In distress, my daughter who loves the music of Leonard Cohen phoned us just after the U.S. elections. Cohen, she said, was dead. I was reminded of the prior Sunday when Cohen’s just-released “Treaty” came on the radio and we heard it, rapt, for the first time.
Now Cohen is dead at 82. An election has been held. We look for paths across unmapped terrain. I wonder if in “Treaty” Cohen gives clues. In lyrics that, as so often with Cohen, echo the Bible, he evokes turning water into wine, Jubilee, the snake baffled by sin.
Wishing “there was a treaty we could sign,” Cohen sings of being angry and tired and not caring “who takes this bloody hill.” He wishes for a treaty “between your love and mine.”
“Treaty” also reminds me of Will Campbell’s journey during dynamics so different yet so connected with today’s. A Baptist minister who sharply challenged his own denomination’s racism, Campbell was a fiery civil rights fighter in the 1960s. In Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977), a heartrending memoir of brokenness and justice and grace, Campbell tells of putting his life on the line for civil rights while gradually realizing that even the “enemy,” the Ku Klux Klan, deserved some understanding.
Campbell tells of President Johnson’s nationally televised warning to the Klan, in which Johnson says, “Get out of the Klan, and back into decent society while there is still time.” Then he says this:
“The closing five words must certainly have been heard by those in the Klan as a threat from an impending police state. And the president did not tell them just how they could get into the decent society of which he spoke, how they could break out of the cycle of milltown squalor, generations of poverty, a racist society presided over, not by a pitiful and powerless few people marching around a burning cross in a Carolina cow pasture, not by a Georgia farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right, but by those in the ‘decent society’ to which the president referred, the mammas and the daddies of the young radicals who would soon go home to run the mills, the factories, the courthouses and legislative halls, the universities and churches and prisons they were then threatening to burn to the ground.”
Campbell is not interested in justifying the Klan. He realizes that the Klan is not only a fount of evil, though it is that, but also a product of the same social forces that have produced national structures of violence and violation, including the then-raging Vietnam War.
As he grapples with tragedies of race and class and cruelty shredding 1960s America, Campbell remains a fierce prophet. Listening to leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Campbell also concludes that “to do something in race relations maybe we should go work with our own people” and that in relation to the Klan he was “learner more than I was teacher.”
In a striking echo, Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, insists that “we can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us” (The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2016).
“I wish,” sings Cohen, as his life fades toward its end while a country divides. “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.”
Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University’s seminary and graduate programs.