tongues of angels and hands of devils

The Joshua Tree  album cover (front and back), U2

The Joshua Tree album cover (front and back), U2

It’s a wonder of the world that one word can mean so much and furthermore, mean something different to everyone who hears it.

Then there’s the fact that the meaning of a word is subject to change.

In these times of stilted and vociferous political persuasions, we have an opportunity and a need to explore the meaning of a particular word: America.

In this exploration, I recently returned to a much-loved source: the 1987 album The Joshua Tree by the Irish band U2.

Where the Streets Have No Name

My music library tells me I’ve listened to this album over 100 times, yet it’s been a while since I’d listened to it in its entirety. Last week, I revisited the experience. The records’ gradations of professed love for and pointed criticisms of America ring pertinent in today’s world.

The music slowly swells as the album begins, growing and moving toward an infinite perpetuity of grandiosity and idealism. “Where the Streets Have No Name” illustrates the promise of America: opportunity. In a place where the streets have no name, dreams of the impossible are no longer simply dreams but realities. The idea of potential grips the hearts of those who glimpse it. There is freedom, freedom not only from shackles but freedom to be. Freedom to “feel sunlight on your face.”

I wanna feel sunlight on my face.
I see the dust-cloud
Disappear without a trace.
I wanna take shelter
From the poison rain
Where the streets have no name...
— Where the Streets Have No Name, U2

But America’s promise of freedom, it’s very heart, often proves to be elusive. We can run, we can crawl, and we can scale the city walls in search of this beauty, but still not find what we’re searching for. I often wonder if Bono knows what it is he’s looking for when he sings “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It sometimes seems that our dreams are elusive because we don’t understand what those dreams are to begin with. America, from the moment of its conception, has been built upon an idea.

But too often, the reality is that this idea is relegated to a position of ambiguity and corrupted to serve interests contrary to its heart. The search for America is mired in contradiction. We simultaneously speak with the “tongues of angels” and hold the hands of devils.

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of the devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
— I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, U2

What’s interesting is that the idea upon which America is built, freedom of the human spirit, is freely offered. It’s not offered by any person or collective of persons, but by the nature of existence itself. The word “free” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to love” and it’s love that is the fundamental form of humanity.

And you give yourself away
And you give yourself away…
I can’t live
With or without you.
— With Or Without You, U2

Bullet the Blue Sky

The idea of love and freedom is freely given. But we work so hard to grasp the idea and claim it as our own, that we end up twisting it’s meaning. People, by nature, can’t live without the idea of freedom but we also can’t live with America’s attempted embodiment of it. “I can’t live “With Or Without You.”

In attempting to claim the idea of freedom as our own, America has corrupted the very value it upholds as sacred. It is through tyranny that America has sought to inspire freedom.

See the face of fear
Runnin’ scared in the valley below.
— Bullet the Blue Sky, U2

“Bullet the Blue Sky” offers a scathing critique of the warmongering that America justifies through a monopolized interpretation of democracy.

It’s no longer about freedom. It’s about the preservation and expansion of power. The demons of America are laid bare.

While America wages its wars in distant lands, it forgets about its own. Those whom it labels unworthy, are swept away in currents of despotism. They are forced to:

…cry without weeping, talk without speaking
Scream without raising… [their] voice.
— Running To Stand Still, U2

Running To Stand Still lyrics

The forgotten people are offered no hope, no recompense for past transgressions, no means by which to voice their consternation. They are “Running To Stand Still.”

Those who labor in good faith are too often rewarded with nothing but disdain. The fruits of their labor are only fragments of an ill-fated promise.

We’re wounded by fear
Injured in doubt.
I can lose myself
You I can’t live without…

Hangin’ on
You’re all that’s left to hold on to.
I’m still waiting
I’m still hangin’ on
You’re all that’s left to hold on to.
— Red Hill Mining Town, U2

As the hope of liberation, which is engrained in America’s conception of who it is, loses its veracity, the heart of America begins to harden. The sun begins its descent upon a landscape not yet fully in bloom. “Red Hill Mining Town” is the land of the destitute… the forgotten… those who’ve been conscripted into the confines of a tragic reality.

Yet the beacon of equality still shines amidst the fog of oppression and corruption. The principles that compose the fiber of America are indelibly engraved upon its heart. They cannot be erased or destroyed because they constitute the very definition of humanity.

Life in this land is marked by an acute sense of the fragility of truth. It is the land of opportunity and human-affirming values yet it is easily cooptible by the allure of quick success, which often comes at the expense of others. We’re “In God’s Country.”

If we do not actively protect what we value, we’re bound to unwittingly lose it.

Sleep comes like a drug in God’s country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God’s country
— In God's Country, U2

The virtue of individualism propounded by America… Is it an angel or a devil? Perhaps both. Individualism allows for an unbound exploration of the world, unhindered by the dictates of a collective mind. It demands creativity and curiosity in order to discover and accentuate the truth.  It does not allow for the truth to be defined by authority, but demands an honest grappling with truth itself.

Yet individualism also exposes humanity’s shadowy underbelly. It is the breeding ground of greed, of exploitation, of ego.

The well of individualism offers clear, cool water but it’s prone to going dry. This is “Trip Through Your Wires.”

Angel, angel or devil?
I was thirsty and you wet my lips.
You, I’m waiting for you
You, you set my desire
I trip through your wires.
— Trip Through Your Wires, U2

Along with this dichotomy, tragedy and redemption form the opposing sides of America as a seesaw balanced on the fulcrum of justice. The depravities and horrors of slavery, the annihilation and exploitation of native populations, foreign intervention, corruption, greed, and self-righteousness fight to remain tantamount to freedom, liberty, forgiveness, love, and compassion.

It is upon the fulcrum of justice which our hard hearts are meant to be broken.

We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill
As the day begs the night for mercy, love.
— One Tree Hill, U2

Standing upon “One Tree Hill” “when it’s rainin’, rainin’ hard, that’s when the rain will break your heart.”

No song on the album more so than “Exit” explores the hellish depths of the dark and violent tendencies of America. Freedom is marked by a metastasization of the extreme fringe. Freedom of the individual creates room for radicalization, and potential for the normalization of deplorable justifications.

So hands that build
Can also pull down
The hands of love.
— Exit, U2

Yet the problem of radicalization is more profound and threatening where freedom is absent. “Mothers of the Disappeared” can testify.

Mothers of the Disappeared lyrics

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
— Mothers of the Disappeared, U2

America is a spirit of contradiction, of professing one thing and often enacting another. It is a place of freedom but also of bondage. This contradiction mars the visage of patriotism.

But it does not spell its doom. In God’s country, sleep comes silently in the night. Eclipses of our freedom happen when we disregard our duty to actively maintain it.

Here, in this place of unfettered potential and nefarious decrepitude, we must be willing to stand as the joshua tree does: strong in the midst of a dry and arid desert.

There is always hope. There is always beauty.

Note: I believe there is no “correct” way to interpret The Joshua Tree, nor any work of art. This is simply one potential reading of the album. If nothing else, let it be a framework for a reflection on what America is or is not.