Born down in a dead man’s town

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Master needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 

Mark 11:1-3

I was 11 years old the summer that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” came out. The counselors at my summer camp were crazy about it, and any 11 year old boy is going to love everything that the tan, smart, wonders of physical ability who are seven to ten years his senior love. It doesn’t matter what those things are.

When I got home, I immediate took whatever money was left over from the $40 my parents had put in my camp store spending account and went down to Cat’s Records and Tapes to get a copy of the latest chapter of the Gospel according to Springsteen. I can remember the big red letters that Columbia Records used for the artist’s name on all of the spines of its cassette tapes. It boldly proclaimed that I had joined the fraternity of the Boss’s disciples.

To this day, I’m not sure anything is more viscerally rousing to me than the smack of Max Wienberg’s heavy drum stick on the head of a snare drum at the beginning of the title track. To paraphrase Nuke LaLoosh, it announces the song’s presence with authority. In narrative of the song, the hero knows exactly who he is and the place to which he belongs. He was, after all, born to this place: the USA.

It’s easy to miss, if you don’t really listen to the whole song, that this is not exactly a full-throated cry of patriotic zeal. (Ronald Reagan’s re-election committee famously made this mistake.) The song in fact chronicles a lifetime of expectations for what it means to be born in such a land which at best go unfulfilled and sometimes are badly betrayed. And yet, when the narrator is “ten years burning down” he’s got “nowhere to run and nowhere to go,” Something is not right with the picture, and the singer’s yell becomes something more like a lament for the lost hopes and promises of what it means to be born in the USA.

I wonder if there was a song that 11 year old Jesus heard his older neighbors in Nazareth belting out in the neighborhood streets or at summer camp on the shores of Lake Gennesaret. What, in addition to the stories of David and Solomon, the proclamations of Isaiah and Zechariah, made him feel in his chest that there was a promise and a hope that came with being born where he was and to the people he was born to. “Born in the Galileeeeeee, I was, Born in the Galilee.” Would he have aped the older boys, belting this refrain with all the fervor his as yet unchanged voice could muster?

Would he have offered a version of this anthem at his sixth grade talent show? My sixth grade talent show featured break dancers. The phenomenon of young people spinning on their heads or doing the wacky windmill was freshly emerging on the scene at that time. A group of my peers were good at it, and they even had their own enormous pieces of cardboard on which to do the worm. I had a white undershirt and a red bandana tied around my head.

No one suggested that my performance of “Born in the USA”, complete with a raised fist to accentuate the final chorus, was not Franklin Middle School Talent Show material. Still, it must have seemed odd to hear my voice, only lightly sprinkled with testosterone, howling along with Springsteen’s in memory of our brother at Khe Sanh and his woman that lived in Saigon. But I felt that shit. In my chest. I’m not sure I have stood that tall ever again.

When he told the disciples to tell the owners of the donkey that “the master needs it” how tall was Jesus standing? Was this one last stand, out by the gas fires of the refinery, in homage to the hope and the promise of his land? I imagine that he knew himself fully in that moment: the Master, the one who had come to affirm the ones who have a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. This is what he was born to do.

And yet, he also knows where this is going. Nowhere good, at least not for a while. Soon he’s going to hear Pontius Pilate say, “son, don’t you understand?” Jesus does understand. He understands that deep disappointment is on the way. The people are not going to hold up their end of the bargain. But before all that comes to pass, he takes a moment to feel the truth deep in his chest one more time, and to stand beside us when we scream it too.

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