War Is Over!: John Lennon, John & Yoko, and Ferguson, Missouri

john-lennonOn December 8th, the thirty-fourth anniversary of his death, I was thinking of John Lennon. For some reason, the song “Hold On,” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, kept running through my mind. As I sang it to myself over the course of the morning, I realized that the lyrics spoke to the anger surging through the U.S. in the wake of the grand jury decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, especially when Lennon turns his attention from his domestic life to the world around him:

Hold on world, world, hold on
It’s gonna be alright
You gonna see the light

When you’re one, really one
Well, you get things done
Like they’ve never been done
So, hold on

They’re simple sentiments in a simple, affecting song. And they reminded me of his and Yoko’s more famous exhortation, “War is over! (If you want it).” When I was in high school, an oddball in Little Chute, Wisconsin first getting into John Lennon’s solo work not a year before he was shot, before I’d known he had “retired” from music, snapping up first Shaved Fish and then Imagine before, to my surprise, Double Fantasy was released, I’d thought the sentiment naïve. I fancied myself as anti-war—anti-military, in fact—and sympathized with political radicalism, but still. “War is over” if I want it? I did want it. But I didn’t think that was going to be enough to put an end to it.

war is overNow that I’m a lot older, you think I would agree with my younger self. But I don’t. Instead, I realize how I misunderstood what John and Yoko were talking about. They weren’t naively suggesting that whatever I wanted simply would come to pass. Rather, as I look at the reactions to the events in Ferguson and New York—civil rights activists outraged, calling for prosecution; riots incinerating neighborhoods; police girding themselves for battle, feeling themselves once again assailed for doing a hard, thankless job— I get what John and Yoko were saying. I see that we either can keep fighting, lines drawn in the sand, fault lines where everyone sees and points out the faults of others, compounding a tremendous pressure threatening to shake it all apart, devastating everyone, or we can do something saner.

There is a verse from the Dhammapada that should be taken to heart: “Hatred has never stopped hatred. / Only love stops hatred. / This is the eternal law.” This is the truth, the wisdom, that John and Yoko drew from. You can throw down and fight, vilifying the other side, demonizing them. Or you can try to overcome your differences and realize that you are really on the same side. As John sings: “When you’re one, really one / Well, you get things done / Like they’ve never been done.” It’s so simple, but we make it so complicated.

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