the outcome of American politics, or at least the U.S. budget.
Bono has worked with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and progressive preacher Jim Wallis. America's strong religious identity has actually made it easier to preach his social gospel here than in Europe, which is now largely secular, he said.
"The church," he said after the breakfast, "is a much bigger crowd than even the stadium-sized crowds that we play to in U2."
At the same time, however, Bono has been openly critical of American faith and the "so-called Christian society" that he says is held captive by the bottom line and colored by notions of sin and punishment. Nonetheless, he continues to look for partners wherever he can find them.
"I think it was...a very strategic decision that if we're going to have a broad movement, we can't just have people we like," said Christian Scharen, a theology professor at Yale Divinity School with an upcoming book about U2.
And, to an extent that he even once thought unthinkable, Bono is willing to work with those he once ignored.
"If me, 10 years ago, had heard what I am saying," he said, "I wouldn't have believed me."
© Religion News Service, 2006.