This is a continuation of my previous blog on the poet, composer, and theologian Sydney Carter. Here’s one of his greatest songs:
It was on a Friday morning that they took me from the cell
and I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well.
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, it’s God I accuse.
It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.
You can blame it on to Adam, you can blame it on to Eve,
You can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe
It was God that made the Devil and the woman and the man,
And there wouldn’t be an apple if it wasn’t in the plan.
Now Barabbas was a killer and they let Barabbas go.
But you are being crucified for nothing that I know
But your God is up in heaven and He doesn’t do a thing
With a million angels watching, and they never move a wing.
To hell with Jehovah, to the carpenter I said.
I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead.
Goodbye and good luck to you, our ways will soon divide,
Remember me in heaven, as the man you hung beside.
The Church of England priest, Canon Paul Ostreicher, once wrote about the struggle he had with the BBC to get this song performed on a religious programme. I think that even now a song that consigns God to hell might raise a few hackles. Of course, knowledgeable people will say, it’s ironical, since we know what the speaker doesn’t, that Jesus is (the Son of) God. Well yes, but by focusing on the thief crucified with Jesus, Carter reminds us that crucifixion is a vicious and disgusting imperialist punishment and that whatever other reasons can be alleged for Jesus being on the cross, the evil of human beings is the primary one, and one for which a creator God cannot escape responsibilty: “there wouldn’t be an apple if it wasn’t in the plan.” The second verse is a beautiful deconstruction of classical Christian theology of the so-called “fall”, and a true appreciation of the tragi-comic narrative in Genesis 3.
The third verse reminds the reader of the kangaroo court that condemmed Jesus and the complicity of Pontius Pilate in this injustice. The speaker clearly thinks that his crime has not merited this horrific penalty. Surely if there is a God, he would at least intervene for Jesus!
The repeated refrain clearly challenges the classic view of a God who permits this kind of thing for his own obscure purposes. The speaker wants a different world and a different God:
“I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead”
In context this is a profound theological statement. It requires the kind of response made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Only a suffering God can help” and at greater length by Jürgen Moltmann in his book “The Crucified God.” But these are both academic theologians whereas Carter’s speaker is an ordinary, perhaps slightly criminal man, speaking his truth to power under the most desperate circumstances. He keeps his humour enough to reckon that he won’t accompany the carpenter to heaven.
Before it is anything else, the crucifixion of Jesus and the others is a crime and no amount of fancy theological moves should allow it to be transformed into something wondrous without dealing with the obvious truths that Carter’s speaker mentions, as indeed Carter does in his best-known song, Lord of the Dance:
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black / it’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone/ but I am the dance and I still go on
Carter hints at a difficult identity between the dancing Jesus and the dance that creates the universe, an identity which can be shared by all Jesus’ human brothers and sisters, including himself:
Coming and going by the dance, I see
That what I am not is a part of me.
Dancing is all that I can ever trust,
The dance is all I am, the rest is dust.
I will believe my bones and live by what
Will go on dancing when my bones are not.
This may not be orthodox, but it’s not daft.