'Imagine': John's and Yoko's Hymn to Progressive Utopia
For the last 15 years, I have been making good educational use of Lennon's famous song "Imagine." In one of my classes, analyzing the song helps Japanese students think critically about song lyrics. The song is very well known and popular in Japan, in part because Lennon's wife was Japanese. Yoko Ono's leftist beliefs also left their mark on the content of the song, a fact that will probably soon receive official recognition by the National Music Publishers Association.
The song's doubtful assumptions and internal contradictions make it an instructive instance of the sloppy, shallow thinking we often find in the world of mass entertainment, which unfortunately then goes unfiltered into the minds of countless consumers. Eventually, my students do an assignment in which they critique songs of their own choosing in short presentations. Not long ago, one student offered us her own critique of a Japanese pop song titled "World Peace," which calls for the extermination of the human race in order to achieve true peace on planet Earth in view of humanity's crimes against the environment. The student remarked on the strange notion of a peaceful world with no humans around to enjoy it. She had evidently not yet heard of some strains of extreme environmentalism.
So much irrationality and falsehood are packed into Lennon's simple song that it is hard to deconstruct it adequately. Others have written good critiques, including Mark Steyn and Kurt Schlichter, who dubbed it "The Worst Song of All Time." Adding my own perspective to their observations, this article will focus on the song's anti-religious animus, which really vitiates its own plea for peace.
John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono.
The song asks us to "imagine there's no heaven ... No hell below us, Above us only sky, Imagine all the people living for today ... Imagine there's no countries ... Nothing to kill or die for, No religion too." Along with national boundaries and private property, the song holds religion largely to blame for the problem of war.
Historical facts like the Crusades and the Muslim holy wars lend superficial credence to this notion, until one recalls that a certain atheistic, globalist ideology by the name of Marxist-Leninist communism provoked numerous wars as well as the politically motivated elimination of more than a hundred million people. In regard to war's existence, the song makes scapegoats out of religious believers, which can hardly induce non-believers to bear friendly feelings toward them. Bigotry and animosity will certainly be the result – a new breeding ground for violence or at least hostility.
Naturally, a religious suicide-bomber's expectation of heavenly rewards can be a strong motivation for violence, but Lennon and his wife failed to understand that a belief in heaven and hell can also be a strong incentive to curtail killing people. That partly explains why atheistic revolutionaries have had little compunction about murdering thousands or even millions in the name of creating a this-worldly paradise.
In his novel The Possessed, the Russian writer Dostoevsky foresaw Russia's descent into political killing by religion-repudiating visionaries for the sake of remaking Russian society. A secular utopian ideology tends to generate violent conflict precisely because its adherents cannot put off the redress of earthly injustices until a day of divine judgment.
Interestingly, few ever comment on the song's obvious implication that humanity ought to abolish or at least abandon all religions, including Islam. Nowadays, the song could even be considered an insidious form of hate speech. However, Lennon mastered the art of cloaking his animosity with moralistic cant. This has now become a staple of the progressive playbook. Belligerent demonstrators chanting about love or peace employ the same tactic.
Yet ironically, the song only replaces traditional religion with its wistful utopian yearning. The visionary dream world of "Imagine" resembles an otherworldly heaven a lot more than its fans would care to admit. No one could ever create and maintain such a world except God; angels; or sinless, perfected humans. Secular sainthood has been conferred on Lennon as a prophet of this hoped-for millennium.
The song continues to serve as an anthem for progressive utopians at many events such as the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. The aftermaths of terrorist crimes have also sometimes become occasions for invoking Lennon's dream of a peaceful, harmonious world.
Are those who sing this song in response to such tragedies hoping the song's utopia will magically appear to deliver them from peril? Countless renditions of the song's vain hope will never materialize its dream. More concrete, courageous measures are called for in the face of civilizational threat. Now more than ever, many in the U.K., the U.S., and Europe need to wake up from John's and Yoko's dream.
Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to the forthcoming Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.