On Hearing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
I heard Billy Joel’s song “We didn’t start the fire” on the radio the other day. Mr. Joel wrote it because of his interest in history, and it was released on the album Storm Front in 1989. It is a cleverly written piece in which Mr. Joel runs through lists of people and incidents that affected human life since he was born. Then comes the chorus: “We didn’t start the fire; it was always burning since the world’s been turning. No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.” Mr. Joel was making a point for his generation, which had been criticized for its part in messing up the world. The song was his way of saying that we all are born into a world that goes awry in so many ways.
Every religion has a take on evil. In fact, none of these analyses is fully satisfying. No theory can take everything into account. There are always leftover problems. This does not mean that a religious perspective is inadequate. It only means that the problem of evil is unfathomable and incomprehensible and must be chalked up as a mystery. I use the term “mystery” to mean what can be discussed and partially understood, but that remains unyielding to final solution or definition.
In the end we are left with our responses to the problems that beset us, some of which we define as evil, others as simply troublesome, and the difference between the two often lies in the mind of the beholder. So at the moment our besetting problems include Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, since we are at ideological and physical war with one or more of these places. They represent a tangle of human responses and relationships, or lack thereof, that have added up to the current malaise. We are also beset by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Who can believe that BP, one of the largest and surely wealthiest multi-national corporations, had no “plan B” ready to hand in the event of the tragedy we have experienced there? Nonetheless, where is evil in this, where was there the intention to do harm to the environment? Surely – despite the huge amounts of money involved, and where such amounts are involved, greed will surely raise its ugly head – surely nobody would have wanted this to happen.
Human error and greed and power-grabbing and rank meanness all lead to infernal situations in which children and adults are destroyed along with environments, and countries are thrown into dislocation for generations. “We didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.”
We can only choose our responses. Some resort to prayer. It’s logical for us people of faith; we hope that our words and thoughts and the inclinations of our hearts both personally and collectively have some impact. If we cannot offer correction, at least we can seek comfort.
It is easy to sink into hopelessness, helplessness, and cynicism. But these are choices and not necessities. We can rise above them when we realize that to take refuge in such attitudes makes us part of the problem. “We didn’t light it but we tried to fight it” is an anthem for all of us who would move beyond stock responses of optimism or pessimism. It’s particularly easy most days to be a pessimist, but we can choose to be realists: those who look with hard eye upon the miserable problems of the age and, within the reach of our influence and responsibility, “try to fight it.” Such responsibility is part of our common faith and leads to social awareness and to social ministry.
published 4 June 10