I had the wonderful opportunity last night to hear Joan Baez live in our little town. Yes, Joan Baez of anti-war, hippie-days, protest, and beautiful love fame. And she was beautiful. The place, Charlottesville’s Pavilion on the downtown mall was packed. Lots of gray heads in the crowd but not all, and everyone seemed to be loving the show. Just as in those fresh days from decades ago, Baez continues to sing out injustice, the challenge and responsibility to be decent in a world bent on bending goodness into greed and simple pleasure into perversity. Her hair was cropped close, she wore shorts and a v-neck, and sang with the pure tone I associate with her ’60s and ’70s tunes.
Baez’s passion for the same good things that she championed long ago and the enthusiasm with which the audience embraced her brought to mind the prophet Ezekiel. The prophetic parallels are obvious, of course – the unapologetic railing against wrongdoing, taking to task the rich and powerful who misdirect their authority, injustices that mess with the order of the world.
But what really got me was this: in the biblical book of Ezekiel, the prophet is a lyrical poet to whom people listen with great pleasure. “So beautifully he speaks,” you can imagine them saying to one another – an audience of educated Judeans in exile in Babylon. Indeed, the literature is amazing, exquisite, especially evident in the Hebrew and with some knowledge of the bzillion of cross-references and wordplays that he uses. But the message?: devastating. Really. And some of it is cringe-worthy sadistic-sounding pornography.
So with Baez – the songs, gorgeous! The message – oh, my God. My God. “People say to each other, ‘let’s go hear Ezekiel,’” God tells the prophet, “And they will come to you in crowds, whole throngs of them to listen. But finally to them you are just a singer of silly songs with a sweet voice who plays skillfully. They hear your words but will not change” (Ezek 33:30-32).
Here we are well in to the 21st century, still facing the inhumanity of deportation, the persistence of sexual abuse, the misapplication of power or downright lies masquerading as justice that we did decades ago. Baez sang those songs many years ago. We smiled and sang along. She sang them last night, and we smiled and sang along. “Such a lovely tone, really beautiful,” I said to my husband over the ballad of a woman who gives her body to the judge to free her father whom she discovers was hung nonetheless.
A question that’s been nagging away at me lately is how it is that people who have striven mightily against the wrongs of the world endure? How do they keep needling for rightness, for wisdom, sustainability, moderation in material things, and humility? How, when we the rest of us persist in abuse and destruction? I’d really like to ask. And what of Ezekiel? We don’t for certain what happened to the prickly priest-prophet. He probably died in Babylon. We do know that he continued to prophesy after the destruction that he had so vigorously warned was coming – the defeat of Judah, fall of Jerusalem, and destruction of the temple there.
Ezekiel’s message changed after that event, after Ezekiel learned that Jerusalem had fallen (Ezek 33:21). It became softer, more hopeful. It included more restoration and less judgment language. But not entirely, and not because the people were suddenly transformed into righteous individuals. Rather, Ezekiel tells that what restoration they might experience is the product of a God with a reputation to maintain – a reputation for justice, yes, but also with the power and goodness to make well. The book of Ezekiel concludes with details for a restored people, land, and temple. Much as it sounds like a solid blueprint for practical application, the details transcend the ordinary. From the temple itself, the text tells, water will flow in four rivers from the temple, water that grows as it runs. Not only that, but the water will refresh what was foul so that it is filled with flashing fish. It will be full of life itself. Along the banks, trees will grow heavy with fruit for food, and their leaves, the text tells, will be for healing. (Ezek 47:1-12).
Baez concluded the concert with “Gracias a la Vida.” Thanks to Life.